Over the past few years, game developers have put several different spins on the rogue-like genre. But in general, many of those games follow a familiar set of rules, whereas Sifu, from developer Sloclap (Absolver), feels like a new take on the genre. Being a kung fu third-person action, Sifu uses a revenge tale as the basis for setting up its rogue-lite concept. A nameless player character (male or female) seeks revenge against five great warriors who invaded their childhood home and killed their father. There’s more to discover regarding the “why” of it all and a detective board to help track the larger story, but Sifu cleverly uses that vengeance to establish five unique levels and five main villains. Each level has its own playground of its own type, where the player character is tasked with eliminating any and every enemy that stands in their way, before finally challenging the boss. As with any rogue-like, each level offers a general and incremental sense of progress. To begin with, players can get keys or keycards that unlock shortcuts throughout the level, and on subsequent playthroughs, they can skip entire sections or even skip right to the boss. Then, once a level is completed, the player can avoid that level entirely, with one important caveat. Sifu uses age as both a marker of progress and a punishment for failure. Each time the player character dies, they gain one year in their age. They start at the age of 20 and do not gain more years after crossing the 70-year-old threshold, making it the final death and starting over. However, that does not mean that the player has 50 chances to complete the entire game – to run through all five levels. Instead, deaths can add up based on their frequency, where two consecutive deaths actually add 3 years to the player (1 year for the first death and 2 for the second). Players will return right through it, so no progress is lost, but those deaths can add up very quickly if players aren’t careful and considerate, which is a general theme of Sifu. Although Sifu is a kung fu action game in the vein of a Bruce Lee movie or John Wick revenge thriller, the combat in the game is closer in style to a fighting game with fluid, contextual animations that make everything flows well. Players won’t be able to button mash their way through even the most basic battles without taking damage, and the game can be punishing when it comes to dealing hurt. One wrong move and a large chunk of health can be lost, or years put on the character’s lifespan. There’s a basic light and heavy attack that’s the bread and butter when it comes to offensive moves, but the game offers variations that fit different situations. Players can sweep the leg of a blocking opponent or throw a staggered opponent into a group to help manage mobs. But a good offense is only as good as its defense, and this is where Sifu shines. The game offers evasion, but it’s not the kind of experience where players will constantly move out of the way of an attack. I-frames don’t seem to exist in Sifu, or at least they aren’t there to exploit for success. As with the fighting game, a good block, parry, and dodge are the best tools for opening an opponent up for attack. Blocking will get the job done early on but eventually, players will have to learn to time the parry for the enemy’s basic attacks. Evasion then becomes an important tool, as it can prevent more damaging moves (the unblockable or the unparryable) from landing. Blocking is the easiest line of defense, but it also comes at a cost. Both the player character and enemies have a meter called “Structure” that determines how long they can withstand punishment before they are staggered and left open to stronger attacks. In the case of the enemy, the broken structure will open a button that prompts a one-hit kill and heals, or in the player character, it’s about the closest thing to certain death. However, blocking gets the job done on a basic level. Evasion is more difficult to do but is also a more satisfying move to Sifu, as a well-executed dodge can slow down time slightly and allow for a strong offensive response. When an enemy attacks with power, evasion is the only thing that can prevent taking structural damage, if not actual damage. It takes a little getting used to depending on experience – dodges are done by pressing the block button and then moving the joystick down to duck or up to lift the leg – but it’s worth it. Players can survive without learning the timing of a parry but without parrying, it’s nearly impossible to get through to Sifu. Sifu weapons will help players gain more power against larger groups, so it’s always best to be on the lookout. Likewise, many enemies will engage in combat with weapons in hand, so being careful around one’s surroundings is equally important. The devs have created dynamic spaces full of style and personality. Standouts like a side scrolling hallway or a museum exhibit with a swinging paintbrush highlight the creativity on display, and the game even incorporates some fantastic elements into the environments from time to time. Players can develop their offensive and defensive abilities as they go along, but to say that Sifu can be difficult is putting it mildly. Some will find the game too difficult to be willing to learn the mechanics, and the rogue-like setup makes it too difficult to “beat the game” without refining those skills. Pattern recognition and quick reactions are essential tools to do this with Sifu. Even brute force or button mashing won’t get through to players, and certainly won’t get past the later bosses. The game has different enemies that are quick to punish the wrong move and others that are very fast. It would be nice to see the variety of attacks expanded a bit, as many of the enemies tend to use similar moves over and over again. More variety will make the learning curve steeper but it will also allow for a few more surprises over time. Instead, many of the enemies feel like reskinned (or modified) versions of those seen before. Boss fights are a whole other animal in Sifu and easily one of its highlights. The spaces created for the battles, which often change as they progress, are incredibly inventive and fit an epic showdown. Not to be outdone, the bosses themselves bring many challenges to proceedings, using their own weapons and move sets. If the Sifu is tough on the baseline, the bosses can be punished. This is probably the element that might frustrate players if they struggle – knowing that cool boss fights are a key selling point but are very difficult to obtain and complete. Still, there’s something satisfying about putting it all together. Making incremental progress in the game is still rewarding, even if it takes the player years just to defeat a mid-level mini-boss and earn a shortcut key. Beyond that, the sense of accomplishment when defeating a boss is exhilarating. You’ll feel like you’ve actually defeated an opponent by learning their moves – with or without the help of magical resurrection powers – and exploiting them. Development comes in many forms to Sifu. The obvious is to beat a level, which can take 10-20 minutes depending on familiarity and skill. When players defeat a boss, the game will “lock” their age and they can jump to the second level at any time, only at that specific age. Players are free to repeat the previous level(s) to try to make those runs better and be younger, but moving on also has its advantages due to shortcut unlocks. Within that larger progression, players can unlock upgrades to individual runs or permanent moves that carry over to subsequent playthroughs. Each time the player character dies, they can spend XP (earned by defeating enemies) on various moves such as a charged punch or a powerful leg sweep that costs a focus bar (the meter charged by dealing/taking damage). One purchase of the move will unlock it for that run, but subsequent purchases within the same run will unlock the move permanently, once done 5 times. These moves give the player character more versatility when it comes to opening up the enemy, but they feel like bonus tools. Shrines bloom in each level as well and these unlock upgrades that are more meaningful but only last during the run. Players can only buy one, but they can buy things like more health with finishing moves, more structure, more weapon durability, or a bigger focus bar. These unlocks carry different costs – XP or marks – but they feel like the most meaningful upgrade for each run. When combined and equipped with a watercolor-esque art style, unique level designs, and pounding music, Sifu presents an action game that simulates the feeling of one man/woman against the world. It doesn’t shy away from punishing the player but rewards learning in a way that’s addictive and fun. There’s no question that the difficulty will be a turn off to many players, but without it, the detail that Sloclap put into the combat and the animations would be lost. Sifu is a one-of-a-kind rogue-like that marries an engaging setup with superb combat mechanics. It scratches that important itch that fuels subsequent runs, and it tries to avoid feeling like time has been wasted. Progression exists in many different forms, but Sloclap’s outstanding title captures one of its more impressive versions. Sifu shows players that they are actually getting better at the game. Sifu releases February 8, 2022 for PC and PS4/5. Today Technology was provided with a PS5 code for this review.