Reviewed for the Xbox One.
Simply watching the trailer for 9 Monkeys of Shaolin peaked my interest greatly. At face value, the game looks like your typical action ‘beat-’em-up-button-masher’ game, but there is plenty to master within the games controls. The genre and specific game style will pull many people in, but will the unique game play mechanics keep them interested? Read on in my 9 Monkeys of Shaolin review to find out!
Story and Gameplay
The game starts out with a little history lesson. A group of invading pirates attacked villages in the surrounding region within the last 10 years. Our protagonist Wei Cheng lost his parents in one of them. A local group of Monks protected and defended the villages to their best ability until the pirates were gone. Times were peaceful again for several years…
Fast forward to present time, and the pirates are attacking again. Wei Cheng is now an adult as raised by his grandfather. Setting off to save his grandfather from the attackers, players learn the basic mechanics of the game; kick, slash, thrust, dodge. At the end of what is essentially a tutorial, Wei Cheng battles to defend his grandfather, but ultimately falls. Enter the previously mentioned Monks to save him from the burning rubble.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin framing the tutorial within the story certainly adds a bit of value over your standard training mode. The moves learned early on are all mapped to the four core A/B/X/Y buttons. While simplistic, this makes for an easy learning curve to start. You also learn to parry attacks early which is helpful, especially for long-range enemies.
The gameplay consists of a series of levels set through different seasons in the year 1572. Typically you find three to six different levels per stage/time period, each stage ending with a boss. Each level has a very different art design (more on that later) as well as different elemental and physical “AI assistance.” What I mean by that is many levels feature buzz saws rolling through the floor or fire blowing out from the walls intermittently. This presents an interesting challenge, forcing you to watch not only the enemies you are battling but the environment around you too.
Don’t worry too much about taking damage though. Health regenerates primarily through drinking green tea (one of four tea options), and is plentiful throughout the levels. Additionally, through level progression you unlock perks in the form of different weapons, shoes, and necklaces. I thought this fit the story well as they are presented as sacred artifacts to the player. You can only have one of each at a time, so it definitely took some self-negotiation on what was most important. For example one weapon offered improved resistance to damage while another presented the ability to move quicker.
The story expands much further as you learn about the attacking pirates, their motives, and the Monks themselves. However, complex dialogue and history lowers your comprehension, and it’s often hard keeping straight who is who. What doesn’t get lost though is the expanding arsenal of moves that Wei Cheng learns throughout the game.
Qi, Southern Elements, & Ground Seals
I noticed the enemies grew tougher the longer I played 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. Thus, it is essential to learn new skills along the way. The first skill learned is the power of Qi. This essentially boils down to powered-up base attacks initiated by holding the buttons down longer. For instance holding down Y now does a helicopter attack with your staff. The other two attacks (kick and thrust) are also more powerful when utilizing Qi, and all three can be upgraded trough a skill tree.
The skill tree component is fairly simplistic and allows players to target which moves to improve first. You earn what I call “tokens” by beating each level. You then spend tokens on improving your skills in a skill tree. One aspect I thought could use improvement is being able to modify the skill tree selections. I built up one skill to find out I didn’t really like using it but could not adjust my “tokens” to another skill. In the end it doesn’t matter as you earn enough to max out everything.
Wei Cheng learns the Southern Elements skill next, which is essentially just a more powerful version of Qi. The kick upgrade is pretty awesome though, in that you kick enemies into the air then perform rapid kicks while they are airborne. Finally, Wei Cheng learns ground seals which are drastically different than the other skills. The most helpful of which knocks all nearby enemies into the air and renders them useless for a few seconds.
I found these different variations of skills fun and rewarding once I learned how to combo them together. One move alone will not be enough, regardless of how powerful it is. Having multiple enemies attacking you from all directions requires you to constantly be on the move. One upgrade item particularly helpful is a pair of boots, which allowed me to dash through enemies unharmed versus just dodging around them.
I mentioned using green tea for healing, but the other three types of tea are also very useful, albeit less frequently available. Red tea increases damage for five seconds, white tea increases defenses, and yellow tea charges your Qi powers to unlimited for the same time. It’s important to note, you fill your “Qi meter” through non-special moves. So mixing the right strategy of regular attacks with Qi is critical. I thought this blend provided a great balance of not feeling overpowered with that relief of filling up the meter just in time.
Visuals, Sounds, and Controls
At first glance, the visuals in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin do not overwhelm you. But once you accept the fact it’s not trying to be stunning, you start noticing some finer details. In particular I was impressed by the color palettes and changing seasons. Set in Asia in the 1500’s, the developers really immerse you in the culture through the bright flowers, changing leaves, and varied sun levels throughout.
In addition to the colorful environments, not many of the levels are similar from a visual perspective. Given there are several dozen levels, this provides a wide range of playable environments. From a pirate ship, to a jail, to a beautiful estate with koi ponds, this game has a lot to take in.
The sounds design plays a similar role in immersion too. Often, the background is the ambient sounds of nature and tranquil “Asian-inspired” music. But when the battles get tough, the music changes with it to heavy hitting drums and more intense music. One pretty big flaw though is the voice acting. Voiced with English-speaking actors, the immersion loses luster here. And even if that doesn’t bother you, the quality of the voice actors is pretty low. It honestly sounds like someone just picked up the script for the first time.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin controls fairly well. As mentioned, the core moves are mapped to the right side of the controller, with the triggers utilized in unison to perform Ground Seals and Southern Elements. It’s pretty intuitive to learn, but often I found myself using the wrong trigger and depleting my Qi for the wrong move. Additionally, it’s too easy to use a specific move three times quickly as there is no delay between moves. Some might find this beneficial, but to me it was a slight annoyance.
Co-op and Multiplayer
My time spent playing for the review of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin was primarily a single player affair. However, I did try the local co-op mode a bit and it certainly has potential for some fun with friends. Two players can join up to run through the levels locally. Also, once the single player campaign is completed, a second player can upgrade their skill tree to the max instantly. There is an online component where you can pair with one other player, but unfortunately I could not find a match. Outside of the campaign levels there did not appear to be any other modes.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a pleasant experience overall, and is a unique approach to the standard beat-’em-up game type. With a variety of moves you can string into combos, there is plenty of fun to be had. The story itself is not the most exciting, but the art and sound draw players in to make them feel part of 16th century Asia. With the option of local or online multiplayer, this game has fair replay value. If you are looking for a fun, rewarding, and quick experience (I beat the game in under 5 hours), I definitely recommend checking this game out!
Interested in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin? There is a free demo available, or you can purchase directly in the Microsoft Store for $29.99. Let us know what you think over on the Generation Xbox forum and as always check our reviews often for the latest games we are playing!