A while back, I played Redeemer: Enhanced Edition – a hardcore brawler set in a side-scrolling style. It was hugely enjoyable too, reminding of Diablo III, just with more cybernetic enhancements. Fast forward to today, and the same developers, Sobaka Studios, have decided to utilise the same formula in the world of Ancient China, with 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. Can the world of the martial arts landscape be as much fun as the futuristic world of Redeemer?
The story of 9 Monkeys is straight out of the cheesy martial arts film playbook. A lowly fisherman, known as Wei Chung, is chilling at home when his village comes under attack from an unknown foe. Fearing for the safety of his grandfather, his only living relative, Wei Chung pauses only long enough to grab his trusty staff and sets off to battle the attackers. Sadly, he isn’t good enough, his grandfather is killed in front of him, and he receives a bad wound in battle and is left for dead. As luck would have it, he is found by a band of warrior monks from the South Shaolin temple, and they not only nurse him back to health, but begin to teach him the fighting arts of the Shaolin. It is here where a classic tale of revenge begins to unfold.
Once Wei Chung is saved, 9 Monkeys begins to open out. The Shaolin take him under their collective wings, and the camp where they are staying becomes the hub of the game. As you’d expect, it is here where there are various people to interact with. One of the most important is that of the blacksmith, where you can change the gear that you have equipped. There are three categories to amend too: the main weapon which is a polearm of some description, the accessory such as beads, and finally the shoes that you can wear. As you go through the game, completing missions will give you new gear to utilise, and as each item has different stats some time spent taking the items for a test drive may well pay off.
Frequenting the hub is also a teacher, and as Wei Chung completes missions he will be awarded with what look like stars. These can be used to first unlock, and then purchase, new attacks in his various skill trees – regular attacks, Qi enhanced attacks and magic attacks. A word of warning here: I reached the end of the game and completed it without earning enough stars to unlock everything, so concentrating on your favourite attack style will pay dividends.
Next up is the monk; the guy who gives you missions, allowing you to choose from a variety with varying difficulties and rewards, and another monk who will allow you to then replay those missions in an attempt to either improve your performance (stats are shown on the mission select screen, including how many deaths were suffered) or gain extra stars to help you level up your skills more. Finally there is the multiplayer portal, which allows you to find another player to assist, either online or in couch co-op, whilst any trophies you have taken from your foes can be viewed on a table in the hub. The online system here has to be given special praise, as despite the fact that the screen soon becomes busier than a pre-pandemic Wetherspoons on a Saturday night, the fighting action stays rock solid throughout.
Each level also features secrets to find: statues in hard to reach places. Finding these allows you to put on different modifiers, including a very cool sepia filter, that really makes 9 Monkeys take on the look of a 70’s cheesy martial art film. There is no debate that this looks great, but it does sometimes ensure it is harder to spot enemies this way, so on a personal level I preferred the standard visuals. Other secrets unlock differing looks for your character too, allowing him to have a tiny head, or to wear the mask of a defeated boss. Trying to find these secrets, while a swarm of evil pirates take it in turn trying to hand you your ass, is quite challenging.
9 Monkeys plays out in an almost 2D style, scrolling from left to right as you go. I say almost 2D, as it is possible to move into and out of the screen, to dodge attacks or to smash crates. The latter is vital in this game, as some kind souls have filled the crates with various varieties of tea, and if there’s anything a simple Chinese fisherman likes more than tea, it’s not depicted here. They are useful too as the various teas have different effects: green heals, red gives more attack power, yellow brings unlimited Qi and white gives a shield for five seconds. The teas are mapped to the directions on the D-Pad, and as such are easy to use, although getting enough distance and time to have a drink can be challenging, as the enemies try to press their attacks. It has a great look too, delivering the action like a love letter to the martial arts films of yesterday. The sound effects and music are all very good indeed as well, bringing you closer into the action. The only thing missing is bad lip syncing when the characters speak.
So, it looks great, sounds great and has tea in it, but how does 9 Monkeys of Shaolin play out? Well, sorry to be repetitive here, but it’s great. Wei Chung has three basic attacks with his staff, mapped to the X,Y and B buttons respectively. The first is a kick attack, which sees us flying across the screen, dispensing foot-based justice that is highly effective against unarmoured enemies. The second is a slash attack with the staff, which is fairly weak, but can hit multiple enemies in one attack. It is most useful when you are getting swarmed. The last is a thrust attack, which is powerful but can only hit one enemy at a time. Helpfully, this thrust attack can interrupt the attacks of armoured enemies, so it’s a useful thing to have in the armoury.
As you progress through the game, you will learn Qi enhanced and magic attacks, and these are utilised in the same way, albeit with either the RT or LT held down as a modifier. So, RT and Y does a spinning slash, while LT and B actions a magic attack that draws enemies closer, ready for a good kicking. Both of these attacks require Qi energy, depicted as three bars under Wei Chung’s HP bar, while Qi is earned by hitting and defeating enemies, as well as by receiving damage if you have certain items equipped. RB is used to pick items up, and LB is used to parry attacks, both physical and projectile. All of this needs to be worked with as you will come across stages where it seems impossible to hit some foes who are sitting in the background, sniping at you. The game doesn’t explain it, but a well-timed parry will reflect the projectiles back and kill the shooter. The last move Wei Chung can use is a dodge, mapped to the A button, which gets him out of the way when it all gets a bit hot. Dodging to open up space to have some tea soon becomes second nature.
So, this is the sum of the game: start at the left of a scrolling stage, move right and attack anything in your path. It’s a simple concept, but it works fantastically well, and 9 Monkeys does become fairly challenging, especially when bosses appear. There are a variety of enemy units that attack in different ways, so learning which attacks can be parried, and which have to be dodged, who can be kicked and who can’t, and even the best way to attack, are all skills that need to be learned. Seeing Wei Chung evolve from simple fisherman to Shaolin badass is a great feeling, and watching him kick all kinds of baddies around ancient China never gets old.
Now, normally it is around this point in a review where I would start to chat about the things that are wrong with the game, but apart from it becoming too easy in the latter stages, as you you rank up your attacks and change your gear, I have no complaints with 9 Monkeys. Even the storytelling is good – something that isn’t always a given in beat-em-ups.
In conclusion then, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin on Xbox One is a great fighting game. Using the skills you learn, deploying the right attacks, dodging within a hair’s breadth to allow you to attack faster; these are all great gameplay moments. The visuals do a superb job of showing whats happening, multiplayer on the couch is just as fast and furious (if you really want a challenge, turn friendly fire on), and the online multiplayer side of things – while suffering from a severe lack of players – works just as well. If you like fighting games, or are a fan of old martial arts movies, take this for a spin – I think you’ll enjoy it.