You can make the correlation between the beat-’em-up genre and old kung fu action films. There are stories, but they’re either interchangeable or forgettable to the point that describing one of them describes a lot of them. The same goes for the characters, who are often better described by general traits rather than as distinct people. None of these matter, as the real appeal is in the action and seeing hordes of enemies fall from your flashy acrobatic combos. Most beat-’em-ups go for a modern or high fantasy backdrop. That’s what helps 9 Monkeys of Shaolin stand out, as it takes things back to ancient China, although the game sometimes stumbles.
Set in the 16th century at the end of brutal war, you play the role of Wei Cheng, a simple fisherman living in a village that has been raided by pirates. Despite his best efforts, the village burned, and he was left for dead. He was later saved from death by a group of monks, and while he vowed revenge for the destruction of his town and family, he and the monks later uncover a much bigger plot.
For the most part, the game plays exactly how you’d expect for the genre. Levels have you moving from left to right, stopping occasionally so you can beat up groups of enemies before moving on. You start off with the ability to dodge attacks, which also hit foes. With your trusty staff, you can deliver quick attacks and pokes, and you can vault forward into a flying kick. Boxes and barrels can also be destroyed to uncover helpful items, such as green tea to restore a bit of health. You can also parry enemy attacks, which can leave them open for counter-attack in a short window of time or, in the case of riflemen and blowgun wielders, send the projectile back at them.
It doesn’t take long to deepen your arsenal and abilities. After a few missions, you unlock a Qi bar that can be used to deliver more powerful moves, such as an overhead smash, a twirl that hits everyone around you, and an uppercut to send enemies airborne. Later on, you gain Qi powers that bring enemies toward you or briefly suspends people in the vicinity in mid-air. Different teas can be obtained to heighten your attacks, grant extra defense for a few seconds, and render your Qi bar infinite for a while. Some missions give you items to boost inherent stats or endow you with new abilities, like enabling fire damage or dashing through enemies. More valuable are the experience points gained at the end of each mission, which let you power up your moves and enable passive abilities, such as breaking armor and replenishing Qi faster.
You get to do this throughout four different chapters, each one broken up by several stages. Unlike most beat-’em-ups, there are a few places where you can choose which stage you want to tackle first. Each stage goes for very different environments, from bamboo forests to ornate mansions, and while the core mechanics remain the same throughout the five-hour journey, the game throws in some variations. For example, some stages present a timer that encourages you to reach the end quickly, though that’s mostly an illusion since you have to play poorly to see that timer expire. Another stage has you trying to go up levels in a tall building to find trapped people, and a few stages have you explore to find keys for locked doors and levers for simple machines. Stages that end with boss fights are rare, so most will abruptly end when your character says something.
Once you learn to read the tells and timing for each enemy attack, the combat becomes smooth enough to where you can hit lots of enemies at a time and make each scenario look like a polished kung fu movie. There are a few fights that are a pain to deal with, and they involve some of the early boss encounters. The first has you fighting against a large foe that regenerates health, and while bobbing and weaving seems like a smart choice, you’re better off mindlessly whaling away to prevent his health regeneration. The second irksome boss fight occurs against a pirate with a devastating dash attack, but her crewmates constantly throw bombs on the field. Deflect them back seems futile if you’re near the ship, since the explosion hurts you more, and the smoke hides the enemy’s tell for attacking. Combat becomes easier, especially once you obtain the right equipment and take time to make yourself more formidable. It also helps that you get infinite continues, and continuing doesn’t force you to replay the whole stage.
There isn’t much to 9 Monkeys of Shaolin beyond the campaign, but the developers found ways to add replay value. For example, almost every level contains a secret pick-up that unlocks fun things, like painting the game with various filters or giving enemies big bodies and no heads. Every level can be played solo or in co-op, locally or online. While we couldn’t find anyone online to check out the performance, local co-op works as intended. There are online leaderboards for each level and for those who want the high score experience, but hackers with impossible scores make this effort futile. Finally, New Game Plus is present for those who want to try the game at a much harder level but with beefed-up characters.
The presentation can range from good to decent, depending on what you’re looking at. The environments look lush and detailed, considering the camera’s zoom isn’t too close. The characters lack detail, but they’re well animated with some decent effects, and it’s all wrapped up in a butter-smooth frame rate. Meanwhile, the voice acting is good, even though there’s no Chinese option to make the package sound more authentic, while the music keeps the action vibe going and mixes in traditional Chinese instruments.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a solid package. The story and characters are forgettable, but the action is excellent once you get over a few annoying fights and power up. The game comes in at a decent length, and the presentation is good with a few incentives thrown in to make you want to attempt another run at the campaign to unlock everything. Genre fans may be spoiled with the number of games that have come out over the past few years, and 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is another good title to add to the backlog.