Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks
29th Sep 2005 | 10:54
Is it a beat 'em up? Most definitely. An RPG? Sort of. How about a platformer? Well, almost. If you're in any confusion as to how to really label this beautiful oddity, don't worry - so are we. Imagine Ninja Gaiden meets Jade Empire with a sprinkling of the brutal gore only the MK series can muster, and you're halfway there. The one thing we are certain of, however, is that this dubiously anticipated curve ball from one of the greatest fighting franchises of all time has delivered, and it rocks all kinds of hardness.
For die-hard fans of the series, the storyline is thus: the evil Shang Tsung has tried to corrupt the Tournament of MKII, only to be disrupted by Liu Kang. He then lures the combatants to the Outworld, to face off with the mighty Shao Kahn. Phew. For everyone else, just sit back and watch the frankly breathtaking opening cut-scene that details this saga. It looks fantastic, boasts superb visuals and art direction, and is just as cinematic, if not more so, than any of the high-kicking CGI celluloid offerings of late. Players are thrown straight into the mix, dumped in Goro's lair and left to scrap their way out. Two playable characters (Liu Kang and Kung Lao) are immediately available, each with their own fighting styles. It's nowhere near as intimidating as other MK titles, though, and you'll soon get to grips with the furious fighting nature of the game like Goro's vice-like fingers.
The one thing that separates Shaolin Monks from any other actioner is the aforementioned depth of combat. Every stage is an unrelenting, extended bout of MK goodness, where each individual opponent must be treated as an honourable adversary, and players must use the same high, low, block and aerial attacks from the more familiar Versus mode (also included in the game). Combat is fast, fluid and extremely slick, yet the intuitive controls make juggling a foe in mid-air for a 20-hit combo dead easy. Attacks are easy one- and two-button affairs, yet the results are devastatingly cool.
The action occasionally veers towards the repetitive side, and because save points are very few and far between, it's sometimes frustrating to work through the same level over and over. That said, the learning curve is very well measured, and puzzles increase in difficulty at a manageable rate. These, by their nature, are again governed by the fighting engine, and players must use opponents to smash down walls, drain enough blood into the floor, or throw their bodies onto spikes and use the resulting platform to vault up
and over a wall. It's immensely satisfying to solve a corpse-littered conundrum after the last 20 minutes of scrapping with enemies for no apparent reason, though guiding light Raiden does his best to ease players along with handy tips.
The inclusion of two-player co-op (sorry, make that Ko-op) mode is a first for the series, and is a more than just a homoerotic gimmick too. There's something undeniably cool about playing through a game with a mate, and you're rewarded further with puzzles only solvable with two players. We felt like we were missing out on a part of the bigger picture, as we continually bypassed pairs of floor tiles that must be pushed in unison to unlock some hidden area or secret as we worked through alone... sniff. Then we fired up Ko-op mode and the world was right again.
As players advance through the game, they'll earn XP for every baddie squished, and predictably these are used to buy new moves and upgrades. You're actively encouraged to build up combos and execute stylish kills to increase your XP tally, though this in turn helps the developer really show off the brilliant fighting engine. Upgrading is dead easy too. There's no faffy menus to trawl through - at any point in the game, just access the main menu and see what upgrades are immediately available to you. This instant reward is not only satisfying, but also vital for progression through the game. Come up against a new type of enemy who continually blocks all your tried and trusted attacks? No problem - just instantly add a couple of new, unlocked moves to your repertoire and you'll vanquish them in no time. Again, the multiplayer element is stressed here, as there are moves you can pull off as a pair that are impossible to perform if you're fighting on your own.
The crowning glories of this slick fighting engine, though, are the all-new Fatalities. Previously players who could pull off these awesome finishing moves with tons of different characters were revered as gaming gods, nimble-fingered know-it-alls with some secret, zen-like knowledge of the game. These days, you lucky monks are awarded with tons of new ways to dispatch a foe throughout the course of the game, and introduced to them with a watch-and-learn tutorial screen. Each particular button sequence is stored in the menu screen too for those with goldfish-capacity memories. Then there are the all-new Multalities. Just as awesome, with these you can immediately dispatch several enemies at once.
Holding the skull and spinal column triumphantly above everything else, however, are Brutalities. Unleash hell with one of these bad boys and not only will the room be cleared of any enemies unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity, but there'll be lashings of blood on the dancefloor, ceiling, walls and any other visible surfaces. And you're not limited to pulling these off when an enemy is rasping for his last breath of air, either - these awesome moves can be executed at ay time during a fight. The only mandate? Fill your Fatality meter up first by, you guessed it, building up combos through skilful gameplay.
So we follow the twosome into the hub-like Outworld, the fabled MK hinterland and setting for the quest missions in last year's MK: Deception. From here you're largely free to choose which environment to explore next, and because of the continuing availability of new moves (and hence the ability to access new areas), there's tons of replayability and revisiting to be done.
The camera can occasionally be a bit of an issue during the game, thanks to its fixed rotational nature, though players can always zoom out for a panoramic view during the platforming parts of the game, then zoom in close enough to smell the blood and sweat during combat. The Versus mode is back, and though it's solid, there are no new additions. If there's one other gripe we have, it's the bastardisation of the traditional one-on-one game to fit into Shaolin Monks; the camera takes a much more panoramic view, and of the few playable characters there are in the game, these must be gradually unlocked throughout the single-player mode. That said, if you're that bothered you could probably pick a copy of Deception up these days for around a tenner anyway.
So there we go. It is a Mortal Kombat game, but the emphasis is purely on a fast and frantic actioner. Was it a good move? We certainly think so - and seeing how well the depth of combat and very essence of the Mortal Kombat series has been translated, we're certainly looking forward to the inevitable sequel. Only with more playable characters. And more blood. You can never have too much blood, right?
To feast on more Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks goodness until your head explodes in a gout of blood and flying brains, visit www.mkmonks.com.