Exciting Fights Can't Redeem Sifu's Cultural Shortcomings

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Exciting Fights Can't Redeem <i>Sifu</i>'s Cultural Shortcomings

I can’t really hear Sifu’s voice. I can hear the bass of the club I’ve fought through a dozen times, the familiar clink of pipe against bone and even the flurry of fists I launch to eliminate another opponent, but I can’t hear the game under that. I can’t make out what it wants to say and who it serves. It’s a disappointing silence.

Maybe part of the problem is that Sifu’s hero, a gruff kung fu student, barely says a word on their life-consuming quest for revenge. Maybe it’s that when they do utter something, it’s altogether too short or inconsequential to have any importance. Maybe it’s that they feel like a stranger to the story and setting of the game. The point is there are any number of things about Sifu that cuts what could be an enjoyable game off at the knees.

In Sifu, you play as a young kung-fu student who watches their master and family be murdered by another former student. Eight years later, and now 20 years old, your character embarks on a journey to avenge their family by hunting down the five people who were there that fateful night and made off with the talismans they were in search of. Those five assailants have been wielding the power of those talismans ever since, embedding themselves into society at both high and low stations, which makes the task of finding them just a little more stressful than a friendly knock or kick at the door. In their pursuit of these culprits, your character grows bolder in their mastery of kung-fu and potentially even grows older as the journey pushes them to their limits across a fictional Chinese city.

Sifu sounds kind of cool, doesn’t it? That’s because it kind of is. Sifu, like Sloclap’s last game Absolver, is all about mastery of the martial arts. Rather than combine forms into a single unique one, though, this game hones in on one, Pak Mei, and makes that its core. If the game’s combat is at all successful—which it resoundingly is—it is because this form comes to miraculous life and looks and feels great in action. It is also as “easy to learn, hard to master” as it gets in a fighting game, which Sifu indisputably feels like. Relatively simple combo strings unleash torrents of fists or roundhouse kicks that never fail to land with a satisfying thud. A well-timed block will also earn you a parry, opening up a window for a counter. Perhaps the single most pleasing thing about a fight is reading an opponent, dodging and landing a heavy counter that sounds like it dislodges them from space and time for a second. Combat has heft but your character feels nimble enough to dart around, and making use of the environment while also doling out blow after blow never stops being enjoyable or necessary since Sifu happily humbles players who recklessly speed through it.

Sifu’s gameplay has a surprising amount of layers and loops. Levels are littered with clues that go onto a detective board in a wuguan that oversees the city and acts as the game’s hub. Clues reveal tips for taking out mini-bosses and background information on some of the people you’re hunting, but most importantly they open up shortcuts and the beginnings of a roguelite structure. Come back to a level after finding a keycard in it, for example, and you can open certain doors or take an elevator that’ll allow you to go right to the final fight. Roguelite tendencies also carry over to your skills and abilities. Learn a move once and you can use it until you die, but repeatedly invest XP that you earn into it and you can eventually carry it across your future runs. When you die in Sifu, you’re resurrected by a magic pendant but age about as much as you’ve gone down. With age comes greater strength but also waning health, and aging too quickly has the chance to rob you of opportunities to master many skills. Once you cross 70, your character will die one last time and you’ll be forced to pick up the run again from the age you began the level at, losing any progress that was not permanent. Defeating certain tougher enemies will bring that death counter low, giving you a fighting chance to stay young. When all of this works in tandem, it can make later runs of the game an exciting balancing act between efficiency and power.

While the gameplay is a joy, the aesthetics at play in Sifu are just as important to the experience. However, this was also where the game struggled the most for me. Like I noted in my preview, Sifu is a kung fu revenge movie disguised as a game. The developers have spoken quite plainly about their love of Chinese cinema, and how they wanted to fulfill the power fantasy of a Jackie Chan film, pitting your lone guy against hundreds of others. On some level this works in the game’s favor. There’s no shortage of strong visual motifs and sequences because of this very reason, but when the game does deploy these homages, there are some mixed results. As an example, the Oldboy hallway fight that was teased makes an incredibly early appearance in Sifu, and while a fun camera pan lets you live out a version of that scene that is modest fun to play through, the ode feels bereft of the buildup that the movie worked so hard to establish. Sifu rips that sequence out of its own narrative and just kind of fits it in because it can, confusing why it works in that movie and assuming mimicry makes for a successful translation.

This same crude understanding bleeds into every level of Sifu, which always begins straightforward before dovetailing into the mystical. While these moments are arguably brimming with Sifu’s most arresting sights, this mysticism often feels like it was included to justify a series of “exotic” visual tricks rather than serve as the bedrock of an earnest exploration. These aesthetics seem almost deliberately deployed to obscure any blemishes a closer inspection might reveal too, like how the vast majority of the boss fights are more stunning to look at than play through, and so what’s left in most cases is a growing pile of tired tropes. Due to these missteps, it becomes quite clear very early on that the developers behind Sifu constructed these fantasies to play with images they love and admire, but were unsure why they were so potent to begin with and missed the texture of the game’s influences.

That’s another thing about Sifu, it’s missing so much texture. Characters barely share lines with one another that aren’t random barks and when you finally face off against any of the bosses, y’know like in a big climactic moment, both characters share maybe a cumulative five lines between one another. The villains are, much like most of the larger plot, left largely untouched at first glance, having their stories told in the background while you’re foraging for clues for your detective board. It’s a shame too because there’s something there with a number of them, a tension that is gestured at and histories that sort of spell out some of the game’s themes. But even when you reach for meaning where Sifu falls short, you won’t find much. As far as revenge plots go, the game is very unsatisfying in its exploration of the theme and the place that both of its endings landed just proved that the game needed more bite than it had.

You know what else needed more bite? Our hero. The protagonist, ever the quiet type, feels strangely indifferent to proceedings, and the further I got into the story, the more I was begging for them to say or feel anything in response to the events unfolding or the revelations they were discovering. At any point in the narrative, I would’ve relished a moment where the magnitude of the undertaking weighed on their mind or where they thought at all about anything but taunts and the occasional tacky action movie line. Instead, they feel mostly lifeless, barely uttering a word of consequence even though you are granted dialogue choices a few times per level. Because of this attitude or lack thereof, I never really believed the character cared for their mission or was harboring any resentment towards their family’s killers. It’s not that they play things coolly, they just seem numb to the plot or bored by it at least. Given how vibrant and emotive revenge and action movies can be, characterization like theirs or the villains’ feel like an especially weird setback and clearly missed mark. Everyone mostly feels unimportant to the story taking place, almost like you could make up a guy, insert him into any role and get the same result. And this “unimportance” extends outward into everything about how Sifu doesn’t really engage with the culture it’s seemingly rooted in.

I’m no expert in Chinese culture, tradition and mysticism, but the way that elements of them feel absent in some places or are haphazardly shoehorned into others makes Sifu feel lazy and egregious. Weak writing does it no favors. If your home and people were regularly disregarded, exoticized and obscured from work that thinks itself praise that uplifts them, you would find it obvious and self-evident, not to mention outlandishly offensive. The way that the city of Sifu could be a number of cities, but elects to vaguely be a Chinese one is strange, almost like the game wants to sidestep the responsibility to carefully represent an actual Chinese space for fear of ruining the fantasy it built. In what remains the most glaring omission, none of the characters even speak Chinese in the game save for a few specific terms, though a Chinese voice track is set to release around launch. Everyone instead speaks English and there’s English writing everywhere, but hardly a word of Chinese is actually spoken. I get these decisions as ones which are meant to cater to a mostly western audience but then, should a western audience really be who’s catered to here?

Down to the not-so-fun fact that Sifu’s cultural consultant and inspiration for the “movement” of the main character is none other than a white man, (who’s a distinguished Pak Mei master, but a white man nonetheless) and the fact that Howie Lee’s score—a bit of a saving grace—seems like one of the only aspects of the game that was meaningfully worked on by someone who’s of Asian descent, it becomes clear that a particularly alien lens was deployed in the construction of this game. Sloclap, a team made based out of France and composed of mostly white people, tries to honor Chinese culture with Sifu and display a level of admiration for it in the oddest way possible: erecting its own monument in the very image of the people that inspired the game, meanwhile erasing them from most steps of its creation. The result is a wildly uneven commodification of a people, place, their history and their art.

Maybe it’s not that I can’t hear Sifu, but that I don’t like what I do hear. I like Sifu enough, with its genuinely wonderful combat, structure, and art. These aspects kept me coming back so much so that despite my frustrations with the process, I got the “true” ending in order to give Sifu the benefit of the doubt till the very end. To see if it maybe turned things around and more explicitly drew out its themes or characters, or filled in the world some more. But it didn’t and despite my efforts, Sifu constantly met me with a passing disinterest in its subjects and a reckless deployment of imagery it didn’t seem to entirely understand, all the while passing itself off as admiration. Its weak writing and poor characterization strips the game’s characters and settings of tension and texture and the lens of the game’s creators seems to forget the people and culture at the heart of the movies they love to invoke. I don’t think I can square that away and I’m not sure anyone should have to.

Sifu was developed and published by Sloclap. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for the PC and PlayStation 4.

Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.