Sifu owes an obvious and honest debt to classic Hong Kong cinema. But if you’re here for a kung fu power fantasy, a word of warning: you are in for a wait. While it eventually lives up to its inspirations, Sifu initially plays out less like a Jackie Chan film than the blooper reel that runs under the end credits, with our hero mistiming a kick and falling on his arse, greeting a coffee table with his chin, or somehow contriving a wedgie from a stepladder. Except that here, instead of a rueful Chan-style grin to camera, the screen fades to black and you die.
Thankfully, death is not the end in Sifu. It is, paradoxically, the lifeblood of the game. Die, and you can resurrect – but you pay the price with age. A “death counter” rises with every failure, adding to how much older you become each time you get back up: first one year, then two, then more. The protagonist’s face wrinkles and hardens; their health bar shortens, but the wisdom of age makes their attacks deal more damage. Once you hit 70, your next fall will be your last.
This is an alien concept at first, in keeping with a game that often seems more interested in confusion than entertainment. Sifu is punishingly difficult, built around a morass of jarringly unconventional ideas that are minimally explained.
The combat that forms the meat of the game is made of familiar parts – light and heavy attacks, a dodge, a pleasing suite of graceful bobs and weaves – but even veterans of hand-to-hand video game dust-ups will struggle to put them into practice. The game appears to favour neither attack nor defence. Your combos are ducked or parried, your guard broken by volleys of enemy blows, collapsing you to the floor. And when you do create a window of opportunity, it slams shut at lightning speed.
The action spans five levels, running the gamut of kung fu classics – drug den, nightclub, tower block. They are long, drawn-out and exasperatingly difficult at first (though shortcuts, once discovered, shorten the route to the boss). When you die, you can try again at the last stage you had reached, your age and upgrades carried over. However, when you finally beat the first boss, the chances are you’ll be pretty old. (I was in my late 60s after a solid day’s punishment.) You will have maybe a couple of lives left – enough for a nose around the next level, but no more. And of course, if you’re that old when starting the second level, you have next to no chance of clearing all five.
To give it a proper go you will have to abandon the new area, return to the previous one and run through it over and over until you make it through at a more acceptable age. Then you will work on getting to the next boss, and the cycle repeats. At some point you’ll need to go back to the beginning and optimise your run further. This, sadly, means saying goodbye to most of the upgrades you’ve unlocked. It is a strange, and rather deflating, sensation when your reward for finally surmounting a challenge is being told to go back and do it again, only better.
Over time, I came to understand what the game expected from me: perfection, pretty much. You can claw back a little health from flashy take down kills, and reduce the death counter by killing strong enemies. You unlock new moves and small stat increases as you go. But the only way to truly succeed in Sifu is to submit to its demands and learn its language, committing attack patterns and parry timings to memory. The flow of each fight – where enemies come from, where weapons are placed, how to position yourself to make best use of the scenery – must be rehearsed until perfected. Then you practise, and practise some more, and hope for the run where everything goes to plan.
When it finally does, it sings. You’ll stroll into areas you know inside out, seeing off the goons who once gave you so much trouble, with effortless grace and bone-crunching power. The boss you were stuck on for two days barely lands a single hit on you as you duck, dive and counter with immaculate ease. In these moments, the frustrations of the earlier game simply melt away. Until the next boss fight, anyway.
The Chinese term “kung fu” roughly translates as “a skill acquired through hard work and practice”. Sifu might just be the purest expression of the concept that games have ever seen. The journey is brutal. It is not for the faint of heart, nor the short of patience. But those prepared to rise to the challenge will find that something spectacular comes after the pain. Is it worth the hardship? Ask me when the wounds have healed.