This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Sifu.
So we did the samurai movie plot in Trek to Yomi, in which the protagonist watches their mentor get killed as a child and then trains for years before going flip-out spanky-wanky all over the baddies responsible and eventually concluding that revenge isn't really worth it. Now, let's turn to Sifu and explore instead the martial arts movie plot, in which the protagonist watches their mentor get killed as a child and then trains for years before going flip-out spanky-wanky all over the baddies responsible and eventually concluding that revenge isn't really worth it, while not wearing a pointy hat, and sometimes even manages to get through the whole process inside a century, Shenmue!
Sifu is a third-person brawler that came out a while back, but holy Jesus human-centipeding Christ, are new releases dead right now! They're so fucking dead, they're planning to start their comeback tour in Sarajevo. It's not usually this bad this time of year; I think Elden Ring might've frightened everything off. It's like how it's easy to lose confidence in your stand-up set if the opening act was a gigantic golden dancing rhinoceros that spunked diamonds at ballistic velocity and killed eleven audience members.
But anyway, I've been getting requests for Sifu, and finally had the chance to play through it last week, and I have to say, it is an interesting game. You play a young martial artist who, as a child, watched their mentor get killed, and who then trains for years before going flip-out spanky-wan-- oh, hang on, that's not very interesting at all. Okay, so it's a game where you go through a sequence of levels based on urban settngs where every single person you meet, from junkies to janitors to businessmen to substitute maths teachers, is trained to the exact same standard in one highly specific martial art, except for the fat ones, who all learned grappling techniques from handling their enormous sandwiches. Oh wait, that's not very interesting, either; that's just the bog-standard retro arcade brawler template. It even ends each level with a colorful boss and litters the environment with disposable melee weapons, because apparently, the only things people throw away in this world are beer bottles, broom handles and fileting knives. I guess it's pretty interesting that it's being done in 3D over-the-shoulder-style, although it does, on one or two occasions, switch to a 2D side-on camera when it starts to fret that the reference might be going over people's heads.
The first interesting bit is the gameplay mechanic wherein, every time your character dies from getting kung-fued too much - which will happen frequently, because the basic combat also borrows from the retro arcade gaming tradition of being designed to remove coins from the pockets of unsupervised schoolchildren with all the fervor of the CIA removing democracy from an easily-bullied oil-rich South American country - then they immediately come back to life, but age an entire year. So you start out as a fresh-faced Disney prince in his school jogging trousers, and death-by-death, watch his beard grow and his muscles fill out, until by the end, he's about 46 and looks like an overgrown ornamental rock garden.
It's an interesting storytelling concept - really drives home the main character's obsession if he's willing to waste an entire puberty bringing down one troublesome boss fight - but in practical terms, it's not much more than a classic lives system with a hard limit. There's a couple of associated gimmicks - as you age, your health goes down, but your damage goes up - but otherwise, you might as well put it out of your mind. I mean, on my first attempt, I was stressing out, restarting the first level over and over again when I was dying too many times because, much the same reason I gave up binge-drinking, I didn't want to waste my 20s.
But eventually, I learned to relax and go with the flow - the flow of being killed - because it's not a long game, and forty/fifty-odd lives is more than enough, frankly. And at points, you can even spend XP on rolling your age back a few years if it bothers you that much, although that kind of defeats the message as I interpreted it. "Ooh, don't waste your precious years on revenge, 'cos you'll never get them back! Now, would you like to spend some Sifu Fun-Bucks on getting a bunch of your years back?"
But it is a game where you are expected to die a certain amount; combat's bloody hard to get to grips with. It starts with your standard "light attack, heavy attack, dodge, block, parry" arrangement, then puts the whole thing in fast-forward and makes everyone get right up in each other's elasticated waistbands. And the trouble with the over-the-shoulder perspective is that your attacks all have about half as much range as you think they do; buy the snap kick as soon as you can, 'cos that's about the best way to close distance, and otherwise, your little T-Rex arms will spend a lot of time whirling through empty air, ruffling everyone's ties and pocket squares. Also, you're supposed to press Up or Down while holding "Block" to weave around certain low and high attacks, but I just hold "Block" and randomly wiggle the stick about like an unruly clitoris, and that'd have maybe a 60% success rate.
I guess I like the combat, 'cos it does feel satisfying to take apart a roomful of thugs like they're a mess of tangled Christmas lights, and in the end, that is the whole point: to let us feel like the dude in the martial arts movie going full flip-out spanky-wanky on a foolful of rooms-- I mean, a roomful of fools. Sorry, can we take a moment to appreciate that I only invented the phrase "flip-out spanky-wanky" two minutes ago, and yet, its meaning was already perfectly clear? Demonstrates real articularity, I think. If I have a complaint for the combat system, I'd say some kind of lock-on would be nice, so when surrounded, my dude doesn't just randomly pick who he's going to start windmilling at based on who's got the least appealing facial hair or something.
I suppose when you boil it down, Sifu isn't much more than a level-based brawler with a couple of gimmicks and a focus on achieving mastery through repetition; the story's not a huge draw, 'cos most of the voice performance is going for "serious unflappable stoic", but comes across more like "trying to escape a dull conversation on the bus". But it also has a visual stylishness that I think elevates it a bit; the environments have an appealing look and attention to detail that reminds me of Hitman, at least until you turn them into impromptu bowling alleys with thugs for pins and box ottomans for balls.
There was one last disappointment in store, and that's that there was a bad ending and a good ending, where to get the good ending, you have to do the boss fights in an extra-hard way that goes against what the game's been teaching you the whole time; you're supposed to duff them up until the icon comes up that says, "Press X to split me open like a naughty coin purse", and then not do that. Well, jeez, pardon me for being prompt! 'Course, you get the bad ending for killing bosses and the good ending for sparing them, 'cos revenge is not the answer, blah de blah. Change the fucking record! Why do we always get so selectively judgy about killing people? ...As I said to the arresting officer.
- Fist of the East Bay: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I guess they couldn't have used the aging gimmick in Shenmue because it wouldn't work with the main character being made entirely of wood
- After a while he'd just turn into a big tree or something