Review – 9 Monkeys of Shaolin
This has been a fantastic year for beat ’em ups so far. Between the release of Streets of Rage 4 and The TakeOver, as well as the fact that the brand new Battletoads game ended up not sucking, players have been spoiled with a wide variety of arcade brawlers to choose from. One thing that all these titles have in common, however, is that they’re set in a somewhat modern world. Sobaka’s brand new entry in the genre, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, is here to offer something a bit different. What about playing an arcade beat ’em up set in 16th century China? I’m game.
Beat ’em ups aren’t exactly the kind of game that features a lot of storytelling, but 9 Monkeys of Shaolin takes a different path. You’re presented with an impressive amount of (still) cutscenes before you start a new game, as well as in between levels. You play as Wei Feng, a fisherman who has recently lost his grandfather, as well as family and friends, to a Japanese pirate ambush. After being left for dead, he is rescued by Shaolin monks. Wei Feng soon allies with the monks in order to save his kingdom for the clutches of the evil Japanese clans that have since invaded his peaceful land.
We get a lot of games set in China, but almost all of them are set in the same era: the Three Kingdoms period of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Romance of The Three Kingdoms, Total War, and Dynasty Warriors are all set in this particular period. That’s not the case with 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, which is set in a more modern Chinese setting, with the Japanese as the villains. After playing countless games in which you, the Japanese hero, have to defend your land against the evil Chinese or Mongolian empires (looking at you, Ghost of Tsushima), it’s nice to play something a bit different for a change. That being said, this is a beat ’em up, and a plot is not the main focus. What really matters is if the game is fun to play or not. Thankfully, it is.
The gameplay might actually be the best thing about 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. It’s not excessively fast-paced, but it always manages to maintain a rock-solid framerate. It’s not overly complex, but it features a neat combat system with different attacks you can perform, and lots of combos to pull off. Your character has a staff at his disposal, meaning that he can perform long-range attacks coupled with close-quarter bashes and flying kicks straight out of a wuxia movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It feels great. The collision detection might be wonky at times, but it works quite well. You can link these attacks and kicks with rolling dodges and parrying techniques, in which you can even deflect poison darts by spinning your staff around. When it comes to providing a spectacle, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin delivers. Sadly, not in a pretty way.
Simply put, this game’s presentation is ugly. I’ve already talked about how great the framerate is, but the game itself does not feature decent graphics. Everything looks very dated. Character models are simplistic, looking like something you would expect from a PS2 game. Plus the environments, while varied and faithful to the time period, lack detail. There is a silver lining, however. The game does feature some impressive lighting effects, which occasionally stand out in an odd way, given how janky the rest of the graphical department is.
The sound department is best described as a mixed bag. The soundtrack itself is passable. It features what you would expect from a game like this: some modern beats mixed with traditional Chinese instruments. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it gets the job done. The voice acting isn’t very good, however. It depends on the performance: Wei Feng’s voice actor delivers a decent job, while other characters, such as some of the Shaolin monks, make you feel grateful for the inclusion of a mute button on your TV’s remote.
It might not exactly be the most visually appealing nor polished game out there, but let’s face it, a martial arts-infused beat ’em up set in medieval China will always be intriguing. Thankfully, even though 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is far from perfect, it features a great combat system that just makes you want to play it more and more. There’s no shortage of great beat ’em ups these days, but if you’re into kung fu movies and Chinese epics, give 9 Monkeys of Shaolin a shot.
It looks very dated, with simplistic character models and backgrounds, but the lighting effects are quite good, and the game runs at a rock-solid framerate.
A simple, yet intuitive combat system that allows for experimentation, with different combos and moves you can pull off. There is a very simple progression system included in here that spices things up a little bit. The aforementioned great framerate is also a plus.
The soundtrack is passable for the setting: modern beats mixed with some classic Chinese instruments. The voice acting is a mixed bag. It ranges from “okay” to “cringeworthy”, depending on the character.
Fun Factor: 7.5
Despite the cheap production values, it’s a fairly entertaining beat ’em up. The neat combat mechanics and irresistible setting more than make up for the poor visuals and occasional jank. It also has co-op, both local and online.
Final Verdict: 7.0
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Switch.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin was provided by the publisher.