For those wondering where the title comes from, “Sifu” is a Chinese honorific meaning “master”–much like the more well-known “sensei” from Japanese culture. It’s a fitting name for developer Sloclap’s upcoming beat-’em-up, not just because of the game’s kung fu stylings, but also because Sifu demands a mastery of its combat if you’re to have any hope of reaching its conclusion. At least, that’s the impression I took away after playing the demanding brawler for the first time. The hands-on preview build we were given only features a small slice of what’s to come when the full game releases in February, yet this is still more than enough to showcase the depth and potential brilliance of Sifu’s hand-to-hand action.
A back alley nightclub provides the setting for this single-level preview, its ambience shifting as you move between neon-lit social areas and dim backstage corridors. A thumping soundtrack emanates from the pulsating DJ booth positioned at the head of the dancefloor, while a secret fight club is tucked away in the basement for those with exclusive access. I swiftly dispatch the lone bouncer on the door with a few incisive strikes, but things aren’t quite as smooth once I descend into the club’s busy underbelly.
Much like the martial arts movies that inspired it, Sifu often positions you as a lone fighter facing off against an overwhelming number of foes. This is the case in most games, of course, and at first glance, the setup for Sifu’s brawls looks reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games. The similarities basically end there, though. Playing as the caped crusader is an exhilarating power fantasy: The glowing blue counter indicator provides a safety net that requires reactions more than anything else–and having access to a utility belt’s worth of gadgets is certainly welcome. Sifu’s combat is grounded in reality by comparison. You’ll barely scrape by in most encounters, even when utilizing the full potential of your fighting skills, awareness of the environment, and ingenuity.