Title: 9 Monkeys of Shaolin
Developer: Sobaka Studio
Release Date: October 16, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: Koch Media
Genre: Beat em' up
We’ve seen the beat ’em up formula time and time again. Systems that revolve around clearing an area of enemies to progress can make it difficult for developers to find ways to set their game apart from the competition. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin uses eastern culture and kung-fu tropes to give it a sense of uniqueness, but it ultimately fails to grab players’ attention.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin takes place in China in the 1500s. Players are introduced to Wei Cheng, whose friends and family is killed during a pirate raid of his village. So like any good revenge story, he sets out on a quest for vengeance. Training under a group of legendary Shaolin monks, Wei must master the art of combat and properly channel his Qi to stop his enemies from taking any more innocent life.
The first thing that stands out about 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is it’s aesthetic. The game perfectly recreates the feel of a kung-fu movie from the 70s in its music, visuals, and story. If you were to take any of the greatest kung-fu films of that era and turn them into a game, you’d get 9 Monkeys of Shaolin.
However, an issue with this is that most of these movies follow generic pacing, which is fine because you don’t watch a kung-fu movie for its deep plot; you watch it for its action. The same holds true for 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. It’s hard to get invested in the game’s plot when there’s just so little there, but, like the Kung-fu films of old, one never really plays a beat em’ up for its story anyway.
On the bright side, the entirety of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is voice acted, which is something I don’t usually expect with smaller, indie titles. Each of the voice actors does a fantastic job, helping to capture that 70s kung-fu feel.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin features 25 different stages that all look great. You never really know where each new level will take you; some stages are grassy bamboo forests, some are in the middle of villages, and others are in caves or on piers. No matter where 9 Monkeys of Shaolin took me, I was always pleased with how nice everything looked.
When I say 9 Monkeys of Shaolin looks good, I refer only to the environments and stages. One look at the character models will reveal that this game has some pretty rough designs.
While I appreciate that they didn’t go for the cliché pixel-art style that so many of these games tend to have, the weird 2.5D approach just doesn’t work. The game looks slightly better when playing in handheld mode on Switch but, when blown up on a TV, all of its blurry textures are impossible to miss.
A beat em’ up’s quality is entirely dependent on its gameplay. Some of the greatest titles in recent memory, such as River City Girls and Streets of Rage 4, have engaging, “easy to learn but hard to master” gameplay systems. While 9 Monkeys of Shaolin may be easy to learn, it lacks the depth that its contemporaries have brought to the genre, leaving many fights feeling shallow and unrewarding.
Combat in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is relatively straight forward. Wei Chung uses his trusty staff to dole out three main attacks: kicks, strikes, and thrusts. By chaining these three basic attacks together, players can swiftly take down their enemies. As players progress through the game, they will also unlock several Qi related attacks that can help deal with crowd control and help bring down tougher enemies.
No, the combat isn’t the worst I’ve ever played, but it can be painfully slow. Wei Chung walks at a depressingly slow rate, and even his attacks seem to have a weighty animation. With almost every enemy being able to withstand your attacks long enough to get an attack out on you, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin quickly becomes a tedious game.
Getting two or three hits in on an enemy before being forced to counter, then repeating the same process over and over again, is just about as fun as it sounds (spoiler alert: it isn’t).
As previously mentioned, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin features an upgrade system that allows each player to funnel points unlocked at the end of each level into different skill trees. Each type of attack has its own skill tree, with new trees being unlocked as you unlock more moves.
This sounds fine in concept, but the execution could have used a little work. First of all, none of the skills you gain from these trees have any sort of tangible feel. Almost all of them are simple stat boosts, though, seeing how the enemies you fight get stronger as you upgrade yourself, I never really felt any improvement. With an upgrade system that feels so lackluster and bare-bones, why even have one at all?
Though 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a faithful recreation of 70s kung-fu films, it doesn’t contain the same fun factor that its influences provide. There are some aspects that fans of beat em’ ups may enjoy, but it definitely doesn’t move the genre in any unique direction.
With a lackluster story, slow gameplay, and dated graphics, perhaps 9 Monkeys of Shaolin should have trained with the Shaolin monks a little bit longer before it was released.
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