Sifu is the sophomore effort by French Indie developer Sloclap and is available for the PlayStation 5 and PC. Sloclap rose to prominence in 2019 with the release of Absolver, a martial arts-themed MMO. After Absolver’s positive reception, many fans who shared the studio’s fondness for martial arts wondered what the studio would produce if they ever made a single-player experience, and after a few delays for last-minute polish, Sifu was born. Taking place in an unnamed city in China, players are set on a quest for retribution, and must vanquish five foes, each of which had a hand in the death of their father. The story doesn’t provide any further context, but none is needed because the appeal is in fighting so the story feels more like an excuse to beat people up than anything else. Sifu doesn’t offer much in the way of accessibility beyond customizable controls and the ability to set block and focus to a toggle, which would both be great features if the game wasn’t so unforgiving.
I cannot truly recommend Sifu for motor-impaired players because despite not being presented as a rogue-like, it does possess similar aspects. The kung-fu student, which is how I’ll address the player from here on out, is in possession of a magical talisman that allows them resurrection should they be defeated in combat, the caveat being that you age with each defeat, and the number of years the student ages is determined by the death counter. So, for example, if the student is 21 and the death count is three, then when they resurrect, they’ll be 24. Aging comes with a proviso of its own however, since doing so reduces the student’s health bar but allows them to do more damage. If the student fails to complete the journey before the talisman’s pieces all break, they must restart. If the student reaches a certain stage but is too old to feasibly complete the journey, they are essentially forced to restart the entire run because they must begin a new stage with whatever age and number of deaths they accumulated on the previous stage, and the student ages out at 74. There is a silver lining however, as defeating enemies that glow with auras will reduce the count by one for each successful kill, and there’s also a power-up that can be purchased to reset it to zero. Sifu does not feature prompts of any kind for counters, so it is difficult but not impossible to manage the frenetic combat. If the student can progress far enough in each stage, they can gain access to shortcuts that help to alleviate repetition, but even with all this taken into consideration, Sifu’s steep learning curve and complex combo inputs will prove a challenge to all but the most tenacious.
Unfortunately, many visually impaired players will also encounter barriers in Sifu. The prompts that appear on the screen in order to indicate doors that you can open appear small. At the time of writing there does not appear to be a way to adjust the size of the prompts. It can also be difficult to gauge the direction of incoming attacks, since the game does not provide an indicator for these. To be more specific, the parry and blocking system is not like the one found in the Batman Arkham series, where the game has a visual cue for when you should press block. It relies on the student to anticipate, which also makes off-screen attacks an issue. It can also be easy to get disoriented due to lack of map or compass of any kind. Subtitles are easily legible but since story is mostly not present, they aren’t crucial. The durability of the student’s guard is represented by a bar that fills as you absorb hits, upon breaking there is an audible cue.
Hard-of hearing users will find a barrier-free experience due to Sifu’s minimalist approach, and it doesn’t require hearing to enjoy. Attacks can be felt courtesy of vibrations in the DualSense, so even if impact isn’t heard, it’s felt. Unfortunately, all enemies except bosses have similar attacks and there’s no tactile difference, but this isn’t a barrier.
All in all, Sifu is a game brimming with style and an obvious reverence for the fighting style at its core. Death and aging are presented as an intriguing mechanic, but its unwillingness to yield for those who are less tenacious or able keeps the most realistic representation of martial arts in games to date from being a true accessible masterpiece. Shortcuts and the ability to reset the death count alleviate some difficulty, so those willing and patient enough will find brutal and satisfying combat.