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‘Sifu’ recaptures arcade brawler magic with a boxer’s grace

Gene Park

THE WASHINGTON POST – I replayed the first level of Sifu dozens of times for many reasons.

To start, it’s a firecracker of an introduction. First levels are microcosms of what the rest of a video game has in store for you, and Sifu immediately has your martial artist protagonist sprinting through set pieces that evoke memorable fight scenes from modern Asian cinema. There’s the side-scrolling hallway fight of ‘Old Boy’, followed minutes later by a scene that looks like the powdery drug dens in the Jakartan projects of ‘The Raid: Redemption’.

It’s immediately apparent that the game is difficult; the first boss encounter has already been patched to become a bit easier. But replaying the first level allows slow-but-steady permanent unlocking of moves and combos. The allure of Sifu lies in this promise of power, which plays out as you reenact iconic set pieces for martial arts cinematic action.

Oh, also, Sifu is a rogue-like, meaning each death brings you back to the start of the game – though this title offers a compelling twist to that idea.

A few minutes with the combat mechanics reveals it’s an evolution of Freeflow combat, the trademark mechanic of British studio Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series. Batman’s fighting systems have since inspired dozens of games, but surprisingly few of them – save for 2012′s Sleeping Dogs, which remains a cult hit today – revolve around martial arts.

In sum: A British gameplay innovation inspired the French creators of Sifu to adapt the mechanic to East and Southeast Asian martial arts action. It’s an enticing West-to-East fusion of gameplay ideas and cinematic choreography, and Sifu mostly gets it right. It may not be the most perfectly blended animation when switching between moves and targets, but the action proceeds at such a blistering place, it might as well be one fluid movement.

A scene from Sifu. PHOTO: SLOCLAP

Sifu a punishing, challenging game, where success depends on a player’s reaction to incoming attacks, whether it’s to guard, parry-and-counter or avoid incoming attacks.

Unlike the auto-counter system of the Batman games, Sifu requires two separate button prompts to parry and counter, which both, in turn, require split-second precision.

Avoiding incoming blows elevates the combat mechanics to a dance – if you can keep up with the steps. You can duck, sidestep or hop over attacks by holding down the guard button and flicking the left thumbstick up or down. Boxing games, like the Hajime No Ippo series based on the manga or EA’s Fight Night, have used a similar system to imitate the grace of the sport. It makes sense here in Sifu, where standing your ground can give you a tactical advantage.

The hero will be attacked by many enemies, but keeping pressure on one lowers their stamina faster, giving you an opportunity for a quick takedown, often animated in context with the environment. Depending on where the player performs these takedowns, arms could break against tables, and heads could slam against walls. Once the rhythm of it all begins to flow, the gameplay begins to resemble Rama, the hero of ‘The Raid’, sprinting through hallways and defeating enemies with ferocity and virtuosity.

There’s a story, something about avenging your mentor (sifu) and father, against a gang of five distinct kung-fu master characters, including a botanist and an artist. But the plot matters in the same way it did in the 1984 arcade game Kung-Fu Master, where a protagonist needs to rescue his girlfriend by climbing a tower of five floors to defeat five distinct kung-fu master characters. The story and setting are meant only to serve the fantasy of merging Batman’s volcanic fighting mechanics to the blistering pace of modern martial arts entertainment.

The rogue-like elements are served up with a twist. Every death ages players by a year or several, depending on performance while alive. Players can choose to either give up and start over, losing abilities that aren’t permanently unlocked with experience points, or get back up and age up. Every decade lost brings increases to damage while decreasing available health. The challenge becomes finishing levels – including gruelling boss encounters – without defeat. The game remembers the lowest age at which you beat a level when entering a new level, a sort of ‘save state’ for future runs until you can beat levels flawlessly. This further eases progression along with the aforementioned permanent unlock method.

Don’t expect much of meaningful player choice outside of a few divergent paths. What’s there is an attempt at some replay value, but it doesn’t do enough to liven up every run, especially considering the game’s difficulty and the amount of times players will repeat levels.

Sifu is a no-nonsense arcade brawler that can be played in short bursts or long sprints, depending on the commitment to perfect each level run. Despite its high skill ceiling, it offers a rare treat in video game martial arts: a brutal balletic presentation – if played well enough. If anything, it’s worth playing just for the first level.