Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting
While hugely popular in the 1990s with classics like Streets of Rage, Final Fight, and Double Dragon dominating the home console and arcade scenes, the beat-’em-up genre has been mostly dormant over the past few decades. But that’s not to say it’s been forgotten altogether. Gems like Fight’N Rage, River City Girls, and the recently released Streets of Rage 4 have done a spectacular job of beating some new life into the genre. Now Russian indie developer Sobaka Studio, the team behind 2019’s Redeemer, aims to continue that trend with their sophomore effort, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin.
Taking its inspiration from the 2D brawlers of old and the Kung-Fu movies of the 1970s, the game blends fluid and satisfying combat with an RPG-lite mission structure that allows you to undertake optional quests to collect loot and experience to become a veritable force of destruction. It’s an exciting mix, for sure. Sadly, while 9 Monkeys of Shaolin’s punchy combat is undeniably fun for a while, the game’s bland missions and forgettable foes ultimately keep it from being a black belt-worthy title.
A Tale As Old As Time
In 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, players assume the role of the humble Chinese fisherman Wei Cheng. Orphaned at a young age, he lives with his grandfather in a bucolic waterfront village, where he enjoys a simple life. That is until one day when everything changes after a band of Wokou pirates attacks his home, murders his grandfather, and leaves him to die as the town burns to the ground around him.
Luckily, our courageous fisherman’s story doesn’t end there. Shaolin monks find the gravely injured Wei Cheng before he succumbs to his injuries, and they nurse him back to health in their mountaintop monastery. A tale of revenge and personal growth, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin takes Wei Cheng and his comrades from rural China to the heart of Okinawa to track down the Wokou menace and unravel a shadowy plot that could threaten not just his homeland but the very fate of the world.
But don’t expect a grand narrative, of course. After all, while the game features some RPG-lite elements, this is a beat-’em-up we’re talking about here. The story is certainly serviceable, but it takes a backseat to high-flying martial arts action that serves as the heart of 9 Monkeys of the Shaolin’s experience.
Kick, Punch, and It’s All In The Mind
9 Monkeys of Shaolin’s brawls are typical beat-’em-up fare. The goal is simple: keep pushing to the right side of the screen and beat the stuffing out of anyone stupid enough to get in your way until you encounter the boss of the stage or complete whatever objective you set out to accomplish.
The game’s combat is incredibly snappy and responsive. Tapping the square button delivers a flying kick, while the triangle and circle buttons unleash slashing and thrusting attacks with your trusty staff. You can string together flashy combos by mixing up these attacks, making each melee unfold with all the punch-drunk excitement of a Kung Fu Theater marathon. Of course, the best offensive is a good defense. And with that in mind, you also have a couple of defensive techniques at your disposal. Tapping the X button will allow you to dodge out of the way of oncoming attacks quickly. Additionally, you can parry blows with the L1 button. Time a parry just right, and you can even send enemy blowdarts and bullets soaring back at your assailants for a satisfying one-hit kill.
All of these techniques come together to create a surprisingly robust fighting system that gets more and more exciting as you advance through 9 Monkeys of Shaolin‘s roughly four-hour campaign.
Stand By Me
You’ll return to the monks’ monastery between missions, which serves as the game’s hub world. You can chat with your burly Buddhist brethren to access a number of the game’s features like joining online co-op lobbies, equipping the various weapons, shoes, and trinkets you receive from completing missions, and leveling up your character.
There are three Stands to master: Basic Stand, Acrobatic Stand, and Magic Stand. The Basic Stand governs your standard kick and bow attacks. Doubling your attack capabilities, the Acrobatic Stand gives you access to the powerful Storm, Typhoon, and Rockfall strikes. Lastly, the Magic Stand allows you to cast mystical seals with varying effects. You can do fun things like leave your opponents suspended helplessly in the air and even pull groups of enemies towards you for an up-close and personal karate lesson. You need Qi to perform Acrobatic and Magic stand abilities, which you gain from attacking enemies. Luckily, you accumulate Qi so rapidly that it’s never really a concern. But this does cause some issues regarding balancing, especially when it comes to the game’s Magic Stand abilities.
For example, one of the Magic Stands you get allows you to siphon your enemies’ health to heal your character. This ability is such a game-changer that I eventually stopped bothering with healing items altogether. Whenever I took damage, I’d run away, sneak in a few hits when my opponent was vulnerable so I could use the Qi I gathered to heal, and then resume my assault. Having this ability at my fingertips made the game’s final boss a total cakewalk, reducing what should have been an epic showdown to what felt like a hollow victory. Of course, I could have just opted not to do this and stuck with using my finite supply of healing teas, but why create an arbitrary challenge?
A Game With An Undeniably Old School Shaolin Style
I’ve always felt that a beat-’em-up is only as good as its presentation. After all, this is a genre built on the shoulders of such heavyweights as Final Fight and Streets of Rage; games known for their distinctive enemy designs and pumping soundtracks that helped immerse the player in the carnage unfolding on-screen. Unfortunately, bland visuals and a forgettable soundtrack come together like a champion of Cobra Kai to sweep the leg of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin.
Without mincing words, the game looks like it belongs on the PlayStation 2 or Dreamcast. Enemy and player character models are basic as can be, and the environments lack any personality, which causes them to all blend together. Another issue I had with the game’s graphics is that they’re very saturated, giving the settings an unappealing and washed-out look that didn’t resonate with me whatsoever. Still, the attack animations look quite lovely, which is a plus.
On the aural front, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin doesn’t fare much better. The soundtrack features traditional Chinese melodies and instrumentation that fit the theme just fine. These compositions’ problem is that they do little to stand out from each other, just like the game’s repetitive stage designs. Even after having just plowed through the entire campaign, I can’t think of a single track that stuck with me after a stage ended.
This lack of polish doesn’t just extend to its presentation. I also encountered a few glitches during my time playing the game for this review. The most frustrating of these issues was in an ancient tomb where I had to collect an ancient relic. This priceless treasure was in a room in the background where ghosts were waiting to ambush me. Whenever I’d try to proceed to the treasure, the camera would suddenly snap towards the crypt while my character would remain stuck in the previous area. After suffering through this issue several times, I found the only solution was to exit the game and reload my old save file.
Back To The Dojo
Don’t get me wrong, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin isn’t a bad game. With a snappy combat system and a rewarding skill tree, cracking the skulls of evil pirates and wicked samurai is good fun for a short while. The problem is the game throws everything at you all at once, making the latter half of Wei Cheng’s journey a bit of a slog. By the time I’d wrapped up the first few chapters, I’d already seen virtually all of the enemies and environments it had to offer. Of course, multiple difficulty settings and the option to run through the main story with a friend adds some replay value. But I honestly find it hard to imagine all but the most die-hard fans of the beat-’em-up genre will take the time to revisit the game after the credits roll.
If you’re a beat-’em-up fanatic with a PlayStation Store balance to burn, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin might soothe your fighting spirit for an afternoon or so. But at $30, it’s hard to recommend to all but the most pugilistic players out there. If you’re looking for a PS4 brawler with a bit more meat on its bones, I’d recommend getting your hands on Fight’N Rage or Streets of Rage 4 first. Not only are they cheaper options, but they also offer much more bang for your gaming buck.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Switch, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Koch Media; Developer: Sobaka Studio; Players: 1-2; Released: October 16, 2020; MSRP: $29.99
Editor’s note: A review copy of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin was given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.