There has been no shortage of “old school beat ’em up” games over the years. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin takes the popular genre and builds upon polished combat mechanics with a compelling storyline, weapon and accessory powerups, and unlockable secrets and cheats just like we had back in the day.
My time with the game made it hard to write this review; I wanted to just spend my time diving back into the world of 16th century China, saving villagers from burning villages or sabotaging pirate ships. From the skill tree to hunting out secrets to the unique combat system, I loved every bit of this title, and now I’m going to tell you why.
STORY – BESIEGED
The game places you in the role of Wei Cheng, a “simple Chinese fisherman” during the Year of the Water Monkey, 1572. An orphan from a young age and raised by his grandfather, Wei Cheng learned how to become both the art of fishing and staff fighting. At the outset of the story, Wei Cheng finds his village under attack by Japanese pirates and sees his grandfather killed.
He is injured while trying to intervene and is taken in by Buddhist monks who heal his wounds and further explain the situation. The pirates were the Wokou, and the seven monks have been sent from Shaolin along with a smuggler to protect the villages and monasteries. Wei Cheng offers to join and help, becoming the “ninth monkey.”
The story mixes reality and fantasy, meeting in the middle in the Chinese fantasy genre of Wuxia. Based on the real history of pirate raids in the 16th century with an accurate look at the lives and homes of the Chinese people of the time, the story becomes increasingly fantastic as you progress. We’ll dive more into the different abilities in the gameplay section below, but the game is a slow burn that takes its time in granting supernatural abilities and incorporating fictional plot points.
I enjoyed the storyline, and the game is fully voice acted. Wei Cheng is voiced by Daisuke Tsuji, who this year was also the voice and face of Jin Sakai in Ghost of Tsushima. Tsuji does a masterful job of conveying the role, and seeing the banter between the not-so-straight laced monks was entertaining to watch with every cutscene.
GAMEPLAY – A SMALL BEHEADING
The meat of 9 Monkeys is played as a beat ‘em up in the classic vein of Streets of Rage or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade titles. Players control Wei Cheng and travel from left to right through different levels, fighting enemies with a staff, using different abilities and fighting styles. Enemies have different weapons and armor, requiring various attacks to defeat, and each area has elements of a destructible environment that allow you to find power-ups.
It’s easy to get caught and tripped up by a handful of armored enemies, so you need to constantly be on the move, dodging their powerful attacks and attacking from a distance to stagger them off of their feet. Ranged enemies will appear in the back of the stage and at the edges of the screen, requiring you to parry projectiles, and later on, some enemies will even be on suicide missions, running in close and exploding themselves with fireworks and gunpowder.
I grew up playing a lot of TMNT games, the first GameCube entry sucking up most of my time as a kid. 9 Monkeys absolutely brought me back to that feeling of satisfaction I had while playing through that game when I was 12. Every level I completed felt satisfying, and aside from the slight learning curve when it came to using different abilities, everything felt comfortable and natural to execute.
Combat is frenetic, and thankfully the stages provide enough room, so you don’t get caught or stuck in a corner. There’s enough space to get around or through a pack of pirates, and there are several side areas that you can sneak down to find a stack of crates filled with health and Qi potions (displayed in-game as different flavored tea).
There is a part of the gameplay that, at first, I found extra and unnecessary. I was happy just smacking bad guys around with a stick, but as the game drew me in, I started being offered more and more control and variety over my combat style. This was initially a bit confusing because it meant I had essentially three control layouts to remember, but there’s enough practice time available to master it all.
Qi is built up as you perform successful strikes and is used to execute moves in different positional stands. At the beginning of the game, only the basic stand is available. This is your default method of attack, and as the game continues, you unlock the acrobatic stand and the magic stand, and each offers different abilities with the push of a trigger button. Every move is upgradeable through a decent-sized skill tree, which adds a layer of strategy and progress to the overall game.
Finally, something I want to mention for this section is the discoverable secrets. As you progress through the world, you will, at times, find tiny golden monk figures, which unlock optional cheats you can enable back at your base. These provide changes such as playing with a boss’s appearance, big head mode, tiny head mode, or increasing the look of combat effects. These were so much fun to collect, and I loved the old school style of acquiring different cheats. There are some gameplay changes you can acquire this way as well, but I’ll let you figure those out.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – NINE LIVES
9 Monkeys is based on the style of the 1970s kung fu movies, which is evident from the cinematic presentation and the art style. I specifically got a lot of Kung Fu (the TV series) vibes, which is why each section of this review is titled after episode titles. The setting, the voice acting, and the graphics culminate in a wonderful package that I loved to look at.
The level design is gorgeous. From small, straight-forward villages to tall grass, swamps to a Hakka walled village, each level was a unique presentation and had different aspects that I enjoyed. At times, I noticed that the hitboxes of some walls were a little off, resulting in the ability to run into a corner or wall, but I never got stuck. Tiny visual bugs like this didn’t happen very often and weren’t something that particularly bothered me, especially since I didn’t spend much time running into walls.
Something else I found really nice was that each item you could unlock (staff, shoes, necklaces) went beyond granting stat changes and also changed cosmetically, allowing for different looks with each item I equipped. After the end of every chapter, the mask of the boss you just defeated also becomes available to wear, meaning players can run through the game with some pretty excellent looks.
Enemy styles are extremely consistent, with only around six different types of enemies. This means you see a lot of the same ones, which can be repetitive. I think some more variety would be welcome, but I understand there are only so many enemy types you can include. Things can already get pretty frenetic as is; I’m not sure adding more enemy types to the main game would be beneficial.
I’ve mentioned the voice work as a shining example of what makes this game work, but the sound effects and soundtrack are also fantastically done. The background music is full of intense drum beats and doesn’t crescendo too much to become overpowering or distracting. It just underscores the action really nicely and helps guide the momentum. But beyond the music, the level sounds fit perfectly with the setting. There’s nothing quite like the thwack of a staff that sends an enemy flying, and the ambient noise of the rain, while you’re moving the tall grass, fits the mood exactly.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin was reviewed on Xbox One. A key was provided by Dead Good PR.