Game review: Monkey King: Hero is Back for PS4

Folks, my disappointed feelings toward Monkey King: Hero is Back are entirely my fault for failing to pay attention to what I was buying. See, a few E3s back, a Chinese company released a gameplay trailer for a game tentatively titled Black Wukong, and it looked amazing. So picture me in a Gamestop, sorting through used titles when I see a very unmistakable Sun Wukong on the cover of a game. I got all giddy, like a kid at Christmas who doesn’t yet realize they’ve got the wrong gift by mistake. Did I check to make sure it was the right game? Nope. The fact that it was just 8 Euros only made me think “Maybe it wasn’t received well here, where not too many people know Journey to the West.”

But no, this is in fact an adaptation of a CG cartoon of the same name from 2015, and like so many film-to-game adaptations, this one isn’t very good. I knew that less than five minutes into the game, but I figured I bought it, so I might as well see it through and finally have something to review. What followed was roughly twenty hours of stale hell with the two worst traveling companions I’ve ever had the displeasure of being saddled with.

I don’t know how faithful the game is, but I doubt it did more than pay lip service to the script before wandering off to do its own thing. The story is simple enough. Sun Wukong, aka Dasheng, is trapped for 500 years in an ice prison before being released by Liuer, a young monk who needs help to discover why monsters are kidnapping children from all the villages. Dasheng initially couldn’t care less, but is forced into fighting by Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, who promises to remove the chains binding his magic if he continues to do good deeds. Although the opening scene is set with a fully animated vignette, many other cut-scenes are shown in still frames or with minimal animation. I’m not sure what the point was, except possibly to save money.

Before I get to the griping, I need to mention two special exceptions who deserve praise for their efforts. The team of artists who worked on the level design really pulled off some amazing sets, from tiny villages in the middle of a valley forest, to shrines hidden away in the highest mountains with waterfalls flowing beautifully from every peak. Similarly, the team responsible for the music deserve praise for their stellar efforts. Every level has its own special vibe thanks to the music, which goes hand in hand with the level designs to establish a mood. Sometimes it’s a chill mood, and others are tense, and on their own merits, these two teams did some awesome work.

Everyone else, though, should be sad about what they produced, because it is sad, and now I’m sad for having played this game. Because it is sad. Okay, I’ll move on.

The biggest obstacle to enjoying the game lies in bad combat, and given that this is the core loop, that’s a pretty big hurdle to stumble on. Dasheng, the titular Monkey King, starts out with a lousy 3-hit combo for weak attacks, and a ridiculous “wind-up” punch for his heavy attack. Unless an enemy has hunkered down to block, they will either walk away to “dodge” the attack, or they’ll attack and knock Dasheng out of the animation. Meanwhile the weak attacks often have no discernible effect on enemies, who will still draw back and swipe at Dasheng. Worse, once he’s locked into an animation, he can’t dodge. While this improves slightly later in the game at the start, it’s hugely frustrating to sort out how to deal with multiple enemies without losing a massive chunk of health.

Timing a weak punch at the same time an enemy is attacking triggers a one-on-one fight, which is just a quicktime button mash of the weak attack. This doesn’t annoy me as much as some QTE-laden games because the required cadence to mash at is pretty forgiving. Clearly, this is a game geared towards kids, so nothing is too taxing. That may be one of the few good points to combat, but as I’m pointing out a “good” kind of QTE, I consider it damning with faint praise.

The game offers up two melee weapon options in the early levels, and they both suck. First is a bench. Yes, it’s just a simple short bench, and later Dasheng can unlock the ability to summon a magical bench. Both versions suck because they slow Dasheng down and reduce his dodge roll to a pathetically short dash, like just carrying this little wooden stool is too hard for him. There are also rocks and vases that can be picked up and used to club enemies with. Both the weapons can be thrown, causing them to explode on impact. Even if they’re used as melee weapons, they have a durability so low as to be made from papier mâché.

Just to evolve from this miserable state, a scavenger hunt has to be undertaken to look for the hiding places of Earth Gods. These are similar to Kodama in Nioh, but in this case you MUST find them because they are the only way to level up and get more health, magic points, and add extra moves to Dasheng’s attack combo. The same upgrade adds more oomph to every hit, so it’s vitally important to do this scavenger hunt.

But this means that after killing every enemy, you can look forward to wandering back through a level, looking for every plate, pot, and stone mound where an Earth God might be hiding. The game wants you to use a spell called Mind’s Eye to reveal their locations, but given how much magic this uses, it’s easier to just spot the common objects where the gods like to hide and either capture them or break open the thing they’re hiding in. Some of the breakable jars are hidden up in trees, on rooftops, or along cliffsides, requiring a thrown object to break. It’s like an Easter egg hunt organized by the neighborhood’s most sadistic parent.

There’s another scavenger hunt for flowers, insects, lizards, and minerals, which can all be traded to a merchant for health and magic restoring potions, as well as amulets and protective items. If you’re short on some items, you might be able to trade two or three of one material for one of another. Initially it feels like a pretty stingy economy, but by the end of the game, I had a decent stockpile of restorative potions as well as charms to protect against all elemental status effects. This was due to me wandering back and forth over a level in search of those accursed Earth Gods, so I guess it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Again, that’s damning with faint praise because this kind of backtracking was tediously dull. Plus, without all the wandering, I probably could have completed this game in half the time.

Beating bosses will unlock more spells, and these can be upgraded by harvesting souls from enemies. Think Dark Souls, but with flashy Chinese symbols instead of white energy orbs. In a similar vein, it is possible to make soul vessels that will break open and offer varying levels of soul currency. But this is where Monkey Souls: Hero is Lame ends any semblance to the far superior trilogy of darkity darkness.

Enemy types are pretty scarce, and the first level already begins palette swapping the same enemy in the place of actual variety. Your “helpful” companion Liuer even feels the need to point out “Look, Dasheng, that monster is a different color,” just in case he suddenly went blind. Even the unique bosses…no, let me pause here to talk about the other HUGE problem this game has.

See, after the first level you have not one, but two “helpful” companions. They will talk constantly to remind you of the current objective, or to scream “Aaaah, monsters!” every time an enemy goes into active attack mode. They’re just annoying in Chinese as they are in English, so it may be best to just drop the voice volume entirely. You can’t clip through them, so they can block doorways or force you to run around them. Yeah, they’re a part of the story, but just having them along made the game ten times worse. In fact, there’s a certain point where it becomes possible to explore previous levels as memories, and the absence of their grating voices immediately brought my enjoyment of the game to a much higher level.

I cannot stress enough how annoying they are, so here’s an example. Late in the game, I was winding my way up some mountain pathways in search of a mystic shrine, and I suddenly noticed how exquisitely pretty the level was. The moon was full and bright, the stars all twinkling and lovely, and everywhere I looked were majestic waterfalls. So I stopped moving for TWO FUCKING SECONDS and my other companion Zhu Bajie quips, “Are you lost, monkey boy?” And then I shouted, “OH MY GOD, CAN YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP AND JUST LET ME ENJOY THE VIEW WITHOUT RUINING IT?” And the answer is no, they will always ruin every moment in the game, turning even the slightest crumb of joy into agonized rage.

Right, so where was—? Oh, right, enemy variety. Some new types are added along with the minion-level goblins, but soon they suffer the same regurgitated palette swap duties. Red types shoot fire, and blue types shoot ice, while yellow shoots electricity and purple shoots poison. There’s some spiky crocodiles and enchanted suits of armor to spice up the variety, both having variants. All of these would be fine if they had more friends along for the ride, but this tiny crew has to support most of the game between the five unique bosses. Before being able to fight the final boss, Hun Dun, you have to fight the first four bosses over again (and the first boss is pressed into guard duties with palette swaps several times). Just a little before the final level is a series of “training fights” that repeats the same sad collection of monsters in different clusters over and over and over. It’s more padding because the game has so little to offer.

But the thing that really slays me is how in the closing seconds of the game, the developers tease you by letting you play a super-powered version of Dasheng, and suddenly he can fly and launch magic missiles and smash boulders with a mere flick of his hand. He has cool magic armor and transforms into a blazing fireball that destroys the final boss by blasting through him, and then that’s it, that’s the end of the game.

It’s like the opposite of so many games, where the developers let you get a taste of what your character can do at full strength before stripping away all their abilities through amnesia or flashbacks or whatever plot device they like. Here, you struggle throughout the game with shitty combat, no camera lock, terribly weak weapons and a pathetic jump height, and only at the very end do the developers go, “You could have been playing this god instead.” It’s almost enough to reduce me to bitter tears of frustration.

So, again, I admit that this time the bad review is on me for pulling the “confused grandma” routine and buying this instead of the game I really wanted. (Which isn’t even out yet.) Additionally, I only paid eight Euros for it, and it’s hard to be mad at losing the money when I did at least get about twenty hours of game-time out of it. But pretty scenery and lovely music cannot save bad gameplay and putting up with two annoying anchors constantly dragging the fun out of every action.

So with that in mind, I’m giving Monkey King: Hero is Back 2 stars. I might recommend it for small children who are fans of the film, but everyone else should find something more interesting to do with their time. Like, slamming your head into a wall, for instance.