This year has seen a remarkable resurgence for the ancient and storied genre of the scrolling beat ’em up. As a lifelong fan of the genre – my first love was Captain Commando and his loveable band of misfit heroes – this is very good news indeed. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is the latest from Sobaka Studios, the team responsible for bringing the violent adventures of the viscera loving and very vicious warrior monk known as Vasily kicking and screaming to life in their 2017 game ‘Redeemer’. When I reviewed that game I was left impressed by the cathartic carnage on offer, so I was understandably excited to see what Sobaka could do with the walking duff ’em up formula.
One thing is clear about Sobaka Studios from their recent output; this is a team that really love warrior monks. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is veritably filled to the brim with monks. There’s more monks than you can shake a staff at. You take control of one particular monk, Wei Cheng (unless playing in co-op, where the other player takes on the role of bonus monk Daoshan). After witnessing his entire village massacred by some evil pirates, Wei Cheng becomes a monk in an effort to track down the villainous scurvy swine and attain vengeance for his recently departed pals.
And that’s pretty much all the excuse you need to roam over twenty-five different levels; biffing, bopping and brawling with a veritable horde of baddies in your way. There is a story, one that is delivered primarily by talking heads that spout nonstop exposition from the beginning of a cut scene to the end. It’s a rather dry yarn and one that, thankfully, can be entirely ignored in favour of getting stuck straight into the fisticuffs.
And what fisticuffs they are! Sobaka Studios certainly knows how to craft combat that feels hefty, impactful and carries a sense of real weight and momentum. Attacks are built around basic combos and charged moves, a successful flurry sending foes spiralling through the air to crunch through a pile of detritus in an extremely satisfying manner.
Unlike a traditional 2D brawler that sees enemies attack only on a horizontal plane, 9 Monkeys instead offers 3D movement within its stages. This adds a neat additional challenge when it comes to managing space and channelling enemies towards your furious fists and fearsome feet. It’s an aspect of the game that is fully explored with the magic seals, a series of abilities that can suck enemies toward you or send them bouncing into the sky, ready to receive a devastating air combo. This is a game all about forcing your foes into the right position to open them up to a dizzying array of attacks.
This is not your standard scrolling brawler where the most you can expect is a couple of combo strings and an occasional special move. Instead, the developers have wedged so many attacks into the controller set-up that it’s almost creaking under the pressure. There were moments when my fingers and thumbs were regularly entwined in poses that just shouldn’t be possible as I tried to memorise the different attacks and powers that are regularly unlocked. But, once it clicked, I couldn’t help but be impressed. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin offers some of the most deep and delightful combat systems I’ve ever seen in a game of its genre.
It’s unfortunate then, that some absolutely daft design decisions have been made that serve to undermine this good work. First off, the visuals. Now, there’s nothing initially wrong with the big, bold and chunky character aesthetic. What does become a problem is the insistence that levels take place so often at night or in dark caves where everything and everyone is obscured in shadow. Trying to tell which monk shaped silhouette is you, which is your co-op partner, and which is an enemy becomes impossible, resulting in that excellent combat turning into random button mashing and a hope for the best. Even in daylight there’s an issue, the character models often blending into one. Frequently my partner and I lost track of our avatars entirely, two bald men armed with staffs and wearing robes in slightly different shades of blue are easy to mix-up it turns out. Quite why the player characters aren’t highlighted in some way to distinguish them is beyond me.
Then there’s the issue of the cursed green tea. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a slurp of a tasty tea pig as much as the next person – so the tea itself isn’t really the problem. In fact, collecting tea is entirely necessary as it helps boost your health meter or charge your Qi. The problem is that the icon that displays the tea you’ve collected sits in the bottom left – and bottom right in co-op – corner of the screen. I can’t tell you the amount of times my monk ended up obscured by that stupid tea meter, resulting in, yet again, more uninformed button mashing.
I was also left flustered by the maddeningly inverted difficulty curve. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin starts out as a steep challenge. This is exacerbated by some torrid difficulty spikes that come out of nowhere, the second boss in particular is an absolute horror. Then, all of a sudden, as you level-up your character traits and unlock new abilities, the game becomes an absolute cake walk. The latter stages, rather than providing a culmination that matches the players heightened skills, are instead breezed through with barely an effort. Green tea drops, which in early stages are extremely limited, are soon found brewing everywhere. It’s like having a fight in a trendy café; only missing a millennial with a man bun and ironic facial hair, sat at his laptop pretending to write important things.
Level design can be imbecilic. One particular stage requires a player to have to navigate a flight of stairs, despite the flight of stairs being obscured by a wall and the next flight of stairs. Resulting in much unintentional hilarity as two deadly warrior monks are unable to clamber up some stairs, repeatedly appearing on the same floor they started on. Those monks make the Daleks look like stair climbing aficionados in comparison. Then there’s the issue that the game refuses to lock the borders of its screen whilst you see off the baddies. The amount of time my partner and I got stuck off screen after landing a combo was ridiculous.
And yet, despite all these flaws, I mostly, kind of, enjoyed my time with 9 Monkeys of Shaolin. Its hub area, in which you can level-up and launch into a stage, provides a welcome change to the standard scrolling brawler formula, local co-op is – as always – a joyful and welcome addition to any game, and the combat is brilliant when you can actually see what’s going on. You’ve just got to ignore an awful lot of problems in pursuit of the good stuff.