When I was younger I had a guilty pleasure, that pleasure was the 1970’s poorly dubbed TV show simply known as ‘Monkey’. This was a loose adaptation of ‘Journey to the West’, a 16th-century Chinese novel about four unlikely beings who set out on a pilgrimage, two of which are quite literally not of this world. Monkey King: Hero is Back isn’t a direct retelling of this story, unlike other games such as Unruly Heroes, it’s a new adaptation with a new story and setting, similar to how Ninja Theory did their amazing ‘Enslaved’.
Based, and part-developed by, the original team who created the incredibly popular 2015 film of the same name (it was the highest-grossing animated film in China for a while), Monkey King: Hero is Back faithfully recreated the key scenes with the in-game engine as well as adds more exposition and new scenes from the viewpoint of our beloved Monkey. The game isn’t perfect, there were times when I got annoyed and wanted to give up, but I’m glad I stuck with it to the end as the final conclusion was worth the journey I’ve taken getting there – much like a real pilgrimage in that respect!
So, let’s take a look at the game and see if it’s something you should pick up today…
As I stated above, the story in Monkey King: Hero is Back isn’t the same as the standard tale we usually get in the Journey to the West adaptations. However, the initial story is similar – Monkey is an immortal who took advantage of all the mystical arts he learnt from the Great Buddha, starting a war against the heavens in a fight over power and dominance. However, his Master never lost control over him, despite his strength, and thus locked him up into a crystal prison. Monkey, who is actually called Sun Wukong (although he commonly goes by the name he gave himself, Dasheng), gets freed from his 500-year imprisonment accidentally by a young child named Liuer.
Upon his awakening, he discovers he has no access to any of his magical abilities or his mighty staff (which is conveniently stored within his ear) – he’s been restricted of all non-Earthly abilities due to the armlet which has been chained and bounded by Heavenly magic. His only guide on how to have this removed and finally be free is to be good to the world, help those in need and be selfless in everything he does. Luckily, Liuer knows the tales of the ‘great Dasheng’ and asked for his help in rescuing all of the missing children from the village. After a bit of reluctance, and a zap from his ‘obedience armlet’, Monkey agrees to help the child.
Not too long into your journey, you meet up with the mighty Pigsy (known as his official name, Zhu Bajie) who is a fallen general from Heaven, exiled from the sacred place to be reborn upon Earth after trying to seduce the Goddess of the Moon. Unfortunately for him, his reincarnation had him come back as a half-man, half-pig monster – although he is rather loveable and kind-hearted, unlike the similar-looking creatures you’ll be fighting against within the game. Together, all three of you set out in order to find and rescue the missing children and put an end to the one behind these horrific events.
Monkey King: Hero is Back is a 3D semi-linear action-adventure game with a lot of collectables and reasons to explore your surroundings. You’ll begin with the ability to punch, kick, roll and jump, but you’ll gradually unlock new combos, magical abilities, increase your strength and defence, and gain access to more weapons upon request. Interestingly, the various ‘boosts’ are linked to a variety of different mechanics within the game, these are:
Stat boosts: Throughout the game, you’ll find some well-hidden Earth Gods, invisible to the naked eye but usually hiding on a suspicious stone or between a ring of flowers. There’s a certain number of them located within each area you venture through, just waiting for you to find them. If you do, you can trade them in – which is nice – for boosts to your strength, health and magic stats. These can be quite tricky to find but the guy you trade them in to will always tell you how many are left in the area you’re currently in, so you know when to move on if you’re going for all the trophies.
Consumables: There is no money in Monkey King: Hero is Back. If you want an item, all you have to do is provide the unusual salesman with the correct ‘ingredients’ to make said item. Each location has a different assortment of resources lying around, so you’ll soon have hundreds of them shoved in your pants awaiting a trade, but I couldn’t find anywhere which advised you where you find certain ones. So, if you’re at a boss and desperately need a health potion before you go into battle, you may have to pray you have found the right ingredients on your journey for a heath-based snack.
I thought this mechanic was interesting but it did get a bit annoying when I was at the end boss and had no resources to make any snacks. Luckily, I managed to win the game with about two hits left in me.
Magic abilities: Okay, so the bracelet upon your arm restricts you from performing anything magical, due to it keeping you under control so you can’t cause more havoc. However, each time you defeat a great beast who is terrorising people and generally being a pain in the ass, you get granted the option to unlock certain abilities based upon how much experience you’ve collected from defeating enemies. Initially, the abilities are simple, the power of your ‘Minds Eye’ which lets you see the hidden Earth Gods, and the ability to cancel the previous ability you’ve cast (in case it’s going on longer than you want it to and you want to save your magic).
As you progress, you’ll begin to unlock new abilities such as summoning a staff or bench for you to use against the deadly foes (hitting them with an item is much more powerful than your fists), the ability to run (which I’ll get to later), and more. Most of the unlocked abilities can also be upgraded, with more experience, so that you get more powerful attacks, longer uses per cast, or a stronger effect. It’s a rather simple skill tree, as you aren’t overwhelmed with everything all at once, but it does make the gameplay more varied as you get to try out newer abilities each time you defeat one of the main bosses.
On top of looking out for all the hidden Earth Gods and the hundreds of scattered resources, there are also a bunch of scrolls to find in all locations. These aren’t really that important outside of trophies and information, but they do give you small snippets of story and background to various events. On my first playthrough, I’ve collected all but five of these, so they aren’t that hard to spot and pick up. Thankfully, just like the Earth Gods, once you reach a point in the game where fast travelling between all the areas is possible (there are no missable trophies), the area selection screen clearly shows you if you have any missing Earth gods and/or Scrolls.
So, why did I say the speed ability was something I would come back to? Simple, Monkey King: Hero is Back is very slow. The movement is slow, the combat is slow, the story is a little slow, etc… Now, this can be seen as both a good and bad thing. For myself, someone who loves 3D platforming games of both yesteryear and current-gen, I never felt truly in control of Monkey, I would end up jumping too soon as I constantly forgot his jumped very slow and only progressed a short distance when in the air, and I did get a little irritated over how slow I was moving around. However, as the game is aimed at younger children as well as adults, maybe having the game a bit slower helps those with slow reflexes enjoy the game more?
The question is, how does this affect the combat? I hate using this term, but Monkey King: Hero is Back felt like Dark Souls to me – bear with me on this. The combat isn’t fast and snappy, it was slow and precise. You have to constantly time hitting the enemy as they hit you, so you cause a parry, using your roll ability to dodge and get behind them to attack the weak spots, head in for a few hits then retreat as they deliver powerful attacks, and utilise your magical weapons and those lying around to your advantage. In a way, it reminded me of Darksiders III upon release, only slower.
I did eventually adapt to the combat, after a few hours, but the initial impression you get is that it feels sluggish and unresponsive. However, that’s not the case, it’s just slower than usual and it does get better as you obtain new abilities. Remember, you’ve just awoken from your 500-year slumber and you’ve been stripped of all your powers in the beginning. The whole point of the game is that you’re not only helping save the children, but you are also on a personal mission to restore your powers and once again become the mighty Monkey King…
The Pigsy in the room
I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room here, the visuals. I’ve seen some stupid comments over the last few weeks saying it looks like a PS2 game – don’t be silly. The game has had some development input from October Media, the team who were also behind the animated moved from 2015 which the game is based off. As such, the visuals within the game are almost a 1:1 with the movie. Monkey King: Hero is Back contains a number of scenes with are in the film but instead of simply inserting the raw footage, as we saw with games like Steins;Gate Elite, they have been recreated with the game’s engine so that they can be shown from new angles and seamlessly with the action on screen.
The combat also benefits from this delightful visual style as there are some comical special attacks where Monkey throws the enemies at the screen, punches them so hard his hand deforms the back of their head, the enemies use other enemies as weapons, and more. The whole experience feels like you’re playing the film, something which people seem to dismiss when describing the visuals. Sure, it’s not a gritty and semi-realistic action game like Enslaved, but it’s a cute family-friendly adventure with children as its target audience.
One thing I am glad they changed over the move is the voices. No offence to Jackie Chan, who voiced Monkey in the film, but it didn’t really suit the character of Monkey. This time we’re given a sort of ‘Cockney’ accent, which is a bit strange – and the kid is so annoying! But, it all works much better and fits the game more in my opinion. Also, just in case you don’t speak English or fancy something different, the game is also fully voiced in Chinese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and Japanese. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a game with so many vocal languages…
Unfortunately, the music wasn’t very good in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the instruments used and the actual tunes were all period and location-specific (it all sounded very Chinese), but the music sounded like loops of a short sample, sometimes only a few seconds long before it looped over and over again. After a while I found myself numb to it, humming and tapping along as I explored the various locations, but I would have liked some longer samples and more diverse music at times.
Technical or design?
One of my main complaints is the developer’s unusual layout of the game. There are various towns you’ll be travelling through and forests, both with the odd building you can enter. Going into any of these buildings, or even down an alley or through an archway, leads to a load screen. Sure, it may only be a few seconds whilst it loads in the room or the other side of the street, but why? If a game like The Witcher 3 can have vast open-world environments which stream in the new locations as you walk around, I’m sure a game with less detail and population can do the same, if not better?
On the bright side, due to the game loading all the assets in as you go through these mandatory loading points, it means you have no pop-in or texture loading issues, as we see with bigger games like The Sinking City and Close to the Sun… Maybe this is why they chose the game to be like this? Who knows? It’s just another thing, like the slow gameplay, which will stand out and confuse you at first.
Similarly, I’ve read that people weren’t happy with the invisible walls, lack of being able to climb on top of everything you see (like boxes and ladders) and generally being restricted to a set path with only the odd occasion to explore and divert in order to find new scrolls and Earth Gods. However, once again, this is a children’s game – I imagine the linear nature is because it wants to keep them entertained and progressing at a steady pace, without getting lost. I personally didn’t mind it as I loved the old 3D action-adventure games from Disney last generation and this reminded me of one of theirs or a Dreamworks game like Kung Fu Panda.
It’s all up to you if the above sounds like a negative or not, it personally didn’t bother me but I can imagine some people may find it a bit too restrictive or immersion-breaking with the much smaller areas than we’re used to these days.
For a movie tie-in, Monkey King: Hero is Back does a great job of both replicating the experience and enhancing the story with new scenes and narrative. Sure, the combat and movements are slower than we are used to these days, and there is a lot of loading (despite it being very short), but after a while, I found myself used to it and not bothered by the slower gameplay and more relaxed experience. As you grow, both emotionally and physically, throughout the story, you’ll bond with the characters right until the final conclusion. It has its flaws, but I personally really enjoyed this Journey to the West adaptation.
If you like media based upon Monkey and the Journey to the West story, Monkey King: Hero is Back is a fun alternative look at the story. If you’ve seen the movie and enjoyed it, I’d still recommend you try out the game as it expands on the story with new scenes and events – rather like the directors cut, or extended version, of the 2015 movie.
Monkey King: Hero is back£34.99
- - Faithful visuals to the animated movie
- - Playable for people of all ages and skill levels
- - Interesting story based around the characters from Journey to the West
- - Adds new scenes and experiences from the movie, meaning it's not a 1:1 movie clone
- - Decent length story - took me around 15+ hours
- - The music is very short looping samples (but it does sound very traditional)
- - Liuer's voice is a bit grating
- - The combat and movements are rather slow (could put people off, I got used to it after a few hours)
- - There's a lot of short loading points, such as doors. Again, I got used to it but some people may not like it