Sifu couldn’t come at a better time. Developed by Sloclap, the upcoming indie title is a kung fu action game set during one revenge-filled night. Set to release in February, it’s launching at a moment where mainstream audiences are about to get a ton of media steeped in martial arts action. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings just dominated box offices, introducing audiences to Marvel’s “Master of Kung Fu,” and hype is already mounting for December’s The Matrix Resurrections, featuring the master of “I know kung fu,” Keanu Reeves’ Neo.
If all goes well, Sifu could get a bump from those projects as mainstream audiences look for more martial arts action. The good news is that it will have plenty to go around. In a recent preview session, I got to see some new gameplay snippets of Sifu that homed in on the game’s combat. Sifu combines deep research, cinematic references, and video game basics to create what looks like a genuine kung fu experience that pays its respects to the craft.
The art of kung fu
Sloclap may be a young studio, but it’s already a pro when it comes to creating engaging video game action. The studio’s previous game, Absolver, is a notable online multiplayer fighting game that features tons of customizable fighting styles. On its surface, Sifu doesn’t seem like such a far cry from Sloclap’s earlier game. It shares some visual similarities to Absolver and features battles that balance fast, fluid movements and weighty strikes. The main difference is that Absolver is built around one-on-one fights, whereas players will find themselves surrounded in Sifu.
Through three separate chunks of the game, I saw the game’s unnamed hero pummeling multiple enemies at a time with quick strikes. In one notable set piece, he battles a group of enemies in an art exhibit that features a giant pendulum painting a room with ink. Naturally, that becomes a weapon as it knocks enemies off their feet.
Sequnces like that are central to the game, and some of them are explicitly referential. At one point, the developers showed a hallway fight scene that pays homage to Oldboy. That film features a somewhat iconic sequence where the film’s protagonist fights through a corridor full of bad guys while wielding a hammer. That’s perfectly recreated here with a similarly horizontal frame that recalls the film and side-scrolling beat-’em-ups in one go. The developers also cite the works of Jackie Chan and films like The Raid as inspiration.
Cinema homages like that will be immediately familiar to players, but the game isn’t just built on film references. Sloclap designed the game’s combat based on Bak Mei, a style of kung fu that’s built around close-range strikes. For the game, Sloclap worked with a kung fu master, who created several of the main character’s attacks. That commitment to research certainly shows, as Sifu’s combat is much more grounded than in many other video games. You won’t find the game’s hero doing flying kicks. Instead, he hits enemies with quick, efficient palm strikes and an occasional low knee mixed in. Combos look fast and devastating without relying on exaggerated motions.
That realistic style combines well with the basics of video game combat, as players can still perform actions like parries and blocks. There’s even a “focus” system where time slows, allowing the player to target specific points on an enemy’s body for precise strikes.
Sifu also features a guard break system where both enemies and the hero can only block a certain amount of times at once. Overdo it and the meter will break, opening them up for attack. Sifu wants players to take advantage of Bak Mei’s quick style, rather than grind out tough battles.
Environments play a large role in Sifu’s combat, too. In one scenario, the hero fights his way up a spiral stairwell, smashing stray bottles over enemies’ heads. At one point, he uses a takedown attack to toss a man over the railing. Little moments like that were ever-present in the few gameplay clips I saw. When a foe kicks the hero against a bar couch, they roll over it to give themselves some space. In another scene, he escapes a bad two-on-one scenario by scrambling up a wall behind his foes. Little moments like that deepen the combat by making situational awareness crucial to victory.
What’s yet to be seen is exactly how the game’s unique aging mechanic works. When players die in Sifu, they age one year. While the preview didn’t go too deep into what that looks like mechanically, the developers at Sloclap explained its narrative significance. Sifu asks if one lifetime is enough to truly master kung fu. The game may take place in one night, but players will shave decades off their digital life trying to nail every nuance of the game’s combat system. Players won’t come out of the experience as experts on real-life Bak Mei. Instead, it’s about understanding and respecting just how much dedication it takes to become a true master.
Sifu launches on February 20 for PlayStation 4, PS5, and PC.
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