Monkey King: Hero Is Back is a love letter to simpler times. Mechanically, it wouldn’t feel out of place on the PlayStation 2, and graphically, it’s barely just a generation ahead of that. This is a simple experience at heart, but it’s one you’re bound to find some enjoyment in should you take to its rather repetitive tasks and charming yet annoying band of characters.
Based on a Chinese film of the same name, you assume the role of Dasheng, a Monkey King who has been imprisoned for 500 years. Suddenly awakened by a young boy named Liuer, it’s your job to rid the world of the evil that has taken over during your slumber – one that is stealing children and attacking townsfolk in nearby villages. Pitched as a retelling of the movie in question along with new sub-plots and stories, this is the material’s first chance at gaining any traction in the Western market.
In truth, this is very much a light-hearted tale for the most part, with a smattering of story beats to be found in the latter half. It’s certainly enjoyable enough to follow, but it's not the next great video game plot by any stretch of the imagination.
Simplicity is the key to what makes Monkey King tick, with a set of 10 linear levels to work your way through that only just manage to stretch a playthrough past the five hour mark. It’s a third-person brawler more than anything else. Two basic light and heavy attacks deal damage, while an assortment of weapons can be picked up from the ground for a limited amount of time. Most of your time will be spent engaging in combat with the monsters you come across, but that’s no bad thing.
It is indeed rather simple when compared to other titles in the genre, but there’s a degree of satisfaction to be gained out of just wailing on an enemy as you spam the square and triangle buttons. Without a stamina bar to worry about, it’s almost freeing to not have to worry about complex mechanics and move sets you’d need to write down to remember. It’s not going to satisfy those looking for something deeper, but it somewhat gets the job done with a satisfying weight to be found in each and every blow dealt.
There are a few other things to consider when you come across one of the game’s monstrous foes, however: taking a stealthy approach can lead to surprise attacks that eliminate enemies in one hit, one-on-one confrontations occur as a result of a parry, and follow-ups deal huge damage after you’ve landed some blows. They never amount to much more than a button-mashing quick time event, but it’s at least another means of attack besides the simple three-hit combos.
Magic is the other element that makes up combat, allowing you to unleash powerful hits in accordance with how full your mana bar is. From a deadly combo of hits that’s enough to knock even the toughest of enemies down to the ability to summon weapons for a limited time, there’s something that’ll aid almost any encounter. It’s not something you’ll want to build your entire damage output around, but they’re complementary bonuses that can get you out of a pickle.
You'll always have some company during combat, although they never actually offer any assistance. The young Liuer and another companion take a backseat as soon as an enemy shows its face by literally screaming at the tops of their lungs, just to make sure you've noticed it. It's incredibly off-putting and annoying, to the point where they almost feel like different characters to the ones featured in cutscenes. To go from charming to frustrating in the space of a few minutes is quite the feat, but Liuer and friends manage to achieve it.
Fighting makes up the majority of the experience, but the linear levels do give way to some hoarding and collecting. Numerous materials and plants are strewn about the place, and it’s these that are used to purchase healing items and consumable amulets that deal big damage. Meanwhile, the red orbs you collect from fallen enemies can be used to upgrade your range of magical abilities, while hidden Earth Gods are traded in for enhancements to your health, mana bar, and the effectiveness of combos.
The two elements of combat and collecting work well for the most part, but it starts to fall apart as you make your way through the game’s final level. It ditches the general loop of the title for what is essentially a boss rush made up of the encounters you’ve already beaten. In putting a real strain on your healing resources, it quickly turns into a tedious slog that threatens to put a sour taste in your mouth upon the game’s conclusion. The boss fights are exactly the same and aren’t in the least bit enjoyable the second time around.
Visually, the adventures of Dasheng aren’t exactly impressive. While there are some nice, varied environments to explore, none of them actually look particularly great – especially so this late in the PS4 generation. It’s not a title that belongs in the current generation presentation-wise, and you’ll notice that almost immediately. In contrast, the game runs well with a smooth, reliable frame rate that didn’t seem to dip whatsoever. One unfortunate bug caused us to fall through the world and have to restart our console in order to return to a previous checkpoint, but that’s the only glitch we came across.
By keeping simplicity at its core, Monkey King: Hero Is Back offers an entertaining if somewhat mindless distraction to the blockbuster titles releasing around it. Sure, it’s a little bit too short, the narrative isn’t particularly gripping, and it looks like an early PS3 game, but that all falls by the wayside in the heat of battle. Thanks to fun brawling mechanics, Monkey King: Hero Is Back does just enough to deserve your attention.