9 Monkeys of Shaolin
Developer: Sobaka Studio
Genre: Action, Adventure, Beat’em up, Brawler
Platform: Xbox One
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 16/10/2020
A code was provided for review purposes.
I have a keen interest in martial arts, Chinese and Japanese cultures and of course, beating up videogame baddies. This gives a fairly comprehensive explanation as to why 9 Monkeys of Shaolin appealed to me in the first place. It has all the ingredients to be a hit for gamers with tastes similar to mine. Read on to find out what I made of this beat’em up from Russia based developers, Sobaka Studio.
Monks and Pirates
9 Monkeys of Shaolin begins in 1570s China, in the thick of the action. The fisherman Wei Cheng fights to defend his village as it is attacked by invaders. He sees the grandfather who raised him struck down by a brutal blow and heads into the fight to avenge his death. However, he is not triumphant that day. Instead, he wakes up some time later having been rescued by an order of fighting monks.
Subsequently, Wei Cheng recuperates and is trained by the monks as he thinks of seeking revenge against those who destroyed his village and family. Thus begins a series of missions fighting against the Wokou (described in the game as Japanese pirates) and their leaders. Meanwhile, Wei Cheng follows a path of personal growth.
I enjoyed the plot in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. It’s a storyline that we have seen before but it’s still engaging. It gives the protagonist a motive and it works to drive you forward from mission to mission. The mystical and supernatural elements added breadth to the story. In my opinion, they also created a little more tension in some of the battles.
I wasn’t sure whether the game had any basis on real historical events, so I did a little research. I found out that there were indeed a group of pirates called the Wokou (also written as Wako). The real live Wokou didn’t just limit themselves to attacking China though, they also pillaged coastlines in Japan and Korea. They were active between the 13th and 16th centuries. According to the records I found they also included members from China, Korea and Portugal in their ranks.
The Fist Reigns Supreme
9 Monkeys of Shaolin is split up into five chapters with sub-missions. You have some choice in the order to play the missions as a few are available at once. At the end of each chapter there is a mission which ends in a boss-style battle. At the beginning you can choose your difficulty level from Novice, Warrior, Master and Legend. There was also an option I’ve not seen in a game before: you were able to lower the difficulty setting for a hard part and then put it back up again later on.
Throughout the game, there are three different fighting styles to learn. You begin with the ‘base stance’, progressing to the ‘acrobatic stance’ and finally adding the ‘magic stance’ to your repertoire. In a similar vein to Yakuza Kiwami, you earn upgrade points for completing missions. You can distribute these as skill points for each of the fighting stances you have learned.
Wei Cheng’s abilities are also enhanced by the objects you earn from completing missions. For example: new fighting staffs, shoes and other items with special powers. This constant development of the main character’s capabilities keeps 9 Monkeys of Shaolin from becoming stale. The difficulty level gradually increases, so you must learn to use your new skills in balance with your old ones. When you get into a good flow, moving back and forth between all three styles, it feels delightful.
In addition to upgrade points and new weapons, you can collect secrets as you play though each mission. These provide you with the option to customise some aspects of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. You can also customise your character. Different masks become available to wear as you complete each chapter.
You can go back and replay any of the missions you have already completed. This is useful because you still earn upgrade points for completing the mission (although not as many as the first time). This came in handy for me in the middle of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. I didn’t find the last boss the most difficult, it was in the middle of the game that I found my nemesis. Once I’d replayed a few missions and upgraded my acrobatic skills (I had only upgraded my base stance up to this point) I could progress and completed the rest of the game in one sitting. Perhaps my mistake was not upgrading both fighting stances in the first place.
It’s in the Details
I’m not an expert on frame rates but due the genre that 9 Monkeys of Shaolin falls into, before I give my opinion on how I found this game visually, I think it’s pertinent to know a bit more about my gaming setup. I play on an Xbox One X connected to a 4K HDR TV, with a native refresh rate of 50/60Hz.
In terms of style, I adored the artwork. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin has a kind of pseudo-realistic, watercolour effect infused with a flavour of Chinese and Japanese medieval art styles. I found this particularly evident in the still scenes used on the loading screens and to tell parts of the story between missions. When I began moving through the first level I had a nostalgia pang for Tenchu. Although, this game being a beat’em up, the element of stealth is missing.
So, the game looks great, but what did I think of the fighting? Overall, I found it to be fluid and the controls to be responsive. Once I got into my flow it was a hell of a lot of fun building up combos and using the different fighting styles to smash my way through each mission. I think we have some thanks to give to the Unreal Engine for the mostly smooth gameplay. A couple of times I noticed that during a fight one of the enemies turned a shade of magenta/purple, as if it had regressed to a stage of development before colour was added to the character. This didn’t seem to impact gameplay and was short-lived each time it happened.
The control set-up was user-friendly and I found it easy to remember the different attacks. Between the acrobatic and base stance there was some extension of abilities that already existed so it wasn’t hard to add on the new set of moves. As you advance through 9 Monkeys of Shaolin and the fighting inevitably becomes harder (with both a greater quantity of, and more difficult, enemies) the screen feels busy but it does not feel chaotic.
A Co-operative Experience
I tried out the co-operative mode using the ‘local co-op’ option. I had already started my solo campaign at this point. This meant that all the upgrade points I had already earned were available to player two. The fighting stances I had already unlocked were available too. However, the weapons and other items that I had gained from completing chapters were not accessible. We had the option to go back and play completed missions together or carry on my solo campaign from the latest mission. We chose to go back and play some old missions.
Earlier in the campaign it is easier to distinguish between the main character and the character used for player two in co-op mode. Later in the game as Wei Cheng undergoes further personal development, his appearance more closely resembles that of the co-op character. This did cause us a bit of confusion when we played again, despite the two characters having different coloured clothing. It wasn’t easy to discern who was who when they were moving fast in close proximity or if either of the characters got hit and sent spinning by an enemy.
If forced to choose I would say that I preferred playing 9 Monkeys of Shaolin in the solo campaign. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing in the co-op mode. I think that part of the confusion differentiating between characters would decrease over time if you played the whole campaign through together. Since by doing this, you would get used to each other’s styles of play and develop a common strategy.
I think that there’s a range of achievements available for every type of gamer in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. There are those for advancing through the natural stages of the game, ones for completing certain types of kills, others for maxing out your skills and then for the more gifted amongst us, ones for not taking damage. For instance, one for completing the game without dying once.
A Journey Worth Taking?
One of the things that holds me back from giving a higher rating is the price tag. It’s hard to compete with the value for money that you get for being able to get your fighting fix on Game Pass with big titles such as Yakuza Kiwami and Mortal Kombat X. Whilst 9 Monkeys of Shaolin isn’t quite in the same genre as these games and it wouldn’t be fair to do a direct comparison, I do think that particularly in the case of Yakuza Kiwami (even if you buy the game outright) you get a lot more game for your money.
However, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin does have its own unique charm. It offers challenge, character development, historic and cultural interest and the opportunity to go it alone or team up to battle the Wokou. If a trip back to medieval China sounds like what the doctor ordered, get ready to dish up some revenge, best served fisherman style.
Rapid Reviews Rating
You can buy 9 Monkeys of Shaolin for the Xbox One in the Microsoft Store.