Last week we got a chance to sit down with the lead designer from Sloclap, the creator of Absolver, to check out its next martial arts opus Sifu. Absolver was a special game that, while having a lot of great ideas, definitely buckled under the weight of its own premise. Sifu looks to change that by taking what worked in Absolver, trimming the fat, and delivering a martial arts quasi-roguelike experience reminiscent of Jackie Chan and John Woo films. In this Sifu preview we got to see three sections of gameplay highlighting different aspects of the game.
For the uninitiated, Sifu follows a character on a quest for revenge against those who killed his — or her, as you can choose at the beginning — master. A pretty basic setup for sure, but the execution is what sets Sifu apart. Your character can grow older during the game, and if they live long enough, can become the classic, traditional kung fu master. In this regard, you could think of characters like Pai Mei from Kill Bill, or even Master Roshi. The roguelike element comes in that, if your character dies, you start from the beginning of the game or a specific level. But you grow older each time you fall.
The three sections we saw were still very early on in development, as some lighting and modeling were unfinished, and the voice acting was yet to be recorded. The combat in Sifu functions similar to something like the Yakuza series; an evolution of the 2D brawler with complete control of your character in a 3D environment. Although keyboard and mouse support will be featured, it is clearly designed around using a controller. You use the shoulder buttons to block enemy attacks, and when done with precise timing, you’ll activate a parry.
The kung fu detective
You can also check out what Sloclap calls the “Detective Board” at any time from the start menu. The Detective Board contains all the information your character has discovered in their quest. This information remains if your character dies, allowing you to create shortcuts to get through completed sections faster.
A run-down apartment complex is where we joined our hero. This area has mostly low-level enemies, so they aren’t much of a threat. The environment showcases a high level of interactivity though, letting the player pick up and use all different kinds of objects around them. This helps Sifu feel like playing through a Jackie Chan movie where objects lying around, and the environment itself, are all part of the fight.
As combat continued, we saw that if an enemy is dealt enough damage, you can break their “structure.” This then lets you use a two-button takedown move that will instantly knock out the opponent. When there is one enemy left they can sometimes take one of two paths. Either they will surrender, allowing you to interrogate them, or go into a rage. The latter of which increases the enemy’s overall health and damage. As our main character enters a room of thugs, we are presented with one of three options that determine how these events play throughout the game. You can investigate to gather information, try to be peaceful and avoid combat, or be aggressive and lay the smackdown on everyone around you.
Every situation is different and sometimes one option may lock you out of certain information, or provide some other detriment to your overall progress. It is cool to decide if your version of the character is more of a Jackie Chan “I don’t want any trouble” type, or a Joe Taslim-like beast who just hungers for battle. During this section, the developer chose to be aggressive, and the camera switched to a 2D perspective as they made their way down a hallway dispatching enemies. This is an homage to the infamous hallway fight in Oldboy (the original Korean version, not the god-awful American adaptation). The game is full of little segments like this that break up the usual action.
Death is just a do-over
The five levels of the game represent the Chinese elements: fire, water, earth, metal, and air. Sifu encourages multiple playthroughs to see if you can complete the game less violently or without using up your entire lifespan. The second section of our Sifu preview has the female version of the main character approaching a neon-lit club. Being a male or female character is a purely cosmetic choice, and has no effect on gameplay. While the game takes place in contemporary urban China, Sloclap says that, over time, more mystical elements will be introduced into the game.
This section really shows off all the contextual combat moves your character can perform. These moves vary based on factors like what weapon an enemy is holding, if you’re near a wall, and much more. An example we are shown is when an enemy swings a bat at you, you can trip the enemy, grab their bat, and then beat them with it. You do have to think about each combat encounter, as simply button mashing can only get you so far. For example, heavier enemies are more susceptible to moves that knock them to the ground. Another contextual action we saw in our Sifu preview is the character throwing a bottle at an enemy to stun them, and kicking a chair towards their legs so their feet fly out. Once again, it makes you feel like you’re acting out a fight scene from a martial arts movie.
Some of the stronger enemies can also parry, or even throw items back at you. Even stronger enemies, like mini-bosses, can break your guard. You will have to learn their patterns to effectively take them down. Although most of the combat is focused on the idea of “one versus many,” these one-on-one encounters further help to break up the action. During one of these encounters is where we see the “Focus Gauge” put to use. The Focus Gauge fills up by performing attacks, and using it will slow down time to target specific parts of an enemy’s body. It’s a bit like a martial arts version of Fallout‘s VATS system.
The nitty-gritty of it all
Shrines can be found throughout levels and are used to unlock perks. These are different from skills, which are for new moves and options in combat. Skills can be upgraded to be permanently unlocked and last through all of your playthroughs. But shrine perks only last for one run, similar to Boons in Hades.
As more fantasy elements are introduced into the game, the overall color palette of the game will switch to red. There is also a combo meter in the game that tracks your score, not how many individual hits in a combo you have. Sloclap says this functions more similarly to a style meter, like in Devil May Cry, but players are not graded for their performance at the end.
The final section of our Sifu preview took place in a museum. Many of the enemies in this area have bladed weapons like machetes. This showed off some more of the contextual actions you can unlock in the game. For example, “after parrying, perform a quick throw,” which is very effective against enemies with weapons. Once we pick up that enemy’s machete, our focus gauge changes to reflect this. We now have access to a blade focus attack that does extra damage. We also get to see “enemy switch,” which lets you switch targets on the fly to keep your combos going. This means you can use light attacks on one enemy, and save the final heavy hit in your combo for another enemy nearby.
Sloclap also stated that it used a real martial arts master for most of the motion capture process to maintain authenticity.
After the third and final section of our Sifu preview was over, we learned a few more things about the game. There will be a training mode where players can practice their combos. This can be done at your dojo, which you can access between levels.
Sifu is also built to run at a maximum of 4K resolution and a targeted, consistent 60 fps. Multiple difficulty levels have not been confirmed yet, as the team is focusing solely on the main, core experience. But this isn’t an option that’s been ruled out, either.
Building a story around combat
One thing Sloclap seems keen on avoiding is a “story mode” difficulty, as the combat is so integral to the overall plot of the game. In fact, the more you die on a single run, the faster your character will age each time. This encourages mastery over the game’s combat systems. Sloclap also confirmed after our Sifu preview that there will be no guns or projectile weapons in the game. The love that Sloclap has for martial arts cinema is apparent, and it has made Sifu one of my most anticipated games of next year. Fans of the genre owe it to themselves to check it out. Sloclap is planning to release Sifu on February 22, 2022.