I had high hopes for Monkey King: Hero is Back. Well, let’s say I had moderate hopes for it. Based directly on the 2015 animated film of the same name, I was excited for a new game inspired by the same classical Chinese literature and mythology that gave us the likes of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Early trailers painted a picture of a basic, but fun and visually unique adventure, and the children’s film was mostly well-received. All of these things had me hoping for a hidden gem, a diamond in the rough that is movie tie-in games. Unfortunately, Monkey King is all rough and no diamond.
Hero is Back loosely follows the same plot as the film, which itself adapts Journey to the West to be about the Monkey God, Sun Wookong, redeeming himself by helping save the village of a boy who frees him from 500 years trapped in a cave. The game does take some liberties with the story to better fit the format, but fans of the film will know what they’re in for from the beginning, since that released around four years ago. The game presents its story in a few different ways; through simple dialogue sequences, the occasional long stretch of walking and talking (which I kind of liked), but also with some garish, washed-out, motion comic-style cutscenes that really don’t feel like they belong. Sun Wookong (or Dasheng as the other characters affectionately refer to him) isn’t particularly likeable, either. His broody-but-silly emo monkey shtick works in the film, but in the game he’s mostly just annoyingly aloof.
If your game is a completely linear journey full of long, wide paths to traverse that also invite a fair amount of backtracking, you’d better hope that my character’s movement is fast or exciting or that I’m doing something interesting in the downtime. Monkey King: Hero is Back is 70% walking from place to place, occasionally doubling back to make sure you’ve collected everything before moving on, and Dasheng seems content to just meander along like there’s no fucking village of children to save. I’m a bit of a completionist in these types of games, but at a certain point I gave up. Partly because the game does a bad job of explaining whereabouts you’ve still got things to find (and whether it’s even possible to go back for missed bits), and partly because I got sick of traipsing up and down the same, indistinct paths over and over again. You’d think, being a Monkey God, that Dasheng would have some freedom of movement, too. Instead, each level is essentially a series of invisibly-walled corridors made to look like open, outdoor environments. The few times he does get to climb things are canned moments with zero interactivity.
Dasheng is at least a little more exciting to control when squaring off with the game’s many (but mostly identical) monsters. Being a game more than likely aimed at teens and maybe even young adults, Monkey King has a little more depth in combat and character progression than a typical tie-in game. The standard system of light and heavy attacks along with an evade button is complemented by some cool timing-based counters and a healthy list of special skills that unlock as Dasheng continues his journey and regains his powers. The bones of a fun combat system are certainly there but, as with the rest of the game, poor design brings the experience down. The biggest annoyance is the lack of a proper enemy targeting system, leading to more punches thrown into the air than I’d like as well as wasted MP when special moves fire off in the wrong direction. Counter moves are the most fun, requiring players to land a blow at the same time as an enemy (which quite often happens naturally if you’re just mashing out combos) and results in a number of varied, nice-looking animations depending on the enemy and the move.
It’s the quality of the animations that really saves Monkey King’s overall presentation. Where environment and enemy designs sit somewhere between ‘pretty cool’ and ‘downright garish’, character animations are mostly really good, with the kind of detail and comic energy to stand up to the CG film. Watching Dasheng reach into the very fabric of space and pull a kung fu bench out of thin air never gets old. Some of the areas that the game takes place in do look breathtaking at times, but they don’t hold up at short distances and there are a lot of repeated assets throughout. Voice acting is competent, although far more British than I remember the film being, which is weird. The music, like everything else, is pretty good until you realise you’re going to hear the same tunes over and over for long stretches of time. That really sums up the whole package; great at first, if a little janky, but eventually devolves into monotony thanks to too little content being stretched over too big a game.
Monkey King: Hero is Back is…fine. I’d say it’s aggressively average. Thing is, for a (very late) movie tie-in aimed at a younger audience, that’s pretty good. It’s got its fair share of problems, but it does have heart, and the more games based on Journey to the West the better. I just can’t see it gelling with anyone but the target demographic, and even those people are probably going to wish it was just that little bit better.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher