There are very few movies out there that have been successfully adapted into video games. We can point out Star Wars and Alien as fine examples that have made the leap between mediums, however, Monkey King: Hero is Back is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, especially when considering the movie it is based on was hailed as a smashing success at the Chinese box-office.
Developed by HexaDrive Inc., Monkey King: Hero is Back is the story of Dasheng (an all-powerful monkey known in the movie as Sun Wukong), who saves a group of villagers from evil monsters after being freed from his ice cage deep in the mountains. The actual storyline is pretty much exactly the same as that in the 2015 film starring Jackie Chan that broke records in China, which itself is based on the novel Journey to the West. Our point is this: if this game's story interests you, it's probably better just to rent the film or read the novel.
In terms of what you're getting in this adaptation, it's a single-player action-adventure with some RPG elements and lots of fighting sprinkled on top. Throughout the course of the storyline, you will find yourself wandering around linear levels that have very few available options to explore, whilst simultaneously engaging in combat sequences every now and then.
The combat itself is split between two main styles. First is the action-adventure inspired one that requires the knowledge of two different commands in order to perform light and heavy attacks. The second is the fighting version, which is referred to as a one-on-one system. This involves engaging in a simple sequence that pits you against a single enemy in a combat scenario. The full extent of this, however, is incredibly disappointing as it involves simply mashing one button for around two seconds in order to defeat your foe.
The hero, Dasheng, can also use certain magical abilities that enhance his prowess in combat. The issue with these abilities is the fight sequences are so simple they are basically unnecessary and truthfully, they feel somewhat inconsequential. Some of the magical spells you can cast will allow you to spawn items or even find objects more easily, but again, it all feels kind of pointless in the end and we often forgot they existed altogether.
Another glaring issue with the combat is the available enemy types, which are incredibly limited. Across the storyline you will only encounter around ten unique enemies of which the majority of them are just recoloured versions of each other, meaning you never really face much variety. Among these different types, they do have unique attacks but even these are limited to marginal changes that don't require much alteration in terms of how you approach them.
Monkey King: Hero is Back does have unique boss encounters featuring new attack chains and interesting adversaries. The issue is, there is no real depth to any of these encounters, making defeating bosses less of a challenge and more of a chore. In fact, to get an understanding of how easy these fights are, you can pick up certain objects to use as weapons and deal more damage. When doing this, Dasheng becomes encumbered and cannot move as well as before; you would expect this limited movement to make boss fights more difficult, but the truth is, the bosses with their ridiculously easy attack sequences still can't effectively attack you.
For a title leaning quite heavily into martial arts and combat, it feels unbelievably sluggish to play, which is something that the huge number of loading screens doesn't help with. For some reason, there are loading screens absolutely everywhere. We're not just talking about heading to a new zone or area, there are also loading screens when entering one-roomed buildings or even when climbing ladders.
Aside from combat, Monkey King: Hero is Back features a limited variety of RPG mechanics, involving picking up materials, collecting currency/XP, and finding collectables to enhance the abilities of Dasheng. That means acquiring unique plants and minerals throughout levels that can be spent at the store to purchase medical supplies. The currency/XP is obtained from defeated enemies and can be spent at the store to purchase and upgrade your magical abilities, provided you have unlocked them beforehand.
The collectables offer unique incentives and come in different kinds; scrolls and papers bring access to new lore, whereas the Earth Gods will allow you to increase Dasheng's health or mana bar. The latter of the two is better hidden and will require a level of ingenuity if you're to find them. The variation the RPG mechanics bring does add an extra level of depth to the title but, spending all your time picking flowers and collecting various ores is not exactly what we were hoping for when jumping into a game about a Monkey King who has the power to fight the gods.
One genuinely good part of the experience is the visuals. Monkey King: Hero is Back is flawed in some ways, yet the game does look pretty great. It's just a shame then that Monkey King: Hero is Back is an otherwise exhausting experience that features too many poorly implemented mechanics and enough loading screens to break the spirit of an eternal optimist. The combat is boring, repetitive and requires no skill to conquer, and isn't helped by the limited enemy variety. As a counterpoint, the RPG mechanics do add a level of customisation, even though they feel kind of pointless. Monkey King certainly looks the part, it's just a shame that the rest of the game doesn't quite measure up.
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