- Developers: Oasis Games Limited
- Publisher: THQ Nordic
- Release date:17/10/19
- Genre: 3rd person adventure
- Platforms: PC/PS4
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Let’s get this out of the way from the top, this is a family game, so don’t expect a God of War clone here, however, there are some God of War-Esque features this game shares with that title. Monkey King: Hero is Back has some excellent but simplified brawler combat. Just two buttons are required to perform light and heavy attacks. In addition to this, you can jump, or dodge, and there are also some spells at the player’s disposal. The fun aspect of the game here is in how these simple controls are very responsive and fun to use. A heavy attack has Monkey, hilariously, do an over the top wind up roundhouse punch. It takes time to wind up, so it does feel satisfying and meaty when you land one. If you time both your light or heavy attack just before an enemy is also winding up to hit you, you can enter into a quick time event where you can humorously slap enemies into the screen, complete with faces splattered up against the glass, and globs of spittle flying everywhere. Interrupt with a heavy attack and you then perform a massive smash down.
As a proponent of hack and slash / brawler games, the key to fun gameplay is being able to express yourself quickly, accurately and in different ways. Despite being very simple, with very few combos, Monkey King does just that, and it’s great for a younger audience that you can do so. The reason is when you get to boss fights, button-mashing here won’t work. You do indeed need to be a little more circumspect and dance around them looking for moments of opportunity to strike, and with the responsive tight controls, the player can do just that and feel rewarded when their plan of attack works. Most boss fights centre around finding a way of hitting them from behind, to put them into a stunned state to then hop on them to inflict more heavy damage until they are defeated.
You also have some “Monkey Magic” available. The use of this is limited, but it has wide-ranging effects. The magic can help players locate collectables, but you can also use spells to help in combat. For example, one spell turns some of Monkey’s hair into daggers that can be launched as a ranged attack. Another spell summons a bench that can be used as a shield or a missile! Bearing in mind the intended audience, combat wasn’t particularly difficult, and indeed you can complete the game with the simple melee attacks, but the spells do make for a nice change of pace and add interest to the combat.
Another layer of gameplay in combat is the ability to stealth attack. If you crouch and creep up on enemies from behind, and finish them in one hit, unlike normal combat that requires quite a few. The game, unfortunately, doesn’t explore this aspect of the game much at all but is a great mechanic to use to thin out hordes of enemies when you get the chance. It also doesn’t help that when you’re in sneak attack mode, one of the NPCs that travel with you shouts a warning at the top of their voice just as you are about to attack. Despite this, it doesn’t affect the success of your sneaking thankfully.
To acquire spells and upgrades, as you traverse the linear gameplay levels, you can find items such as plants, animals, or minerals to use at an end of level shop to purchase upgrades and some spells. Other items allow Monkey to upgrade his own stats, i.e. health bar or magic bar, while another form of collectables (God statues, like gnomes) increase your base abilities too. The search for these items during the level adds interest between combat, and at times, they are very tricky to find, so it’s well worth checking every nook and cranny. It would have been an interesting game design element if they had you use the spells in creative ways to solve puzzles, but alas, the only puzzles are to find keys to unlock doors, and that is simply done by finding and defeating bosses in linear environments. Even taking your time, it’s still possible to finish the game in around 7 to 8 hours.
While the overall feel of the game is one of a well-crafted experience, there are areas of the game that let it down, that being, the voice acting. It’s only when you have a game with awful voice acting you realize just how important it is. First of all, and most perplexing, the lead character Monkey, who you play as, hardly says anything at all. Most of the dialogue comes from a small boy, and by God is his voice annoying. There are certain gaming moments where people remember just one word. Sometimes a game can be famous for it, like “Boy” in God of War, while others become infamous for it, such as with Heavy Rain and “JASON!” The one thing I will take from Monkey King in this respect is the incredibly annoying “MONSTERS”, voiced at every encounter by the small boy travelling with you. The voice feels like it comes directly from children’s TV show The Tweenies, and like fingernails scratching down a blackboard, it grates with chilling precision each and every time a word from this character is uttered. Unfortunately, it’s a lot! Most of the dialogue and game exposition comes from him.
The other voice acting is equally forgettable too, even the monster actors pathetic attempts at roars, but the other issue the game has is again linked to the audio. The background music, although authentic and perfect for the setting, is FAR to repetitive and lacks variety. For one whole level, it was the same few bars of music, and I mean a few, repeated over and over again for nearly an hour. Eventually, I’m sure most gamers will do what I did, and turn the background music off.
There are some excellent audio moments though. As characters walk through puddles, there is a change in the sound to tiny splashes, which is a nice touch. But where the audio excels, is where it matters most; in the combat. Grunts of exertion, punches landing, or mechanical bosses winding up like clocks to unleash an attack, all help to make the combat even more fun than it already was.
Finally, the graphics are really good. No, they are not at the Red Dead Redemption or Horizon Zero Dawn levels of outdoor beauty, but they are certainly a cut above the rest when compared to current JRPG games. The developers have tried to put a lot more detail than you would expect. Grass areas are not just flat blocks of green but also have tufts of grass growing up and out of them as well and the textures of trees and rocks have slight weathering. The lighting especially stood out: Walking through dark caves, splashing over puddles that ripple, or the visual tufts of dust being kicked up when walking over mud, all make for a respectable visual treat, while the artwork and animations are also excellent. If you bear in mind that the game is trying to recreate the visual aesthetic of the film, then it wholeheartedly succeeds. Part of Monkey’s journey takes him over mountain paths, which has excellent scenic cliff views in the distance, and the buildings and surrounding debris are in an authentic far eastern theme too.
Lastly, anyone buying this game for somewhere in the region of £40 to £45 brand new, might feel short-changed, as the game is at best only around 7 to 8 hours long, and lacks replayability.
There aren’t a lot of quality family-focused games that are of a high enough quality to recommend, but Monkey King: Hero is Back, most certainly is. It has superb, yet simple combat alongside a slight twist of a timeless story, combined with the visual aesthetic ripped straight from a big-budget film. If the voice acting was of far better quality, and there was more time spent refining the excellent in-game features, like utilising the spells in a more creative way other than combat and creating more melee combat moves, this could have been an outstanding game. Be that as it may, it’s still highly enjoyable, and a superb, family-friendly, fun game to play for any age.