My favourite martial arts movies make fighting look like it hurts. Whether that’s Ip Man raining down a flurry of impossibly fast punches, or Jackie Chan falling out of the sky entangled in fizzing Christmas lights, there’s a crunch, a crack, a violent, visceral thud. Well, after playing Sifu for a couple of hours, I feel that pain.
Some of the things I’ve said whilst trying to get through the second level include: “I hate you,” “bollocks to it” and “this is ridiculous, just stand still and let me punch you!” Every time your character is defeated, a little death counter ticks up, and you’ll age by that amount. At first, this doesn’t seem so bad. The enemies you battered stay out of play, and your progress through the stage is unaltered. Like an arcade beat-em-up, just put in a coin and press continue. No harm done.
Except, of course, the death counter makes ageing exponential. Death counter at five? You’ll age five years. Then six, then seven, and so on until before you know it, you’re in your seventies – which even Sifu thinks is a little too old to be taking baseball bats to the head. So that’s it, game over, start again.
Sifu isn’t all suffering, though. The gameplay is a gloriously rhythmic and impactful celebration of Kung Fu. As the best in the genre understand, it’s all about the environment. During Sifu’s prologue mission, I kicked an unwitting student to the ground. Their neck ricocheted against the edge of a table, knocking them unconscious. A sharp splash of blood marked the point of impact. You can smash through chairs and shatter windows and catch glass bottles flung from unexpected directions. I rarely feel completely in control of the chaos; enemies come two, three at a time, and there are dozens of button combinations to remember. But when I take a deep breath and focus on the basics – heavy attack, light attack, block and parry – I stumble into moments of bombastic greatness.
Sifu is clearly in love with its inspirations. During one scene, you swagger into a corridor full of thugs who take their leisurely time sizing you up. Suddenly, the camera shifts to a side-on view, and you’re thrust into a blood-pumping homage to Oldboy. Allusions to The Raid and more mainstream films like John Wick come thick and fast, and I can’t wait to see what else the game will throw at me.
The first run through each new level is a particular delight, in large part due to a brilliant soundtrack that blends traditional East-Asian instruments with a heavy electronic influence. At times this soundscape is deeply thematic, growing wilder and less refined as the chaos of combat grows. The simple pleasure of punching and kicking to the beat never gets old.
Sifu is so frequently so much fun, and if you accept the game for the arcade-style, tough-as-nails challenge it is, you’ll have a great time. I can’t lie, though. I do wonder what a less bone-crushingly challenging version of this game might be. I’m in love with the more prescribed, cinematic moments throughout the opening two levels. The bond-esque opening credits, which double as a playable tutorial. The aforementioned Oldboy homage. The first time a particularly dangerous mini-boss motions for you to pick up your weapon. Developer Sloclap has an eye for this, and sometimes I wish I could enjoy their artistry without constantly being on the back foot. I want to stay twenty forever, ignorant to the ravages of time.
But until that game comes out, Sifu is a fantastic appetiser.