Taking on the task of standing out in the platformer genre has always been a challenge. Throughout the years, we've seen the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic dominating the field. Even today we see astounding new platformers struggle to break through, games which channel all the best aspects of the genre, playing on nostalgia and intriguing mechanics - the bar has never been higher. And so, the question in this particular case is whether Unruly Heroes has what it takes to cement itself as a platforming great, or will it stumble like so many before it?
Magic Design Studios' Unruly Heroes is a puzzle-driven, side-scroller with branching paths, and like a number of platformers before it, this adventure is set in 16th century Asia and follows a storyline influenced by the Chinese novel, Journey to the West. In summary of the story: players will take control of one of four heroes from the novel, playing either solo or co-op, as they travel westward in search of the remnants of the Sacred Scroll, hoping to bring light back to the world. Along the way, players will travel through a variety of different worlds, fighting unique enemies and their much more powerful boss equivalents.
Each of the four individual heroes plays differently from the next, in terms of specific jumping mechanics or how they can interact with the world itself. Wukong, the Monkey King, for example, can double jump and manipulate his Ruyi Jingu Bang to create a platform to walk over. Kihong, the Greedy Pig, can glide or puff himself up like a balloon and float upward. The way each character plays, works similarly to the power-ups in Mario, if they could be swapped at a moments notice. As well as this, each individual world brings new mechanics for players to toy around with. This could be the introduction of the cloud which plays similarly like the planes from Cuphead. Then there's our personal favourite, the infancy levels in the Underworld that transform each of the heroes into their baby equivalents, causing the game to be played entirely differently until the change is revoked.
As mentioned, the game can be played solo or in cooperative mode. In solo, players can switch between each character by a simple press of a button. In co-op, on the other hand (of up to four players), each person has a designated character they play as. Unfortunately, there is no opt-in / out button, meaning if you're playing co-op, you can't just switch back to solo without heading back to the main menu.
So where does Unruly Heroes separate itself from the pack? Unlike traditional platformers, this game has a diverse combat system which allows players to fight the many varieties of enemies and bosses. This can be through a typical combo sequence, through using the aerial- or ground-slam mechanics, or by earning and utilising the ultimate ability, which is unique to each hero. This is an attack which deals a huge amount of damage over a fairly long time period, during which the player is immortal. Players can use these to slog away at the chunky health bars of the game's many bosses, each of which has their own mechanics to be learnt and overcome. All in all, these features do add an extra layer to the game, which greatly improves how it plays, however, there are issues elsewhere.
Over our playthrough, one of the biggest frustrations we faced was the overwhelming challenge the game creates in certain places. Whilst the title does have difficulty settings, which do make it more accessible to newcomers and amp up the challenge for experienced players, we played the game on normal, expecting a reasonable challenge. What we found were specific levels in which we would take three or four times longer than the game expected us to take, dying dozens of times before completion. One of the worst cases of this was a level in which we had to make our way up falling platforms whilst plummeting into a seemingly endless abyss. It already sounds like nightmare material, before we mention enemies are working to make this even harder and there's a visual filter is in place, so we could only see our character's silhouette. It made for an experience that raised our blood pressure beyond dangerous levels.
It is worth noting these situations aren't always prevalent. In fact, a lot of the game is based around the humorous and light-hearted storyline, which is a step away from the novel itself. To couple with this, the title is absolutely stunning in terms of its visual design. The hand-drawn style perfectly reflects the roots of the game, while also giving it a lively feel. On top of this, the soundtrack transports the players into the ancestral culture the game is built around, making the experience feel even more genuine. To cap this all off, you could assume the load screens would break this immersion, however, that would be wrong; the title has interactive load screens which allow the players to be an impromptu conductor of a rag-tag band of musicians. This means whilst you're waiting to jump into the next level, you can be jamming away instead of just sitting through painstakingly long loading screens.
The last thing we'd like to mention is this game has an impressive amount of content for an arcade campaign-focused experience. The 29 levels spread over five worlds will provide enough of a varied challenge to satisfy even the most hardcore platformer player. For the completionists out there, the game has collectables in the form of scrolls which unlock concept art, or earnable skins which can be purchased by spending the coins gathered throughout the campaign. Just for clarification, if you collect every coin, you can unlock every skin; there are no premium skins requiring microtransactions.
Overall, Unruly Heroes is a unique platforming experience which has tight mechanics and a combat system to set it apart from the rest. The issues which had us conflicted come in relation to the difficulty spikes, which sucked the enjoyment out of the game entirely and replaced it with fiery rage. Still, platformer fans will undoubtedly wallow in this game, even if less versed players may struggle to do so.