I have some fond memories of playing the wide range of beat-’em-up games available in the arcades in the late 1980s and early 90s. Some of my favorites of the arcade era being the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, X-Men and The Simpsons. These all boiled down to being incredibly simple; just walk from one end of the level to the other, stopping to beat up every bad guy in your path. You usually just had a few moves, like punch, kick, and jump. But these games tended to be very satisfying to play and great for stress relief.
Fast forwarding to today, it’s actually been a really long time since I’ve played this type of game, outside of mousou games (Dynasty Warriors, etc) which have a similar goal but a completely different style. Along comes the curiously-named 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, created by Sobaka Studio and published by Buka Entertainment for Steam, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (played for this review), promising me a a classic beat-’em-up experience – with Chinese monks no less – in the modern age.
Intrigued, I set off in search of bad guys to pummel, and to see if this title would bring those memories rushing back.
It’s Probably Pirates
The game opens with our protagonist, the common fisherman Wei Cheng, discovering his village being set upon by pirates. This not being an uncommon thing, he’s prepared for combat and rushes to find his grandfather to alert him, taking down some of the pirates along the way.
However, he gets there only in time to see his grandfather killed, and gets beaten himself by the killer. He is discovered barely alive by a monk from the monastery of South Shaolin, who helps him recover. Wanting revenge, Wei Cheng turns to the monks for help, developing his skills and tracking the leader down.
As the story progresses though, the situation turns out to be worse and more complex than it would seem. Wei Cheng decides he must join the monks proper, and is given the moniker Daokong by his master. From here he must help them to uncover the truth behind the resurgence of the pirates in the region.
All told, there is a surprising amount of story in the game for a beat-’em-up. Typically these games just have a background story told before the game starts, with a simple objective to get to and beat the big bad guy. Then you just face level after level of action, sometimes with short cutscenes in between.
Here there is a lot more going on, but not so much that it gets in the way of the action. Most dialogue happens at the monastery (your home between levels), at the beginning, and at/near the end of a level. Sometimes there is dialogue during the gameplay, but when this happens, it just plays over it and doesn’t interrupt anything.
The story may not be New York Times bestseller material, but it was enjoyable and enhanced the game experience. It was a part of the game and not merely an afterthought, and included some impressive hand-drawn cutscenes.
It’s All About The Qi
9 Monkeys of Shaolin definitely follows many of the standard beat-’em-up tropes. Most (but not all) stages are linear, scrolling in one direction, and periodically the screen will stop and you are set upon by a group of foes which you must defeat to proceed onward. It features relatively simple controls; while you do have more actions you can perform than the typical arcade beat-’em-up, they are straightforward to use. Although each action has its own benefits, you are usually free to press any button and inflict some damage.
However, this disguises a lot of depth. Basically every attack can be chained together continuously as long as you don’t get hit, and so, with some skill, you can dance around the battle area from enemy to enemy, exploiting the weaknesses of each. This creates an easy-to-play-but-hard-to-master feel that lends itself to a solid gameplay experience.
You have a resource known as Qi (pronounced “chee”) which is gained through combat and used to perform certain attacks and abilities. It replenishes pretty quickly, so you’re not punished too much for using it frequently. The difficulty of the game felt quite high, especially at the beginning, but it allows you to play on any difficulty and change it at any time without any apparent penalty.
Additionally, you can find equipment as you complete certain levels which will make things easier. There is one equip in particular that steals life, and this one suddenly took the game down a few pegs in difficulty. This was honestly the only balance issue I found with the game, although it’s a pretty notable one.
Any good beat-’em-up of course has co-op, and 9 Monkeys is no exception. Beat-em-ups are always better with a friend to share in the stress-relieving action, and you can easily do so both locally, like the good ‘ol days, and online. Some abilities gain increased usefulness in co-op. Buddy being ganged up on? Pull some enemies away with the Seal of Attraction to divide and conquer. It works very well and, had I an actual friend to play with instead of just two controllers, I’m sure we would have had a blast together. The only downside is you have to turn on co-op between levels. It’s not drop-in/drop-out like an arcade game would be.
The Style of the 1500s
Artistically, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is excellent. With a strong art style that stands somewhere between real and painting-like, it’s clear a lot of work went into the visuals. Unreal Engine 4 provides a lot of excellent lighting effects to the game, and all the visual effects like the fire traps, Qi magic, and the “ghost” effects all look solid. The backgrounds are very detailed, and it all comes together very well. It does get a little dark or muddy at times with the color, but it’s a minor consideration. Tying it together are some beautifully hand-drawn cutscenes.
For a game from a studio I’m really not familiar with, Sobaka managed to bring out some pretty decent English voice acting. At times, they get a bit heavy on the Chinese accents, but the characters all sound clear and have proper emotion. The thuds and grunts typical of the genre are all here and lend themselves to the satisfying nature of this type of game.
The only auditory weakness might be the music. It’s not the music itself, which is honestly very good, it’s just very… muted, for what is supposed to be an action game. The music is all appropriate for the setting – typical China-y type of composition – and there is some change in tone as the action comes and goes. But I usually expect music in a beat-’em-up to be more high-energy, something to really get you in the mood to smash some bad guys, and what we get instead tends to be more atmospheric. It’s all high quality, it’s just the style is not quite what I expected. That’s fine though; it’s not a big deal but it feels worth noting.
The 9ͭ ͪ Monkey
Everything about 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is above board (except maybe the title). While it doesn’t bear the name of some famous franchise, everything about it possesses high quality and I definitely had a good time playing it.
This game is a solid pick-up for beat-’em-up fans, particularly if you can find a friend to play with. Give it a play, and unleash your inner monk.
Review Copy provided by Buka Entertainment for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image provided by Buka Entertainment.