Review: Who's an angsty monk? Yes you are. Yes you are.
It's no secret that Mortal Kombat is not the dominate force in video gaming that it once was. It's also no secret that a good portion of the blame falls on the two MK ?adventure? games Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces. Both bombed with critics and fans and combined with the series' delayed transformation to 3D cost it the crown.
But all that changes with Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. The only way to describe it is as the 3D beat ?em up fans of Final Fight and Double Dragon have been waiting on for years. Shaolin Monks takes place during the Mortal Kombat II-era in the MK timeline and is basically a retelling of the events of that tournament (with a few new wrinkles, see below). In fact, the game opens with a huge cut scene detailing the end of Mortal Kombat I and Liu Kang's victory over Shang Tsung.
From there the true game opens up and players are given the choice of playing as Liu Kang or Kung Lao. Both have all of their special moves from MKII, and they do move slightly different. Liu Kang has more speed, while Kung Lao has more strength and the ability to perform air combos (remember that nifty Dive Kick from MKII, yeah that one).
Once you're thrown into the game, fighting is done with Shaolin Monks' Multi-Directional Fighting System. This system allows players to attack in any direction while using the face buttons (Square = Quick Attack, Triangle = Launch Attack, O = Power Attack and R2 = Throw) to string together combos on any enemy in their general vicinity. R1 is the modifier button and holding it while pressing any of the face buttons will unleash Liu and Lao's special moves. All of these attacks fluidly blend together to create some of the best beat ?em up action I have ever seen. It's even possible to throw an enemy into the air and then jump at him and attack him in mid-air. Too much fun.
Attacks can also be upgraded by earning Experience Points. You can do it the old fashioned way by killing enemies to earn points and then multiply it the MK way by stringing together higher and higher combos. And it can be multiplied even further by Finishing your poor opponent with a bloody Fatality. These points can then be used to purchase new combos and special moves.
It all comes together in a perfect blend of Mortal Kombat based melee action that just feels right. Fans of Mortal Kombat and beat ?em ups in general will almost find the fighting more fun than any of the ?real? MK games. It all really comes down to the amount of options they give you with this Multi-Directional Fighting System. You can be kicking the stuffing out of an enemy one minute, turn and land a few quick jabs on another and then turn again and grab a third and throw him into the first two and then turn and uppercut the advancing monster into the spikes that line the wall and on and on and on. The possibilities really are endless.
To make the game something more than one long punching bag, Midway has added a puzzle system and Test Your Might points to the mix as well. Not your typical puzzles, Shaolin Monks derives its puzzles from the environmental hazards that populate many of the levels. For example, the only way to advance in the Living Forest is to feed a bunch of zombies to the screaming trees. Or later in the game you will be required to throw several enemies into a set of grinding gears which will shred them and pore down the walls. Then Sub-Zero will come along, freeze the blood and make a blood-red ice ladder. All together now: Eww!
And this is the gift and the curse of the environmental puzzles. Some of them are a little hard to figure out and there are times when the game just dumps you into an area without any clue what to do next. But the puzzles also feature brilliant MK inspired designs. Freezing a blood geyser to make a ladder? That's awesome!
But the game's greatest sin is that the developers at Paradox have mucked with the Mortal Kombat mythos in weird ways. Kung Lao is no longer the silent monk who may or not be the reincarnation of the Great Kung Lao, the last human to win the tournament. Instead, he is a sullen and angsty man with a bad attitude and an even bigger hat. Raiden is off as well. Instead of the wise and powerful Thunder God who will protect Earthrealm at all costs he is an enigmatic spook who shows up, says something baffling and leaves. This is explained later in a cut scene, but with Paradox going for a ?big reveal? it was telegraphed from the second level. And not surprisingly, throughout the course of the game nearly every major enemy will be killed. Even though all of them appear alive in Mortal Kombat 3. It might be a little thing to non-MK fans, but there are certain things that are supposed to be a certain way. And the rest of the game is so perfect when it comes to that fresh Mortal Kombat feeling that it just bugs me.
Everything else just looks and sounds right. Stages from MKI and MKII are recreated into full levels here complete with every little touch you could imagine. The Pit, The Living Forest, The Dead Pool, Goro's Lair, Shao Khan's Coliseum? all of it looks beautiful. Any MK fanatic will be scouring the background for all of the hints that Paradox has littered throughout the game. The sound effects and music also take their cues from MKII with plenty of Toastys, Bicycle Kick screams and Finish Hims to go around. What is up with those voices though? Dear god, Kung Lao is a whiny little monk who needs a Bicycle Kick upside the head.
Sadly, Shaolin Monks is rather short and not that difficult. A seasoned beat ?em up fighter or MK fan should finish Shao Khan in a few hours, tops. On the plus side though, the game feels as long as it should be. It ends just before it gets too repetitive. This is where Shaolin Monks' ace in the hole comes up. Ko-op Mode lets two players go through the entire game together fighting monsters, dodging spikes and finishing bosses side-by-side. It is also the only way to unlock many of the game's secrets. And there are a lot of secrets to unlock (a count in the menu screen shows close to 200).