Honestly, you wait decades for a little innovation in the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre, desperately playing countless duff ’em ups in the pursuit of something, anything, that’s new, and then one game comes along with more innovation in its short run-time than the rest combined. Shing! may have its issues, but a lack of fresh ideas certainly isn’t one of them.
A horde of Yokai have stolen the ultimate McGuffin, ‘The Starseed’, and its up to a trio of Ninjas and one Highland warrior to get it back. That’s pretty much all the plot you need, and it’s also the only excuse Shing! requires to send up to four players, over local co-op or online, on a violent mission from A to B. As you inventively hack apart every demon you find on your way, Shing! plays exactly as you’d expect a side-scrolling brawler to then, apart from the small matter of its control scheme.
This is the marmite moment. Pass this test and find the proverbial marmite slathered toast a tasty treat and you’ll have a lot of fun with Shing! Spit the gloopy yeast extract all over the floor in disgust, and you’ll probably bounce right off Shing!, never to return. What’s with all the marmite analogies and what the heck am I talking about you ask?
Well, where the attack combos in most brawlers are triggered through an increasingly complex string of button presses, usually revolving around linking together normal and strong strikes. In Shing! every single attack is activated with a flick, nudge or rotation of the analogue stick.
Assess your reaction right now. Does the thought of controlling your attacks with an analogue stick intrigue or revile you? Going into Shing!, I was also doubtful that the approach would work, but to my surprise, the control scheme worked – it worked really well. I’ve always struggled to grasp long combinations of button prompts – Marvel VS Capcom was a direct cause of many stress dreams for me – but Shing! neatly sidesteps all of these issues with a much more intuitive approach.
Flick the stick in an upward diagonal and your fighter responds in kind, slicing at the head of her demonic foe. It makes complete logical sense and avoids the confusion caused by more abstract controls. Soon I was combining lengthy combos with barely any playtime at all. My fighter launching a quintet of enemies into the air, slicing and dicing for added air-time, before dashing behind the next bunch of baddies and following up with strikes from behind. It was awesome.
The issue with giving the player such immediate power is ensuring there’s a satisfying level of challenge to be had. Fear not, because Shing! manages this and them some – this can be a hard game. Whilst the visual design of the enemies is uninspired, their attacks are anything but. Each foe you face has several specials designed to knock you out of a combo string. Different combinations of these enemies can offer significant challenge, as you have to skilfully asses the situation to best aim and time your attacks and avoid being countered. It’s a satisfying gameplay loop, one that is lifted immeasurably when three pals join you to experience the cathartic chaos as a unit.
Of course, like with any walk and punch-athon, there’s a point where repetition can set in and this is where developers Mass Creation have really put their thinking caps on to keep things fresh. First off, this is a funny game. Genuinely laugh-out-loud chucklesome. Sure, some of the jokes can come off a little childish, but they are delivered with such energy and enthusiasm by the talented voice over cast that you can’t help but let down your adult sensibilities and giggle along. The tragic fate of Bob the temp was a highlight. Then there’s the dialogue moments where the characters just sit and have a chat. These tea-breaks provide an opportunity to get to know the cast of characters. Bichiko, Tetsuo, Aiko and Wilhelm stopped being visual parodies of Mai Shiranui, Strider, Ayane and generic Viking and became more rounded personalities. I became rather attached to this cast of loveable reprobates and their banter over the course of the game. At any point in the game you can switch to a different character, ensuring you can freshen things up for yourself with a brand-new move set on the fly.
Boss fights get a degree of innovation too. Rather than just being a straight-up smackdown to slowly, imperceptibly, bring down a big bad’s health bar, most boss fights inject a spot of most welcome puzzle solving. One example of this that avoids major spoilers is the minion gobbling first boss – who just so happens to be virtually indestructible. Until you discover that a beam of light can be reflected back into his eyes, blinding him so that he eats a bomb demon and is damaged from the inside out. It’s a neat idea and serves to break up the hack and slash, forcing players to adopt a more considered approach. Sure, there’s a few bosses that resort to the player just having to wail away on them but there’s some real treats of a boss fight to be discovered too.
So, where does Shing! go a little awry? Visually the game is a tad indistinct, the 2.5D aesthetic giving everything a mundane look in stark contrast to the sharp anime seen in the opening cinematic. There’s also some numerous and lengthy load screens to sit through. Are these really necessary? Especially when they incessantly pop-up to slow the pace down of otherwise bite-sized action sequences. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed in future patches.
Then there’s the objectification of the female characters, which, let’s face it, is unnecessary and embarrassing for all involved. Why is Bichiko wearing a thong and bikini into battle and why is every woman in the game terrified of trousers? It’s 2020, we don’t need or want this. Or lets have some fun and put the male cast and all the yokai in thongs too, I reckon Wilhelm would rock this look.