Coming from developer J Bowman and published by Digital Tribe, Shaolin vs Wutang is a fighting game very much on the casual end of whatever spectrum it is that Tekken and Street Fighter are on the other end of. What this is, according to the game blurb, is a game for fans of the 70’s and 80’s martial arts movies. Now luckily, this is me, as I used to love the proper cheesy fighting action of movies like Drunken Master, and even the awesome martial arts action of series like Monkey and Kung Fu. So does this tick all the nostalgic boxes, or would we be better off hooking the old VHS player back up?
I have to say, even watching the attract sequence for the game, I was immediately transported back to my younger days. In those days, we didn’t use to worry about the rating on films, it was the 70s: the age rating was completely optional and so taking in martial art movies on the small screen was very much part of my childhood, leading up to me learning karate at an early age. In fact, it was from there where a lifelong love of martial arts was spawned. Anyway, back to the game, and the characters in Shaolin vs Wutang are lifted straight from those classic films – Jackie Chan from Drunken Master, Donnie Yen from Ip Man, Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon, they are all here. Even Bolo Yeung and Jean Claude Van Damme from Bloodsport are in place, right down to Bolo’s mannerisms and the flexing of his mighty pectoral muscles. It’s actually a lot more fun to try and guess the films that the various characters in Shaolin vs Wutang came from than it is to play the game, and this is where my difficulty in reviewing starts.
You see, as a fighting game, Shaolin vs Wutang is not actually very good. On Hard difficulty, the enemies are all psychic and block every move you try, while on Easy difficulty you can complete the game using nothing other than the “Forward and A” attack. There’s no need to learn millions of combos; there’s no need to learn complicated button and stick entries in order to win. So, with my game reviewer head on, this is an open and shut case: it’s not a good game, therefore a low score, right? Well, hold on there. What this is is more of an experience than a game, and approaching it in that manner leads to a very different outcome.
Shaolin vs Wutang has a style about it that is unique. Do you remember those awful old games that featured full motion video fighters, like the old Pit Fighter arcade machines? Remember how they never seemed to be able to nail the hit detection, how they never controlled very well as only certain frames of animation were usable? Well, there’s none of that here. The characters look like they have just stepped from the celluloid of their respective films and have decided to meet up to have a massive ruck. One of the coolest features is the tournament feature, but not in the way you may think. It is possible to set a tournament of exclusively AI controlled fighters, and watching these guys go at each other is like the biggest martial arts geek out you can possibly imagine. Recreating Snake in the Eagles Shadow, or seeing Jim Kelly with his trademark afro trading blows with Chuck Norris, is just amazing.
Graphically the game does look good, and the animation is of a high quality indeed. Instead of blocking, most of the characters will duck or slip an incoming attack, before counterattacking; in motion this looks great. There’s an option to turn on a “Movie filter” too, which makes the game look even more like an 80’s action flick. Jumping, punching, ducking, diving and so on all comes across well, and the sound effects are absolutely bang on – each contact sounding like someone has just punched a piece of wood, all hard impacts and wince-inducing crunches.
Further to all that, I absolutely adore the way that the development team has done just enough in the character select screen to make the fighters not look like their movie counterparts in the face. When you get into the game however, they absolutely are the people from the films. Their faces don’t even look the same in-game as they do in the menus. And it is all helped by the way the characters move with completely authenticity, from Ip Man and his Wing Chun-style attacks all along a centre line to Bruce Lee and his trademark nunchuks. Authentic it certainly is. As I mentioned with Bruce, each character also comes tooled up with a weapon suitable to their style, ranging from a simple staff to butterfly knives, which can turn the tide of a battle.
So, a conclusion then, and this is going to depend very much on who you are and where you sit in life. If you are a slightly older person, with a love of cheesy martial arts film, then Shaolin vs Wutang on Xbox One is the game for you. It’s great to see it in action, and even just sitting there and watching the AI fight each other is like being back in the 1980s. But, should you be the type of gamer who couldn’t care less about martial arts films of whatever vintage and are just looking for a good fighting game, I have to respectfully suggest you look elsewhere. As a game, Shaolin vs Wutang is not great, but then, as an experience to take you back to the golden age of martial arts films, it’s a triumph. It all depends on which camp you fall into.