With the odd exception, Sony’s first State of Play in 2021 could have been an email.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time opened with a three-minute trailer detailing its PlayStation 5 upgrade. All its graphical improvements were the bare minimum expected and didn’t deserve a full trailer, especially when the game is already out.
When a presentation starts with such a mediocre announcement people expect it to ramp up, but Crash Bandicoot 4 was a perfect representation of what came next. Most of the show consisted of trailers and developer commentary for previously announced games. It was a slurry of minimal updates on 2021 experiences like Returnal, Knockout City, and Oddworld: Soulstorm.
About halfway through the presentation, Sloclap’s authentic Kung Fu brawler Sifu cemented itself as the best announcement of an otherwise lackluster showcase. Even as the State of Play ended with a surprise Final Fantasy VII Remake announcement, we couldn’t stop thinking about the stylish combat and intriguing concept of Sifu.
The trailer opens with a black and white photograph of a presumed Kung Fu master. A student is paying respects to the older man, much like how Cobra Kai’s Daniel LaRusso honors Mr. Miyagi in his home dojo. Right then we were impressed by the comic book-esque art style and the animated movie look. Given a later shot of an underwater environment with beams of light shining from above, we’re confident Sifu will be a beautiful game.
After doing various stretches, the man enters a long green-walled hallway as several individuals turn their heads and scowl. The Kung Fu prodigy suddenly enters a devastating fistfight reminiscent of Netflix’s Daredevil. He uses a combination of quick punches, stylish kicks, timed parries, and environmental takedowns. In one scene, the student knocks an enemy out with a steel pipe before hurling it at another adversary.
Developer Sloclap promised their game will depict an authentic replication of Pak Mei Kung Fu, a practice said to have been created by the Shaolin elder of the same name. This style reinforces close range strikes and the entrapment of enemy attacks. Pak Mei users often strike with an open, claw-shaped hand. So far as we can tell, Sifu honors this art with great care, translating into brutal free-flowing gameplay.
The student often pushed enemies into the wall and strategically used the environment. This demonstrated to great effect how players must adapt to their surroundings and plan their moves accordingly. Careful timing and resourcefulness are essential for survival since Sloclap promised a challenging gameplay loop.
Speaking of difficulty, the hallway scene ends when a foe dodges a punch before killing the protagonist with a swift upward slash of a sword. While on the ground, the man’s black hair grows longer, wrinkles embed into his cheeks, and a full beard fills out his face. He stands back up, faces his killer, and steels himself for another fight. Thus we have our main conceit for the game: the player revives after death but ages a bit more with each resurrection.
To describe this wondrous revival, let’s take a look at Sifu’s story, in essence a tale of revenge and hatred. A group of assassins massacred the protagonist’s family, encouraging him to train in Kung Fu for eight years. After arduous training, he hunts down the assassins in an act of vengeance.
To ensure his success, the student wears a magical pendant that has revival capabilities, the catch being that each revival lessens his overall life. Eventually, the man will literally run out of time and the player will be forced to start from the beginning.
As he ages up, the student’s physical appearance changes drastically. In time, the character will grow long white hair and deep divots will appear under his eyes. One would assume his move set and animations also get revamped, though Sloclap hasn’t confirmed this.
This central hook differentiated Sifu from anything else at the showcase. Thanks to the pendant, Sloclap’s single-player game is more than a brawler – it’s a fight against time. Besides, it’s always applaudable when a respawn mechanic is clearly defined and has tangible narrative weight.
The trailer showcased other aspects from Sifu as the Kung Fu action moved to a purple-tinged nightclub. An enemy was front kicked in the stomach and sent plummeting through a railing, demonstrating some destructible environments. One enemy adorned in dark green plant-like clothing suggested some eccentric character design that may persist throughout the game. There also looks to be an emphasis on boss fights given that we saw at least two different one-on-one battles.
We would be remiss not to mention that Sifu’s developers also made Absolver, an online combat game published by Devolver Digital. While it received mixed reviews, the game did focus on robust martial arts systems, much like the main gameplay draw of Sifu.
So it was that the State of Play stumbled along with inessential updates while Sifu brought something new to the table. Knockout City might be good, but it was recently announced at the Nintendo Direct. The time-defying hijinks of Deathloop seem compelling, but we’ve seen that game at every PlayStation event in recent memory. It was past time for an extensive gameplay demo, not another trailer.
The gameplay reveal for Solar Ash – which heavily relies on fast-paced movement – was another standout from the show, but Sifu’s concept was intriguing enough to surpass it. The gorgeous graphics, stylish combat, and unique concept helped Sifu become the unexpected highlight of the State of Play.
To top it off, Sifu will supposedly launch this year, so we can punch through our problems sooner than expected. The game will be released for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.