9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a smooth, enjoyable beat-‘em-up title that plays like an interactive Kung Fu movie. It really doesn’t bring much new to the genre, but 9 Monkeys of Shaolin delivers solid arcade action that brawling fans should enjoy.
Most of these one-against-many beat-‘em-ups have some sort of revenge storyline (cleaning up the streets, getting back the girlfriend, vengeance for slain family member / friend, and so on) and 9 Monkeys of Shaolin follows the same trajectory. Our story is about Wei Cheng, a fisherman who finds his small Chinese village under attack by what he perceives as nothing more than raiding pirates. In the span of the first few minutes, you encounter a handful of predictable enemies who walk you through the combat basics while the story has you witnessing the death of Wei’s grandfather before being soundly beaten by an impossible to beat enemy that closes out the chapter.
From there we follow Wei after he is rescued by monks who are impressed with his strength and determination, if finding his technique a bit unrefined. From there Wei heads out on a series of relatively short missions (you get to pick which ones you want to do in what order from a map, with more being uncovered while you progress), which reward points that can be later put into a variety of different skills. This lightweight RPG element really helps the progression in 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, which is admittedly a rather short game (most titles in the genre are, in fairness). These points can up the strength of a particular type of attack in a particular style (which you will unlock more of as you play the game as well), or all-new bonuses to specific moves. These are all pretty incremental, but by the time you learn your final style and unlock the game’s full arsenal of techniques, Wei Cheng feels like the unbeatable badass you expect from one of these old movies.
Most of your moves boil down to one of three varieties – a ranged ‘poke’ attack, a quicker slashing attack or a distance closing strike. There’s actually a decent amount of strategy and nuance in how these play out, as armed enemies are best hit with the slow, longer-reaching attacks when you’re in a one-on-one, but if you get surrounded by a handful of quicker, melee / short-ranged weapon enemies the slashing attacks are more useful. Sometimes you just need to close the gap and that’s where the jump kick comes into play. Stringing these hits together is actually pretty fun, and little things like whether or not the enemy is airborne or wearing a helmet actually play into how effective something like the jump kick is. Or when using your lunging attack, you can unlock a skill that does bonus damage for striking the enemy with the tip of your weapon and not down mid-shaft, which has you more carefully considering distance.
There are additional layers to the combat as well, from the deflection ability that lets you parry melee attacks or even ricochet back projectile attacks, or you can charge your attacks by holding down the face button, and there are different types of dodging moves you can use to get out of the middle of a pack of enemies as well. Probably the biggest issue is also one of the more interesting aspects of 9 Monkeys of Shaolin, which is its 8-direction style of play.
Many brawlers rely on horizontal planes / positioning for striking, dating way back to the Double Dragon / Final Fight days. Here however, we have an 8-directions style of combat that is interesting, but sometimes a bit sloppy and imprecise, especially when trying to deal with a mob of enemies all at once. It fits the game’s style and visual aesthetic (how many old martial arts movies focus on this particular type of scene: you’re in the streets, surrounded by thugs and the hero fires off a flurry of attacks in every direction? Lots). I adapted to the angles well enough, but it still took just a bit of getting used to.
In terms of the overall presentation, 9 Monkeys of Shaolin has a strange soundtrack that works as it melds faster-paced, slightly more modern music with Chinese sounds. It fits the game’s pace well enough, even if it doesn’t always suit the setting itself. Visually each area tends to be very heavy on a particular color or shade, with night battles being very blue-heavy, or certain fields being all greens and yellows. There is not a ton of detail in the overall environments, but the characters animate smoothly and there are some rewarding interactions with the environment. You might knock an enemy into a railing and they slump over it or bounce off of the wall and slide to the ground in convincing fashion, their bodies left where you dropped them. It’s a nice touch that certainly is a step up from how most enemies in the genre just wind up blinking out of existence after you beat them.