The beat 'em up genre used to absolutely dominate the world of video games, but as time has gone on and gamers have clamored for more open world experiences the side scrolling action genre was quickly abandoned. I for one miss the simplistic days of moving in only one direction and pummeling all of the foes in my path. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin perfectly encapsulates the nostalgia of those classic arcade beat 'em ups, and will scratch that itch that gamers like me have had for years.
The story drops players in the shoes of a young Chinese farmer named Wei Cheng who's village is completely decimated in a raid by a group of pirates that leaves him as the sole survivor. From here Wei joins up with a group of Shaolin Monks who take his rudimentary understanding of fighting and mold him into an incredibly strong monk. As the story progresses not only does Wei become a better fighter, but he also changes his outlook on life as he gives up on revenge and decides to protect those around him. The story capitalizes on story beats and ideas from popular kung fu movies from the 70s and 80s in a way that feels refreshing for such an old genre, and it is a lot of fun to learn more about the protagonist as 9 Monkeys of Shaolin moves forward.
Inspired By Chinese Art and Retro Video Games
The art style as well pulls a lot of influences from old school arcade games, but with a more modern retro aesthetic. The world is rendered in an isometric 2.5D view, so while it is still a side-scroller the world still pops with 3D visuals. Cutscenes in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin have a very pleasant traditional Chinese art style to them with wide brush strokes and misty distant mountains. One of my favorite aspects is the enemy design, because 9 Monkeys of Shaolin does a great job of allowing players to distinguish enemy types at a glance while still making them look like normal people. Stronger and harder to kill enemies will have more complicated armor types whereas weaker ones will have smaller weapons or no armor at all.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin's combat feels like a game that would have been made in the 90s in the absolute best way possible. When the game begins you are able to attack enemies with just three separate buttons. One button slashes, one does a heavier stab attack, and another dashes forward to attack enemies. This is incredibly simplistic and allows you to chain together quick and easy combos before dodging an attack. Many games get bogged down in letting players do so many things in combat that it becomes difficult to keep track of, but not this one.
Become a Shaolin Monk
Those who want to do a little more damage to their enemies will eventually unlock variants for each of their three attacks. This is simplified as well because all you have to do is hold down either the shift or control keys before hitting an attack button. Shift allows you to spin Wei's staff in the air in different ways to attack several enemies at once, while control lets Wei use different magical attacks that either weaken enemies, pull them in close, or knock them in the air. 9 Monkeys of Shaolin doesn't hold player's hands, but it does walk you through how to use each of these attacks and gives plenty of time to master them before introducing something new.
There are also many different ways of upgrading and customizing Wei Cheng as 9 Monkeys of Shaolin progresses. Players are given upgrade tokens that can be spent in between missions to improve stats, increase an ability's potential, or grant Wei some new skill. There are nine separate skill trees that you are able to put points into, which seems like a lot, but by the end of the game you are given enough points to almost completely fill up all the trees. By completing missions you are also given new weapons, armor, or shoes that will grant different skills or stat increases. For example, one of my favorite shoes in the game gave me the ability to teleport short distances instead of just dodging enemy attacks.
Challenging But Fair
Just like a lot of old school beat em' ups, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin could be very difficult at times, but it isn't unfair. I would occasionally feel like there was no possible way for me to complete a mission only to realize that it was my fault for not using the dodge button correctly or by not using the appropriate attacks. The only times I really had any real frustrations was against ghost enemies who can't be killed with normal attacks. They instead must be eliminated using one of the attack variants, which made them particularly tricky for someone who put most of my early skill points into normal attacks.
9 Monkeys of Shaolin plays like a love letter to old school beat em' ups, but it manages to take what made those kinds of games so popular and improve them. With the inclusion of light RPG mechanics and tight combat controls, it becomes much more than just a nostalgia fueled title. If you were the kind of person who dropped countless hours into Streets of Rage, then 9 Monkeys of Shaolin is for you.
TechRaptor reviewed 9 Monkeys of Shaolin on PC with a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.
- Engaging Combat
- Beautiful World Design
- Varied Enemy Types
- Some Frustrating Enemies
- Retro Isn't For Everyone