I actually feel rather spoiled this year as one of my favourite genres in gaming has had a bit of a resurgence. Side scrolling beat-em-ups are really the foundation of my own gaming background, having grown up playing a number of them in the local arcade and then at home on consoles. This year has seen the return of the majestic ‘Streets of Rage 4’ and even a remake of ‘Battle Toads’ in recent months and it has been quite frankly brilliant. Now we have another game that borrows a lot from those old school games with an element of fresh ideas but keeping the focus on that classic style of side scrolling beat-em-ups as new contender ‘9 Monkeys of Shaolin’ steps up to the plate.
It was thanks to the Summer Games Fest demo event on Xbox, that I first came across 9 Monkeys of Shaolin by Sobaka Studio and it ticked a lot of boxes for me. Visually the game is just stunning with flowing animation both in and out of combat taking you to beautiful environments from bamboo forests to mountain areas and village backdrops. It has such a lovely more feature animation style that it would not looks strange as an animated show on a streaming service. I love how the story boards drive the narrative between the levels, this game just presents a world that is lovely to be in.
That would of course, features our main hero, Wei Cheing, who is a humble Chinese fisherman who has been trained with enough fighting skills to defend his village from bandits. This is a fighting style handed down throughout his family and has been enough to keep the village safe for generations. However now a more formidable force has invaded and those Wei Cheing is able to use his staff technique to see off the standard attackers but in trying to save his Grandfather, Wei Cheing is easily put down by the masked leader of the invaders and left for dead. Found by some Warrior Shaolin Monks, he is taken to their temple to heal where they take him in and help refine his skills in order for him to take the fight back to the invaders.
The combat is a very nice yet deceptively simply system with a standard strike of the staff with Y to a thrusting move with B. You can doge with A and perform a vaulting kick attack with X and all can be combined together to put together visually impressive fighting combos. Each move is capable of doing damage but with some more designed for enemy types such as the staff thrust being able to stagger armoured enemies and the vault kick able to cut the distance between ranged enemies. I describe it as deceptive in that you can either stick to basic attacks or create your own combo fighting style throughout and once you master the parry system, you will genuinely feel like a badass especially once the Shaolin technique of boosting your attacks with your Qi adds another level to the fighting.
The story itself is split into acts and Wei Cheing is sent on missions for the Shaolin Monks to both aid in fighting back these invaders but also in protecting other Monks out there in the fighting. The levels are simply a move through this section beating up everyone and making it to the end with some having the objective of having to reach a certain character in order to save them before their health runs out to reaching a boss fight. Often completing the mission will give you a reward such as a better staff-based weapon or accessories, each with their own stats and can buff abilities if equipped allowing the player to help make a build for their preferred playing style. All levels can also be replayed as well which is a very nice touch as the skill tree, which improves and opens up more bonuses to moves for Wei Cheing are accessed by using the experience “cogs” from completing a mission and applying them to a section of the skill tree in a rather Borderlands 3 style of levelling up.
I do wish that completing a level would have more fanfare than they currently do with simply completing the final objective or reaching a point can end the mission which snaps you out to a completion screen even if you were in the middle of taken on a number of enemies and can leave a rather unsatisfying feeling to the success of completing it. There is also quite a sharp difficulty spike once you reach the third act as the style of “large groups of enemies attacking you” means you will need to respond faster than I felt the input system could really handle which can leave you taking cheap hits or being smacked out of a combo which again, is unsatisfying but sadly frustrating when it does not need to be forcing you to readjust again to it all. Boss fights have this aspect as well and you can find yourself getting your butt kicked simply because your playstyle needs to sharply meet this new overpowered threat.
A saving grace is the co-op mode which can be online or local and means a friend can join you and should you or they fall during the level, the other can revive them which removes the “complete or fail” style of solo play. I found the co-op system very much suited the crowd of enemy style of the levels and was very fun to team up with a friend to take on the more challenging missions later in the game. A lot of what makes the game so fun to play is the simplicity and very old school feel to it which is deliberate and it does not try to reinvent the wheel but use those classic systems in this way to tell a very lovely story in a beautiful setting.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a fantastic example of the side scrolling beat-em-up style of gaming and is great fun despite the niggles I had with it at times. Just as I did with the game I grew up with, I was lost it the combat and smacking enemies about as I tried to complete the levels and really like the skill tree with RPG element that enabled me to level up skills and moves according to what I felt my play style needed. Getting to share it with a friend in co-op was enjoyable as well and worked really well even with a story focused completely on Wei Cheing. The voice cast is really good and the musical score just compliments so well with a fantastic visual style.
Whilst not on the same level of Streets of Rage 4, I did enjoy this more than the over frustration focused Battle Toads. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin fits very nicely into a genre but it definitely could do with some quality of life improvements to fine tune more than fix some of the niggles I feel it has.