When I was a boy, many moons ago when the earth was young and everything was black and white, there was a great TV show found on BBC2. That show was called Monkey.
Monkey could fly around on a cloud and there was a lot of Kung Fu, so to a kid it was awesome. I later found out this show was based on a traditional Chinese folk story called Journey to the West, about the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. The reason for this meander down Memory Lane is because The Crown of Wu – the latest from Red Mountain and Meridiem Games – takes this take as its inspiration.
The Crown of Wu promises to bring a mixture of fighting and puzzling to the party, as we explore the “future-past” world as the Monkey King himself. Having been released on Steam back in March this year, it is finally the turn of the Xbox to get in on the action. So, grab your staff and let’s dive on in to see if it lives up to my memories, shall we?
Presentation is where I shall head first, and here the news is not great, to be brutally honest. For a game that is supposedly optimised for the Series X|S consoles, it looks very poor indeed. I can’t imagine an Xbox 360 breaking into a sweat running The Crown of Wu, to be frank, and while the graphics just about look okay, the animation of the main character, and more importantly the enemies we fight, comes across a bit like an old Ray Harryhausen film (ask your parents, kids!).
However, the areas that we have to explore are reasonably large, featuring all the classic staples of platformers, with disappearing platforms, and many other tricks to look at. The sound of those disappearing platforms is weirdly familiar as well, but I just cannot place it. Yet it is the animation that is the stand out feature, but for the wrong reasons, sadly. Running looks weird, the jumping looks even weirder; it is hard to concentrate on anything else when this is a third person game. The rest of the audio is a little better, with suitably meaty sounding combat noises and a couple of decent tunes to listen to. The Crown of Wu is very much a game of two halves here.
As far as a narrative to the goes, it would be hard to mess it up given the strength of the source material. We are Sun Wukong and we need to try and get our crown back, which was stolen by a baddie named Zhu. Now, Zhu isn’t going to give the crown back just because we say pretty please, so we will have to break out of jail, explore the world and find our way to the crown, all while single handedly fighting off a world full of enemies. Sounds like a piece of cake, right?
Well, it’s that which leads us onto the gameplay, the ingredients of which sound like they should make for something a bit tasty. Come to The Crown of Wu and you’ll find something that is based on three planks or pillars – platforming, fighting and puzzling. In a nice touch, when you start a new game, you can choose to have certain elements dialled back – so you can have a game where the combat is at the front, with puzzling eased back a touch, or vice versa. I mostly chose to go with a balanced game, where both elements are in harmony, and this seemed to work pretty well.
Taking a look at the three elements and we’ll first of all settle on that of the combat which, unfortunately, is not a highlight of the game. There is just no feel to it. You can see that you are hitting foes with your staff, you can see their health bar diminish, but you don’t get any sense of involvement in the action. It is the same story when an enemy hits you – it’s only by seeing your health bar disappear that you can tell you’ve been hit at all. Even being able, through the course of the game, to gather the elements to help you, the game continues to feel numb. You’d think hitting foes with Air, Fire, Lightning powers would be awesome, but it sadly isn’t.
Another strange point here is found in the healing mechanic – it is slow to action, and while you have to time your moments and it drains your energy, there are always crystals nearby that you can smash to get more energy. This means the fights become almost attritional, with you plugging away until the crystals grow again, so you can heal once more, then carry on fighting. I’ll say it again, combat is not a strong point of The Crown of Wu.
Platforming is another area where the game feels rushed and unloved. It is easy to jump, but to make consistent long jumps is almost impossible. It is very hard to tell when you should jump, and the animation is weird when you do so, which is off putting. And to clear large gaps, you have to run, which involves clicking the left stick. The same stick you use to try and steer your character to the correct edge of the platform as you jump…
Further, it is always worth standing still when you enter a new area, as just because there is a platform there when you look, it doesn’t mean there will still be one there by the time you have lined a jump up. Knowing which platforms will vanish is definitely part of the strategy you need for these sections. Again, parkour and general jumping about is not a strong point.
So what about the puzzling? Well, there are puzzles in The Crown of Wu, this is true, and while they aren’t going to require a MENSA member to solve them, they do break up the action nicely. There are a decent variety of tests to have a go at as well, and while some of the solutions are pretty obtuse, they do make a nice change of pace. These sections are probably the best worked out part of the game.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to stay too positive as other issues do crop up. The most glaring of these is a clipping issue which sees our hero disappear into a wall, or worse, fall right off a platform you’d swear was solid. You could also throw in the fact that turning the camera in the wrong way sees you able to see through walls, and while these gremlins aren’t frequent, they happen enough to be noticed.
It all means that The Crown of Wu feels like a game that could have done with a little bit more love, a bit more polishing – only then may it have had enough to overcome any drawbacks. As it is, The Crown of Wu isn’t good enough to hold a candle to either Monkey or that Xbox 360 classic, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.