Old school is still a lot of fun!
- Developer: Sobaka Studiol
- Publisher: Ravenscourt Games
- Release date: 16th October 2020
- Genre: Beat ‘em up
- Platforms: PS4, Xbox One,Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
There was a time when side-scrolling beat ‘em ups were all the rage, but sadly, that is not the case anymore. This may be because developers with new, more powerful hardware to work on have concentrated on making games bigger, larger, faster, overlooking the simple side-scrolling beat ‘em. There really wasn’t much to those linear affairs other than getting from one end of the level to the other end by punching, kicking and combo-ing your way through it.
That, in a nutshell, is what 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is all about, however, there is something to be said in keeping it simple, keeping it “old school”. The fact that 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is so simplistic makes it stand out all the more, and ironically, more desirable, because, at the end of the day, excellent and fun gameplay trumps all else!
An inauspicious start!
The scene is set via some stills and a vocal narrative, of how a fisherman learns to fight to protect his village from nothing more fearsome than some raiding bandits, called the Woku. While defending the village, Wei Cheng’s grandfather is killed, and so begins the premise of the classic kung-fu “revenge plot”. But much like the rest of the game, the simple beginning grows into something else, and although nothing worthy of a Pulitzer, draws the game along to set each chapter nicely with a lot of variety.
The narrative and the characters you meet are forgettably dull though, as each monologue by the elders of the temple you stay in are just as boring as the next, but that is what is to be expected of a Shaolin Monk. Side characters do add some much needed levity, but for the most part, this is a story of Wei Cheng and no one else.
When you start playing for the first time.
As Wei Cheng sets off on his first mission, two things will strike you straight away. The first being how colourful and vibrant the game looks. The visuals pop much more than many other games, which really adds depth to the playing field. Although this is technically a 3D game, there is very little vertical movement, as it’s still mainly left to right gameplay.
The second thing that will hit you is just how smooth the game runs. It’s hard to know if the game is locked at a higher frame rate than the normal 30fps of many current games, but it certainly felt and played much smoother. Players also don’t ridiculously skit across the screen; there is a real sense of weight, movement and thought into how you traverse the environment and use the character you play as.
Upon arriving at a new location, the simple yet excellent artwork made each encounter feel different from the last. With a nice array of locations, from a rain-soaked stormy night to a bamboo forest in the day, or a deserted village of an evening, the game visually kept me entertained throughout.
However, one of the most pleasing visual aspects was landing either a finishing blow during a boss fight or striking the last blow to an enemy during a section. At these points, when the hit landed, time slowed down with extra effects to really focus the eye to the “killing blow.”
The core of the game.
The combat is central to this game, and it works extremely well. It would be foolish to think this game is just a simple button masher, where simply spamming the attack buttons will get the player through. Heed the teachings of the Shaolin Monks: Be circumspect with your movement, and make every strike deadly.
The combat starts with four basic moves. A quick strike, a lunge, a jump kick and a dodge move. After a short while, and following being taught by your master at the Shaolin Temple, players then progress to an extra set of moves, that use Qi from a bar that you fill up from landing normal hits.
The Qi moves are more powerful than the basic ones and unleash a great but short in-game super move, like an over the head slam or whirling your stick around in a splash damage creating crowd control move.
Later still, another set of moves are unlocked, that are more like player buffs. These moves lower the defence of enemies within an area, lift them off the ground or draw everyone close ready for follow-up attacks.
With a nice range of different types of enemies, and a great but easy to use mechanic with lots of different and varied move sets, it soon becomes clear that learning and understanding your enemy with your available moves, and when to use them, is the key to combat, and not, as mentioned before, just to button mash and hope. The grace and sense of achievement when using the simple tactics to defeat a whole host of enemies without even receiving one hit is immensely satisfying and an addictive part of the combat. Soon it wasn’t just clearing a field of enemies but more a case of how stylishly could it be done.
The last, but very useful move, is parry. Twirling your weapon around you deflects projectiles and attacks back at the enemy, causing them to take damage. It was slightly annoying that the parry didn’t interrupt any move you were in the middle of, as by the time the move was finished, the projectile would have hit.
Scattered around the field are destructible items which can be smashed to reveal items to be collected, for example, green tea for health, red tea for a power surge, or collectables.
When completing a level, or going back to it to try it again, you are rewarded with tokens which you can use to upgrade your abilities on a basic but simple to understand progression tree. Also, some levels awarded you with new items to use such as weapons, charms or footwear. These items all had different benefits. A new staff might be 25% faster than the standard one, or another might give the player health when landing hits after using their Qi. It was fun but slightly annoying that completing a chapter by the skin of your teeth, would then reward you with an item that would have made the previous chapter so much easier.
Finally, there is a hub world, which is simply the temple you are based in, and from there you can learn new techniques, upgrade, change weapons, look at items, change settings, progress the story, replay previously completed ones or find an online person to play your game with.
The online function allowed for two players to partake in the same game, but unfortunately, I was unable to find anyone to play with before the release date of the game.
One of the best aspects of the gameplay was the varied amount of mini and end of level boss fights. Each level found new and inventive ways in which to challenge the player. These fights ranged from simple health sponges to restricting you to only using certain attacks to inflict damage, or dodging environmental hazards. Fighting amongst fire or moving blades whilst learning the enemy moves to learn when the best opportunity of your own was to strike is an entertaining challenge. There were many more variations to these too. Boss fights felt like two tigers circling each other, trying to figure the other out before striking.
The only dent in this magnificence was the AI of the enemies, and the pragmatic approach needed to defeat them was far too simple. They did little else than walk straight towards Wei Cheng to surround him. If they got too close it was then, at times, confusing to see what was going on, and their bodies would block any attempt to dash or dodge out of harm’s way. Learning how to use the crowd control attacks therefore became a useful tool to give the player space and vision to see what to do next.
Authentic but repetitive.
The audio of the game was a little hit and miss, and mainly on the missing side. The voice acting, in particular, was flat, with little emotion being put into the performances, especially to differentiate between characters. Each character blandly got through their lines, however, each line was delivered clearly and succinctly.
The in-game effects were a nice touch, but too few and far between. Shattering wooden boxes or the background white noise of a waterfall were very good and convincing, but there were not enough other noises like them. To try and make up for this the game had an overlay of authentic-sounding Chinese music, which again was actually really good and interesting to listen to, however, with the same few tunes repeating on a loop, it soon got tiresome.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin, is certainly not going to blow your socks off in any one department and doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any shape or form. But, by being so clear-minded in its approach and execution, with its simple game design, great gameplay mechanics and eye-popping smooth and colourful visuals meant it was addictive and fun to play.
Medieval China never felt so much fun to be part of, as was the journey I took with Wei Cheng and his Shaolin Monk friends.