It seems that, as of late, people want to return to retro games. I’m unsure if it’s due to many being unsatisfied with modern releases and wanting to re-experience the games of yore, but what we do know is that retro gaming genres are seeing an upturn in interest.
The success of Streets of Rage 4 is one such case. Another product of this upturn is 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, a side-scrolling beat ‘em up with a Far-Eastern theme, combining both Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. Developed by Sobaka Studios and published by both Buka Entertainment and Koch Media, this game is certainly a product to capitalise on this trend.
For those who have played a side-scrolling beat ‘em up before, this won’t bring any new or meaningful differences that would sway you from 9 Monkeys’ more established competitors. You move left to right through mini arenas and neutralise any enemies in your path using your arsenal of abilities. Now, just because the gameplay is standard fare, that doesn’t make the gameplay loop inherently bad. In fact, the core gameplay is actually pretty entertaining when you are first taking up the game.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin features a parry mechanic which eases the flow of combat and makes the combos feel that much more satisfying. Our character, Wei Cheng, can strike, jab, or kick using his staff, as well as dodge from inbound attacks. Combining these abilities does look relatively stylish for a game of its type. Wei is also multidirectional within the stage, a la Streets of Rage. The levels take place on a stage in the foreground, where Wei and his adversaries can move and reposition however they like. Wei also earns experience points by completing missions, which he can spend to make his attacks more devastating.
The levels are started via the camp hub, which you gain access to after the tutorial. Here, you can spend the aforementioned experience points, equip new items and staves, start multiplayer with both network and local options, and begin missions. This is done in a very similar manner to God Eater, of all things. You speak to the quest giver, accept the quest, and use the now-available exit to begin the mission.
To spend experience points, players must talk to Master Zongfei. Within the upgrade menu, the player can raise the damage of individual attacks and enhance them, even earning abilities that can make Wei invincible or learn magical attacks—basically making the game a ridiculous cake-walk.
From the above description, this all sounds like it should function smoothly. The gameplay is fun, there’s a solid character progression system, and the mission initiations are diegetic to the game world. So what’s wrong with it?
Let’s go back to gameplay for a moment. One of Wei’s abilities is “deflect.” Wei will pirouette and, if timed well, deflect inbound attacks or projectiles. The game also teaches you that when you see a golden glint on an enemy’s weapon, that’s when you should deflect (usually as they are winding up a swing or preparing a ranged attack). The issue lies with the timing. Some enemy types have odd timings for when a deflect move will work. Some are quite generous with their timing, with the golden glint showing at the prime time. Others, such as the staff enemies, have the glint much earlier. This leads to a premature deflection and an inevitable bonk on the bonce.
A secondary issue lies in the colouration of the glint: a lovely gold. Most of the stages of this game are of a warmer colour palette—which often leads to the golden glint being lost in the sea of warm colours surrounding it and me not reacting to the corresponding swing. This was rectified during a night mission where the glint showed up much clearer and I was able to respond accordingly. The golden glints also have another glaring fault; they aren’t always the top layer, meaning that if you have two enemies, one blocking the other, you aren’t going to see the glint from the guy behind, so again you’re taking that damage. And, good gracious, do the enemies swarm you, so this happens all the time when a cluster surrounds you.
The blow dart enemies are also cheap, as they sit in the corner of the screen firing darts at you. Not too bad, since you can deflect them, except when they’re in the corner of the screen you aren’t looking at because you’re stuck in a cluster fight and they fire a nice middle finger directly at your forehead.
You know what, the shield enemies are ridiculous too! They also have a gold glint when they wind up and attack, but guess what—you can’t deflect it. The game has been teaching you that golden glints equal deflection, but then it does a 180 and throws that out the window.
The final nail in the coffin for these torture-like issues was the first ghost enemy encounter. You need to use your Qi, a bar under your health which you can use to enhance your attacks, as regular attacks don’t hurt ghosts. But they gave the ghost the ability to sap your Qi. Why? Damned if I know. The Qi abilities already require you to wind up an attack whilst stationary, which is the major downside to their use. Consequently, the ghost can spam this Qi sapping ability and, when you’re having to stand still to wind up the attack, they drain it away.
The fight also bugged out at this point; the camera fixes on this arena room, which you enter from the bottom of the screen. However, it wouldn’t let Wei in the room, so the camera was transfixed on the arena while the ghost chased Wei outside and all I could do was watch the health bar go down and my controller vibrate until I died. Fun, I know.
Speaking of bugs, the aforementioned camera bug was pretty glaring throughout, followed by an annoying bug which took place in a mission within a burning building. The objective is to save ten residents within the time limit, which is done by breaking their front door down. Except, the final one wouldn’t break, leading to a level restart. The usual bugs also reared their heads, such as lighting glitches and ragdolls getting stuck in the terrain. I played 9 Monkeys of Shaolin on PS4, but it has come to light that the Switch version is also plagued with bugs that break gameplay and require level restarts, as well as hard crashes.
Graphically, the game isn’t initially that impressive. The game was made using Unreal Engine 4 and, well, it looks like it. As soon as the game plopped me in the tutorial, I thought, “Wow, the lighting, the textures, and camera make this look a lot like Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back.” That’s really not a good thing, as that game also looked washed-out and bland. Granted, that feeling faded away as each level did feature its own distinct feel, and the art style really shined when the lighting and assets were used to greater effect in later stages.
The story is also considerably generic. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, you have experienced this story in a video game or movie before. Wei Cheng is a fisherman whose village is raided by, what appear to be, mere bandits. The village is burned, his family and friends are killed, and he is the only survivor. He is rescued by Shaolin monks who inform him that these bandits are a group of pirates known as the Wokou, who the monks defeated years ago. Dismissed by many monks as merely a fisherman, it turns out that, conveniently, Wei is from a family of master fighters who are proficient with staves. So, the monks decide to recruit him. It’s fantastically cliché and I, like many, have experienced it before many times. Some may say that the game is attempting to emulate retro martial arts stories of years gone by, but I still find the story to be unengaging as a result. This also leads the story to hold little in the way of replay value.
So, if the gameplay isn’t ultimately worth playing the game to completion, the story isn’t worth experiencing, bugs cheapen the gameplay, and the art style is the only thing trying to redeem the experience, is it worth the buy? Well, at a nerve-wracking £15 on Steam and an eye-watering £25 on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, I cannot recommend it at the asking price due to the gameplay annoyances, lacking story, and remaining bugs.
Many of the annoyances may feel cheap, but this beat ‘em up certainly isn’t retailed as such.
[A review copy was supplied by the publisher for review purposes]