Midway Games' Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is one those games that, four years ago, would have sucked. In fact, Mortal Kombat Trilogy did suck, but Shaolin Monks, despite a few rough edges, not only offers a good single-player game, but delivers an extraordinary co-op game.
Finally breaking free from the confines of the fighting genre, Midway's Shaolin Monks brings the fighting army of Kombatants into a different setting, yet retains the fighting moves, styles, personalities and Kombat lore that have made the franchise such a strange cultural phenomenon. Shaolin Monks is a pretty basic action-adventure title, but because the fighting move list is so deep and the action so fun, the result produces an arcade-style joy like few other games have. It's all about the co-op game.
Ed Boon and his talented development team have done something that seems so natural and seemingly obvious that one wonders why it wasn't done before. That is to successfully shift a fighting game into another genre. Numerous other developers have tried and failed. Witness Namco's Death By Degrees. But Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks works on a number of levels, some of which are obvious, and some seem to be almost by mistake.
Let's start with the weirdness first. I've always been flummoxed by the random mish-mash of creatures and influences from which the series draws its influences. There doesn't seem to be a single source, like say, Norse mythology. Instead, Mortal Kombat appears to have drawn in equal proportions from Asian martial arts, general European bestiaries, and early '70s cartoons. The mix is sometimes hard on the senses, but in Shaolin Monks the result is so comic and in its own way, absurd, that it's likeable despite itself.
The over-the-top fatalities, rip-roaring bloodletting, and simplistic designs combine to form a landscape that's so cheesy and B-movie in execution, that they're repellingly likeable. You wonder what the hell cheese will be thrown at you next, and each time it comes, you're strangely, happily satisfied. Looking at the game, listening to it, and watching the gore fly, it's all sort of like attending a wild cheese-whiz party where, at first you want to go, but you're compelled to stay.
Modes of Play
Bizarre aesthetics aside, the gameplay follows suit with more direct purpose. Lifted from the purer genre of fighting, Shaolin Monks is an action-adventure specializing in fighting. You can pick from two characters to start: Kung Lau (the martial arts master with the blade-rimmed hat) or Liu Kang (the fireball shooting, high-pitched screaming martial arts expert). Each is endowed with his own special moves, animations, and style of fighting, and both are great in their own ways.
I started the cooperative game with Liu Kang because I preferred his intuitive fighting moves, but when I started the single-player game, I picked Kung Lau and grew to appreciate his style over Liu Kang's in the long run. I should explain that this one- to two-player game offers a few modes of play. There is the single-player game, the ko-op, and the Versus. Plus, just because Midway is so good to you, there is an unlockable demo of The Suffering 2: Ties that Bind, and a fully playable, unlockable version of Mortal Kombat II in there for the taking.
Unfortunately, if you play the single-player, another character cannot jump in at any time. Instead, to play a co-op game, you have to turn to co-op mode, where you can only play a two-player game, and the other person cannot drop out. It seems the two should modes have been joined together, letting players drop in and out at will. Still, the point is you can play in either mode, and that's a good thing. The single-player game is easier than the co-op, which makes sense, but about half way through the game, the difficulty makes a big jump, and starts to challenge your "skills," which I quoted purposely because those aren't always necessarily what you'll need to beat this game.
Combos and Fatalities
The game is filled with numerous unlockables. You start with attacks and combos, and then it's just a free-for-all from there. Also unlockable are items, arenas, artwork and movies, as well as two additional playable characters, which should be quite obvious at this point (one of them is Scorpion). The character select screen shows silhouettes that are unmistakable, so as soon as you see them, you'll know who else is unlockable.
The seemingly short list of starting characters is by no means a problem. Since the game takes place after the first tournament and leads into the second one (therefore it takes place in between Mortal Kombat 1 and 2), you'll see all sorts of Kombatants, including Kano, Reptile, Kitana, Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, the evil Shang Tsung, Raiden, Goro, and many more.
By pulling off uninterrupted combinations and learning to time fatalities right, players earn experience points, the game's currency, throughout its 10 or so hours of playtime. Points earn you new moves. Press a button and you can flip through the menus to see an arsenal of basic moves, combos, fatalities, team combos, running moves, throwing moves, and brutalities. Like the fighting game, Shaolin Monks is all about combos and fatalities. Combos are Shaolin Monk's raison d'etre, for better or for worse. Fatalities earn you anywhere from 500 to 650 exp points at a time, so it's always worth your while to pull them off.
The move-buying system is well done. Each move is explained in words and pictures, and each combo and move is spelled out, so if you forget, no worries. You're told the fatality move first, so there isn't any guessing or feeling under-prepared, i.e. you won't have had to play five or even one Mortal Kombat game to become proficient in Shaolin Monks. If you forget your fatality, just check the move list in the pause menu.
The move list is well organized, too. Special moves have multiple tiers. So each time you earn one, you can upgrade it to a better, more deadly attack. For instance, Kung Lau's has a spin attack. Each time it's upgraded the spin lasts longer and becomes wide in range. His hat spin attack is also upgradeable. You can throw it, upgrade it to bounce off walls, and upgrade it again to damage enemies ahead of him. It turns out that thowable items such as skulls, sticks and bones, are useable, but not all that useful.
Action, Adventure, and Co-op
The action-adventure aspect of Shaolin Monks is interesting and varied, if not a little mechanical, repetitive, and full of back-tracking. The game leads you through a myriad of regions, from the Living Forest and the Wu-Shi Academy to the Outworld's Soul Tombs and various portals. You're faced with a mixture of fighting puzzles, boss fights, and environmental tasks to progress. The backtracking, while a little konfusing because of a weak map and boring because it's the same area, works out in the end. New moves you unlock, like wall climb, long jump, and fist of ruin, enable you to tread through different parts of old levels previously unavailable.
You earn points by skillfully beating up enemies, and throughout the game, the numbers grow abundantly. But you can also use the environment -- hungry trees, spiky walls, spiky pits, catapults, etc. -- to crush your enemy as well. You just don't get any points for using the environment. Seems to me you should get a few points, just not as much for using the landscape as a weapon. But the environmental keys and traps spring open doors to new areas, unlock items, and are generally good fun nonetheless.
The mix of these elements is well done. Many mini-games are thrown in throughout the title. These involve button-mashing to open doors, spring open traps, and progress. They are also thrown into boss fights, and unfortunately, they don't work as well, as witnessed in the fight with Baraka, who's cheap, cheap, cheap. If you play through in the single-player game, you'll see multiple areas designed for two-player co-op play, and just like Midway, I encourage you to play this with two people, because it's twice as fun.
The co-op play is very much open for deviance and partnership. On the one hand, it's open like the arcade game Gauntlet, so health kits, experience points, and enemies are all there for the taking. You could technically wait until your friend is just about to finish off an enemy, take the last hit, and grab all his energy for yourself. It's cheap and lame-ass, but you'll find yourself doing it just the same. Second, the camera is not infinitely flexible. If I fight a character on the far left side of the screen, I hit the camera's limit. But at least I can still see the enemies. While I'm doing that, you, on the right side, are restricted to moving farther right. Enemies can attack from off-screen, and essentially you have to kompromise (sorry, couldn't help that one) your territory.
The co-op game, however, is fun because you have to work as a team and talk to each other, creating a social experience very much like being in the arcades. Despite some rigidities and technical weaknesses, Shaolin Monks creates an atmosphere of camaraderie. One last set of moves I almost forgot to mention but proves the teamwork point to a Tee are the team attacks, which require you and friend to pair up for two-player attacks. It's a great idea that works well, and makes the co-op just that much more valuable.
The art style of Mortal Kombat, like I was saying, is a mixture of influences, some creative and likeable, while others are less original and just downright ugly. The game as a whole is better than average looking, using decent geometry and textures, and good lighting and particles effects. The PS2 version holds its own without too much loss against the Xbox version, though the Xbox version loads and saves faster. The environments are generally smallish and closed, rather than large and unending, and the game's emphasis and energy really aren't spent on them.
Instead, it's on the characters, who look and move great in most instances. Just like the fighting games, there is a certain amount of robotic motion that's a little jarring. Yet your chosen characters fight with fast, effective animations, despite their mechanical nature. In general, the characters do exactly what you want them to, quickly and without any major obstacles.
I have to say, however, that the animated trees made me laugh, reminding me of H.R. Puff'N'Stuff, and other early Sid and Marty Kroft shows. In short, the whole game is a mixed bag, with some weaker areas and some stronger ones that make up for them.
Coming back to a complaint I made earlier about the separation of the single-player and the co-op mode, in the single-player mode, the cutscenes are very illogical. They constantly show the other character, who isn't there at all in the game, but who constantly shows up in each of the cutscenes despite his absence. It's too obvious not to make note of.
As with all Mortal Kombat games, the chosen sound effects here are loud, complemented by various sounds of gory, squishy, flesh-ripping attacks, and then some really, really weird stuff. Liu Kang easily takes the cake for making the weirdest set of sounds. His turkey calls and high-pitched yelps are both super annoying and yet strangely pleasing.
The voice acting is forced, a little dumb, and it also ends up in that B-movie class of making you laugh at it. Raiden talks so fast and moves so oddly, you think he's just waiting to finish his sentence so he can run into the forest and take a pee. The music is also a strange mix of Asian-style sounds mixed with atmospheric effects. The combination of the two is familiar, and does a good job of creating tension and suspense.
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