9 Monkeys of Shaolin Review
Whatever happened to the brawler genre? One day, every game was a brawler, and the next it was gone. It had become retro, with new content consigned to stylised sequels like the incredible Streets of Rage 4. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is an attempt to bring those old titles back in something feeling a little fresher – and it mostly succeeds.
But not just that. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a perfect combination of genre and theme, bringing back kung-fu for those that have forgotten it as well.
What you’re left with is an original but still nostalgic package that is well worth your time.
You killed my (grand)father, prepare to die
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a story of revenge. Your grandfather is mercilessly killed and across five chapters you must avenge his death. You do this by kicking, chopping and whacking like it’s going out of style.
The beauty of the brawler genre was always that it was very simple to pick up but notoriously difficult to master. This is true here. There are moments when you feel like you’re playing Dynasty Warriors. Every enemy falls before you in a single tap.
Then there are times that feel more like Demon Souls. No matter how many times you kick or whack, the other guy can do it better.
If that sounds uneven, it’s because it occasionally is. By and large it’s not an issue. Some levels harder than others, btu the rewards balance it out, and it feels satisfying to finally complete a level.
As well as your three basic attacks (and a dash/dodge button, genre fans will be happy to hear), you also unlock other powers that use your qi. These either make you pack more of a punch, make you do a special move or have a passive impact on enemies. It’s a good variety of techniques which offer you answers for any kind of enemy.
The controls are a little confusing to work out, especially when you’re facing a screen full of enemies, but with practice everything quickly begins to make sense.
After being nearly killed when your village is invaded, you are saved by a team of the most sarcastic monks ever put to screen.
Over the course of the game, they offer you new techniques, assistance with your equipment and the chance to level up your techniques. There’s a lot of customisation here, and there’s plenty you can do to boost your playstyle.
The dialogue is sometimes painful. That might be down to bad writing or it might be a throwback to the kind of kung-fu films that so obviously influenced this game. Pick your poison. Overall though, it’s funny and the story, while not the highlight of the game, is enough to tie together levels.
You pick and choose stages in a kind of Nioh-influenced level select, picking locations on the map to visit and clearing them out when you arrive. As said above, some are easier than others, and you’ll get more experience for working on the tougher options. Experience means you can level up every move, unlocking enhancements as you go.
Don’t worry if you’re struggling though – like all good brawlers, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is best played in couch co-op with a friend. As proved with Battletoads and Streets of Rage 4, the best multiplayer is still totally when you play actually alongside someone. My wife and I have had more than a few laughs getting through 9 Monkeys of Shaolin – although not always when we were supposed to.
Watch out for that… hole
9 Monkeys of Shaolin, overall, is a great experience, but it lacks some polish. Sometimes the bodies of enemies writh on the floor like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, bashing and smashing despite being dead. That used to be a pretty common glitch in games of all kinds not that long ago, so I guess it’s fitting that it’s present and correct in a throwback title such as this.
And if that was it, it would barely be worth mentioning. But it’s not – we’ve had to restart levels more than once because something has glitched on us. Menus, at the base level, have refused to close, leaving us to navigate to the next level using 10 per cent of the screen.
You use the dash button to get over gaps in the environment, although sometimes the gaps are slightly too long. There are places that have taken us 10-15 times to get over because the dash has become caught on some random part of the environment. Double that, because when there’s two playing, there’s double the trouble.
At one point, a level just stopped progressing, forcing us into a restart.
And while as a whole these glitchs were relatively common, they were in no way gamebreaking. I didn’t feel frustrated or annoyed by them, probably because levels are so perfectly short in the first place. It’s an indie effort, and I think overall there’s nothing wrong with how it’s ended up.
Graphics and sound
Visually, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin could have gone one of two ways. It could have gone all pixel-y, and people would have eaten that up, or they could have done something a bit more modern. I’m glad they chose the latter.
This is a nice looking game, especially in motion. It’s not going to be the tour de force you use to show off your PS5 next month, but it doesn’t need to be.
There are a few physics issues where hands go through walls and the likes, but overall it’s quite a pleasant looking title.
Sound is passable, and the voice acting is often quite good. All in all, a decently put together game.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin – Conclusion
You can’t go wrong with a bit of kung-fu. And you definitely can’t go wrong with local multiplayer. And you can’t go far wrong with a brawler either.
Here’s the thing: every bit of this game represents a starved, almost nostalgic ideal. It’s not trying to fit neatly into exactly what’s popular today. Well done to the developers for that. They have made a game that’s fun and original.
It’s not perfect, but doesn’t need to be. Golden Axe wasn’t perfect either, and while this isn’t at that level, it’s a great start.
Fingers crossed this gets the support it deserves and allows for a spiritual successor. It’s been a great year for brawler fans, and with 9 Monkeys of Shaolin it gets even better.