Beat ‘em up games aren’t a new concept by any means. They’ve been around since the 80s – the first being Kung-Fu Master in 1984, but the genre really gained traction with hits like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. Almost 40 years later, there is no shortage of beat ‘em ups, both new and old, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more. That’s the great thing about beat ‘em ups – they’re versatile and work with just about any setting. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, developed by Sobaka Studio, is an example of this. Set within Medieval China, it follows the story of a pole-wielding Chinese fisherman named Wei Cheng. After a violent pirate raid on his village leaves him the sole survivor, he is rescued by a group of Shaolin monks. Determined to avenge his family and friends, Wei Cheng teams up with the monks to hunt down those who are responsible.
The first thing I want to talk about in this review is the graphics because, visually, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a beautiful game. Most of the story is told through artwork accompanied by a voice over – recently, I’ve been playing a lot of games where speech is purely text-based, so it was nice to find this game is fully voiced in a number of languages. It is absolutely stunning, clearly inspired by traditional Chinese artwork, and the gameplay visuals are no less impressive. While the characters themselves are somewhat simplistic and appear almost blurred, the background is something else entirely. It’s bright, fresh and has a surprising amount of depth. Beat ‘em ups are somewhat limited thanks to the side-scrolling nature many of them have, but a combination of textures and layers make this depth possible. It’s nice to look at, even if you can’t explore it. What struck me the most though was how each level looks vastly different from the last. This goes a long way towards ensuring the game doesn’t get stale, both in terms of colour and overall design, which makes you almost forget that the actual level structure is mostly the same – a linear environment where you can only proceed forwards or backwards.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is structured through chapters, each of which contains a handful of missions that move the storyline along. The missions themselves are relatively short, only really taking between 5 to 10 minutes. The storyline isn’t so much weaved into the missions as it is summarised afterwards. Outside of the backgrounds, however, the missions have little to distinguish each one from the next. Very few of the enemies you encounter are anything more than henchmen whose only advantage is the sheer volume of which they come at you at certain points in the game. Admittedly, I was playing on easy for some of my playthrough – something that I didn’t realise at first as the game never gave me the option to choose my difficulty. It wasn’t until I was exploring the in-game settings that I stumbled across the difficulty settings. Still, it would have been nice to have a few more boss fights.
The combat was enjoyable. It was simple to grasp and flowed in such a smooth way that it was almost reminiscent of that of the Batman Arkham games. Despite its simplicity, the combat didn’t get boring – there was variation in the form of three unique fighting styles. Earth is your basic on-the-ground jabs and kicks and whatnot. At the start of the game, this is what Wei Cheng is restricted to, but as he transforms from simple fisherman to Shaolin monk and becomes privy to their secrets, he learns two other forms: Air and magic seals. These three styles can be used in conjunction with one another as long as you have enough Qi (basically MP) to use the latter two. Your Qi gauge refills quickly though, so you don’t have to use these moves sparingly. It is incredibly satisfying to string all these fighting styles together and watch your combo counter climb.
You can play with a friend too, if that’s your thing, and battle your way through hordes of enemies together.
There is an aspect of RPG-style levelling up too. Through completing missions, the player earns experience points that can be spent on upgrading these fighting forms. This, along with searching for the secrets hidden within levels, gives some incentive to replay levels. Missions also often yield new weapons and accessories. The game can definitely be completed with Wei Cheng’s starting gear, but there were two I found to be particularly useful – a necklace that increases your overall Qi and a pole that not only recovers Qi quickly but also makes ghosts corporal at all times so they’re able to be defeated.
The only problem I really encountered was with the controls. Dodging and jumping are treated as the same thing. There’s no separate button, and as you can imagine, this made progression a little difficult at times. There weren’t many occasions where I needed to jump to cross gaps, but the few times I did, I struggled. I found that dodging didn’t give me the height I needed to effectively cross these gaps. I came across a few other minor glitches, like a floating plank and an enemy I was able to hit through a wall, but for the most part, the game ran pretty smoothly.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a beautifully designed game and a refreshing take on the beat ‘em up genre. The combat was enjoyable, and the additional fighting styles provide a nice amount of variation outside of the standard punch and kicks you’d expect from a beat ‘em up. I mentioned before that the lack of a jump button made crossing gaps a little frustrating. I lost count of the number of times I fell into nothingness while attempting to dodge my way across a gap. The game is also a little too short for my liking. It can easily be played through in around five hours, and while this was a little disappointing, it was enough time for the game to reach a relatively satisfying conclusion to the storyline, even if it was a little anticlimactic.
Overall, while the storyline could have definitely been fleshed out a little more, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is still a fairly solid beat ‘em up with great combat and a co-op feature that allows your friends to join you in battle.
Developer: Sobaka Studio
Publisher: Koch Media
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 16th October 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin was provided by the publisher.