I imagine a lot of people will be going into Sifu hoping for an action-packed experience on a similar level to cult classic Sleeping Dogs, crossing their fingers for an intoxicating kung-fu outing that allows them to live out their deepest power fantasy as they wipe out countless goons with a flawless mixture of graceful combat techniques.
While this goal is perfectly attainable, it will take a lot of practice. Sifu is a tough game, so much so that our original reviewer tapped out of the assignment and Slocap had to implement a patch following feedback from reviewers. Sleeping Dogs 2 this ain’t, and that’s both a blessing and a curse for a game that feels curated for the gaming discourse cannon.
Sifu feels like a game that is acutely aware of its own challenge, expecting the player to master each one of its mechanics while beating their head against each new obstacle until they eventually emerge victorious. Reaching this level of mastery is almost euphoric, but it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone will be willing to put themselves through such punishment. I’m not sure if I will, even as I managed to push through the first couple of levels without much trouble. Not all gamers are created equal.
While a few upgrades and aspects of progression will carry over to each new run, this is a situation where you need to ‘git gud’ or give up, since Sifu isn’t willing to hold your hand when the going gets tough – which is a shame. While both Sifu and Sleeping Dogs treat their Asian influences as cultural tourism, cherry-picking the most interesting – or as they might claim, the most honorable – facets of the Asian aesthetic, at least Sleeping Dogs understands its place in the world. It’s not the most sensitive or accurate depiction, but all it wants is to be a popcorn blockbuster of a game. That doesn’t excuse the cultural appropriation, but it at least doesn’t have as high an opinion of itself as Sifu, which requires gamers to become kung-fu masters in order to ascend its painted Gongbi summit.
Both Sleeping Dogs and Sifu take inspiration from Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games. The caped crusader’s beloved trilogy pioneered a combat system that combined light and heavy attacks with an immediate counter mechanic that allowed the majority of fights to turn into a dance of mechanical fury that became increasingly complex as new moves were introduced and invited you to experiment. They’re violence as ballet, as The Matrix called it. Sleeping Dogs is fairly shameless in its adaptation, while Sifu takes the fundamentals and develops them into a combat system where even the smallest of actions matter. Sleeping Dogs and Batman allow for mistakes, and often accommodate them, but Sifu isn’t afraid to grind your ass into dust if you depend on button mashing to get by. It will not work, and that’s both amazing and asinine in equal measure. Sloclap has created combat that I adore, but not in the game I really want.
What I’d really love to see is Sleeping Dogs 2, a sequel that builds upon everything that made the discordant original so beloved. Imagine Sifu’s combat in an open world setting filled with distinct characters to meet and missions to embark upon, where the challenge is no longer the core focus but an optional benchmark that hardcore players can strive to reach. Sifu is a spectacular exercise in combat wrapped in a revenge tale we’ve seen countless times before, the ageing of the protagonist meant to represent the endless pursuit of vengeance that will ultimately leave us feeling empty.
The open world genre has moved on so much in the past decade, so revisiting Sleeping Dogs recently only served to highlight how bland its mission design and characters can be, both in terms of mechanical scope and quality of writing. Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, and even games like The Outer Wilds have further broadened the narrative potential of open worlds, which is perhaps why the original sequel idea for Sleeping Dogs was rejected by Square Enix shortly before United Front Games was forced to close its doors. The tide has long changed, and Sleeping Dogs 2 would need to be a respectful glimpse into the culture it seeks to explore and a modern example of open world design. Obviously, the real world Hong Kong has been through immense political upheaval in recent years, an aspect of turmoil in reality that could even be folded into the game’s narrative.
Also don’t make us play as an undercover cop forced to toe the line between justice and crime, because all cops are bastards and a binary like this has no place in 2022. Make it a more nuanced story, make it more than Sifu while taking inspiration from its excellent combat system and surrounding it with worthwhile locations, characters, and a gameplay loop that rivals the biggest fish in the pond. This game is never, ever going to be made, but the fervour surrounding Sifu has me thinking of what could have been if Square Enix wasn’t obsessed with unreasonable sales numbers and NFTs.
Sifu is a great game, albeit a somewhat problematic one, but all of its victories only have me looking to other properties that have the potential to outclass it in every regard if only major publishers would give such stories a chance. Sleeping Dogs 2 in a mature, complete form made by people actually from Hong Kong and therefore able to broaden the horizons of the excellent yet limited original could bring the open world genre to life much like Breath of the Wild did, applying innovation to urbanity like Zelda did for fantasy. Give us another chapter in the trials and tribulations of Wei Shen, I’m sure it will go down an absolute treat.
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