Review by clarkisdark

"Mortality is a bummer"

Mortal Kombat was the first game my mother wouldn't let me play. Its gory "fatalities" turned every passive parent into a concerned activist. I suppose there was reason to worry, because several of my classmates started playing live Mortal Kombat for recess. Personally, I have never been too interested in Mortal Kombat-- until recently, that is, with the onset of a different style of gameplay. This was attempted earlier in the atrocious Sub-Zero spin-off adventure, of course, but Shaolin Monks is better than that. In fact, it's better than a lot of "beat 'em ups."

Mortal Kombat has always been, at its core, an exploitation of blood. Shaolin Monks has it in excess. Enemies get chopped up, ripped apart, impaled, and smashed in showers of gritty blood. The blood splotches alone look good and a little unsettling, but they are used so much, it sometimes feels overdone. Even so, watching an enemy splatter against the wall is a guilty pleasure. The game has its moments of unbearable slowdown, but at least the [numerous] load times are quick. The stationary camera can be troublesome at times, however. It occasionally zooms too far out, enemies like to dance outside its borders, and your co-op teammate can easily get stuck between the camera's edge and a wall. The graphics themselves are polished, though the in-game cutscenes are a little stilted and jarred. The pre-rendered cutscenes, on the contrary, are outstanding. The opening fight was truly impressive, with visuals comparable to a feature-length movie. When it was over, I found myself thinking, "I'm not sure what just happened... but it was cool."

I tend to forget that this game has a soundtrack. A generic blend of traditional Chinese and modern rock makes the music portion easily forgettable, and it's usually overridden by the sound of punching, kicking, and dying anyway. Why are martial artists so noisy? Liu Kang squeals a lot when he kicks. I am also bothered by the fact that Kang's name is pronounced wrong, but this is just coming from someone who is very familiar with the Chinese language. All the voice-acting sounds the same and has a very distinct, B-quality about it. I could no longer take the game seriously when Kung Lao asks a monk who was just stabbed through the head, "Are you okay?"

Mortal Kombat has changed. I'm sure this marks no end to the series' fighting roots, but Shaolin Monks is a definite--and appreciated--change of pace. Many like to use the term "beat 'em up," while I personally lean towards "brawler," but "action adventure" may be suitable, as well. The story focuses on Liu Kang and Kung Lao, both playable from the start either in single-player or co-op (referred to as "ko-op;" clever designers). The premise is simple: move from area to area and beat the tar out of anything that moves. This is where Shaolin Monks rises above the rest in the genre. Combat is brutal, ugly, and disgustingly pleasing. Everything you love (I'm assuming you love it) about Mortal Kombat is now in free-roaming, eight-directional, interactive 3D levels-- and it works really well. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun kicking butt. If the enemies are starting to bother you, you can even throw them into an environmental hazard, like a pit of spikes or man-eating tree. There is a need to finish them yourself, however, to gain experience points which can later be used to unlock better moves and combos.

The levels are all intertwined to form a complete adventure atmosphere, requiring some backtracking when needed skills have been obtained to access certain areas (or to just uncover hidden secrets). Shaolin Monks isn't all fighting, either. There are sequences of puzzle-solving and platform-jumping, but these don't play out quite so well. After "testing my strength" before turning a wheel by mashing the A button repeatedly for the sixth time, I would have rather they not included this.

The fighting system is richly rewarding in its display of hostile brutality, but this can only be accomplished through an excellent control setup. Each character has three main attacks and a jump. Stringed together, they form all kinds of creative combinations, including the opportunity to juggle opponents in the air with repeated kicks. Attached to this are special meters. One meter grants you special attacks like Liu Kang's fireball or infamous bicycle kick. The other meter lets you perform the further notorious fatalities. Sadly, fatalities really aren't that fun. The game doesn't give you much time to enter the five-button permutation, and having to use the D-pad for the directions causes you to slip repeatedly. Fatalities also put the action on hold and transfer the actual fatality to a black screen. It's kind of stupid, really.

Despite how fun this game can be, parts of its design are just aggravating. The solutions to some of the "puzzles" are a bit vague and ridiculous. In one room, you're supposed to throw an enemy onto the spikes in order to use him as a step to get to a higher ledge. It's creative, yes, but it's also hard to figure out. On several other occasions, I had no idea where I needed to go. It usually turned out I had the right idea, but the game wasn't letting me make the jump (or grab the ledge, or whatever).

Playing alone is exasperating because of the overpowering slew of enemies. The ko-op is definitely the better option, but it, too, is a bother at times. It's frustrating when both of you end up on opposite sides of the camera and can't reach the enemy you were butchering. It's also irritating how the two of you share the same health bar, so no matter how careful you play, your partner can still bring you to your death. Experience points are only rewarded to the person who dealt the final blow, and your teammate can easily steal your hard-earned kill. If you're not the one to wear the pants in a co-op relationship, you can expect your partner to undoubtedly hog all the action.

Lasting Appeal:
The main game takes about five to six hours to complete, though if you want to talk about how long the fun lasts, it's less than that. The most fun I had was in the initial stages when I first got to experiment with the rich and satisfying combos. Despite the variety, punching people gets old and tiring. There is the option to play through again as Sub-Zero and Scorpion in order to unlock more stuff, but I didn't find it to be very much fun a second time through. It isn't so much Shaolin Monk's fault as it is the fault of the genre itself... although games like Final Fight have always lured me back in. Shaolin Monks isn't quite like that, though the co-op mode really helps. I would have gotten much more bored with this game had I not been accompanied.

Speaking of two players, it wouldn't be Mortal Kombat without a Versus mode. There are so many current-generation versions of MK out there already, however, that this less-emphasized inclusion is better left untouched. In keeping with the main game, Versus mode features the same open-direction gameplay in smaller arenas. While this could certainly be fun with four players, Shaolin Monks unfortunately does not include such support. The limited two-player fights aren't very fun and generally wind up being one-sided. To make up for this (to an extent), the full Mortal Kombat 2 game is available as an extra. The problem with always bringing back the "classic" versions, however, is that they play horribly compared to what is out there today.

If you've always appreciated Mortal Kombat's outrageous violence but don't care so much for the traditional fighting game, Shaolin Monks is great fun. An enjoyable co-op mode and violently rewarding combo system are strong elements in an otherwise shoddily designed adventure. With heavy moments of tediousness and frustration, Shaolin Monks is better served as a weekend rental than a life-long purchase. It's a fun rental, though, and your darker half will greatly appreciate it.

+ Satisfying violence
+ Deep fighting system
+ Good 2-player support
-- But only 2
-- Camera trouble
-- Aggravating design elements

Score: 7/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 10/04/05, Updated 10/07/05

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