We always need a good side-scrolling brawler. It’s a staple of the gaming world born in the time of coin-op arcade games. Many an hour of my youth was spent losing cash to the likes of Bad Dudes at my local LaserQuest, and since then hours of my life across countless console titles. For some reason it’s a genre that doesn’t really fall out of favour and regularly churns out high quality games that can get overlooked. One studio that has the knack is Sobaka who brought us the brutal Redeemer last year, and now returns with 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. Can they repeat that blend of narrative engagement wrapped up in a solid and satisfying action package?
Set in China in 1572, our hero Wei Cheng is enjoying the peaceful existance of a fisherman until bandits attack his village and wipe everyone out, including his beloved grandfather, before wailing on him and leaving him for dead. On discovering that the perpetrators of this atrocity are the Wokou clan that killed his parents, Wei Cheng takes up arms with the Shaolin monks that rescued him from the wreckage of his former life. Embarking on a quest to uncover why the Wokou have returned to the land and what they’re after, Wei Cheng will learn the ways of the Shaolin, how to harness his Qi, and the most effective ways of kicking ass. It’s a simple story of revenge bound up with working for a higher purpose, and evokes vibes of classic kung fu movies and TV shows.
Fighting is the point of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin – it’s a side-scrolling beat ’em up after all – and Wei Cheng is armed with a staff and some fancy martial arts moves. Strikes, lunges and kicks are the base of the combat, and as his time with the monks gets longer, he learns new skills. By harnessing his Qi energy that builds as he fights, he’s able to hit harder and faster, dish out devastating power moves, and even employ some of the mystical arts. Based on three stances (basic, acrobatic and magic), each complements the other two and when all are opened up there are some great combo opportunities to pull off. Mastering all three is essential on the higher difficulties and upgrades are available to boost each move set. One thing to note though is that points are needed to be spent unlocking the upgrade trees, and the upgrades themselves, and that’s not overly clear to begin with. Cue me reaching the final boss and finding a humungous difficulty spike as I’d ploughed all the tokens into only opening up the additional abilities and not actually purchasing them.
If you find yourself coming up short against the varied enemy types, the structure allows for replaying old missions at any time, and rewards remain accordingly. In each chapter of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin there are several missions, with one typically being the boss fight. When they’re open they can be tackled in any order, and it’s possible to skip secondary ones if you jump straight to the main quest advancer. Not that you’ll know which one that is unless you’ve paid full attention to the cutscenes and what each of the characters are saying. The exposition is there to propel the tale forward, which is done well, and it’s that knowledge that’s needed to figure out which mission to pick next for the quickest route to the end. Not that any stage is overly long, and on the easier difficulties these will clock in at between 5 and 10 minutes, so it’s well worth just having a go at everything when they crop up.
Being thorough brings the benefits of earning new charms, footwear and staffs as some levels give them out alongside the upgrade tokens. All of them have different attributes that buff Wei Cheng in a particular way and can be useful against specific enemies. Most of the foes are sword and dagger wielding mercenaries with varying states of armour that really do need tactics to pick them off. The screen is never short of combatants either, being happy to throw 5 or 6 at a time your way. In the earlier levels this is immensely satisfying as one after another they’re despatched in style, with the last takedown of the group resulting in a slow-mo effect to emphasis how great you are. As it progresses things get harder and more specific with movement, distance and armouring being factors in how easy it is to stay alive. There is help in various teas collected and drunk to restore health, Qi and provide defence and attack stats, though they aren’t instant so best not take a gulp when you’re surrounded.
Visually, the cartoon style fits brilliantly and it conveys all the hallmarks of a mythical tale stylishly. With everything taking place in a 2.5D plane it’s surprising how open it actually feels, and there’s a lot of detail worked gone into the environments. You’ll not find copy/paste stages in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, the vast majority are distinct, and there are even a couple of set pieces to switch up the pace. All the main characters are well represented with unique personalities that come across in the voice acting, and that lends more weight to the in-game struggle. Sure, across the 3 hour runtime you won’t get too attached, but it’s nice to know who the different allies are, and the various bosses too. It’s smooth throughout as well with the action slick and fast and no lengthy loading times to interrupt the flow. Even in the only areas where things get to a walking pace there’s purpose… these are the hubs that act as training stages, upgrade stations and mission select with each menu function assigned to a different character, including the local and online co-op options.
Other than not realising about the upgrade purchasing, there’s little that frustrates or that it gets wrong. Well, maybe there’s trying to reflect bombs which seems to need uber precise timing on enemies that are out of reach yet have to be taken out to move things forward; but that’s dredging through the memory of playing and coming up with maybe two instances of that happening. With challenging difficulty levels, secrets to find, and the ability to revisit all stages again solo or with a friend, there’s a decent amount of replay on hand as well. What 9 Monkeys of Shaolin thrusts on you is a short, sharp refined take on the genre: it’s great to look at, has an underlying story you can get behind, and knows exactly which punches to pull and which to follow through with.
A PS4 review code was provided by Sobaka’s PR team, and 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is available from the 16th October on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Linux and MacOS for around £20 depending on platform and whether it’s physical or digital media.