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Sifu’s stunning martial arts combat will appeal to a generation of kung fu fans

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Okay, bearded zaddy!

Sifu, the newest game from Absolver developer Sloclap, feels like exactly the kind of shot in the arm the roguelike genre needs. Far too many of that style of game favors sword and board combat in medieval or otherwise indeterminate but distant past fantasy settings. Sifu is a refreshingly modern take on the die-and-restart style of play that ditches the sword in favor of these hands.

I got to play a bit of Sifu in a hands-on preview that demos the first half of the second chapter. The preview dropped me right into the action — no tutorial mission, no story explanation, just a destination simply known as The Club. The preview makes you fight your way through the club, battling simple minions that go down in one or two punches to heavy hitters that require more skill and planning to take down.

I immediately fell in love with Sifu’s aesthetic. It’s just a touch more colorful than realistic games but not fully neon-splattered. Combat presents an interesting dichotomy in that it’s simple to execute by stringing together combos of button presses, but hard to master such that you’ll get your ass beat quickly and often if you rely on button mashing.

Sifu cleverly iterates on traditional roguelike elements, which adds to its refreshing appeal. Death doesn’t immediately reset your progress, instead you have a death counter that increases along with your age. Immediately after you fall, you can spend XP earned from successful fights to add and upgrade your abilities. Then you get back up again, right where you fell. Each death adds to your age starting at age 20. When you die at age 21, since it is your second death, you age up to 23. Your third death, you reawaken at 26 and so on. Every time you die and age, your health decreases but your damage increases. You’re older, but you’re also wiser.

You are not allowed to age infinitely, you have a magical pendant with five charges that expire at set intervals that decrease the older you get. Once you reach 77 years old or around the eighth or ninth death, your cycle of reincarnation ends and you’re forced to start the level over.

I really dig the aging factor for another reason: the main character is smokin’ hot. He could get it at any age, but I find he’s at his zaddiest from age 34 and up when his beard and hair are the most luscious.

Absent any significant story beats outside of a pressing but vague need to find a man named Sean, it’s hard to say how well Sifu’s story is developed. Sifu trades on powerful, culturally significant imagery of Chinese people and their martial arts tradition. Without careful consideration coupled with the involvement of Chinese people versed in these traditions during every stage of the development process, it’d be painfully easy for Sifu to fall into offensive or at least culturally insensitive stereotypes. I hope Sifu’s development didn’t fail to clear that minimum requirement.

From Sifu’s fluid, authentic-looking combat I can see why the game has been highly anticipated since its announcement: kung fu combat like this just doesn’t exist in video games right now. Plus, with a generation of gamers growing up on Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li movies, the streets were aching for a proper kung fu / martial arts combat game. From what I’ve seen, Sifu fills that long overdue need.