Monkey King: Hero is Back is supposed to be Sony’s marquee video game for the PlayStation 4 in China this year. But based on what the company is showing off at ACGHK 2019, it’s not enticing.

The game’s release is just three months away, so presumably Sony has a mostly finished game somewhere that it could be showing off. Unfortunately, the world saw a better demo of the game in Shanghai a year ago.

This latest demo has few interactive elements in the environment and odd design choices. For instance, every time you want to climb a ladder, the screen cuts to black, shows a canned animation, then cuts to black again before returning you to gameplay. It’s really jarring… and that’s when you can find a ladder to climb, because there are several that are mysteriously unclimbable.

The animation in last year's demo was smooth, but the fighting could have been faster. (Picture: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

The thing is, this isn’t supposed to be an afterthought for the China market. It’s described as a AAA-level production co-developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio and Osaka-based HexaDrive. It’s also been Sony’s headlining game for presentations and booths at a few conventions in China.

For the uninitiated, Monkey King: Hero is Back is a PS4 exclusive game that’s an adaptation of the blockbuster Chinese animated movie of the same name. The movie premiered in 2015 when it became the highest-grossing animated film in China at the time.

Just like the movie, Monkey King: Hero is Back on PS4 has a uniquely Chinese art style. (Picture: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

When Sony announced the game back in 2017, it was considered a major win for console gaming in China. By that point, Sony had only officially been selling its PS4 in the country for a couple years after China lifted its 15-year console ban.

Fans of the film should at least be able to enjoy some aspects of the game. It nailed the style and vibe of the movie. The game has smooth animations and character designs plucked straight from the film. It even has an interesting story that mostly centers around Sun Wukong -- the Monkey King and legendary warrior from Journey to the West -- going on an adventure with two adorable kids.

Perhaps it’s reasonable that this latest demo isn’t as great as the one Sony showed off at last year’s ChinaJoy, which is China’s largest gaming convention. ACGHK, also known as Ani-Com, isn’t primarily focused around gaming. Still, with the game so close to release, you’d think Sony would be putting its best foot forward.

Instead, the demo offered no narrative setup and simply instructed the player to walk around a Chinese village and fight everything in sight, which were supposedly monsters terrifying the community.

For whatever reason, last year’s demo felt much more polished. Although not outstanding, it was a solid effort for a game not close to being released.

Last year, I got to battle a few different kinds of small minions before taking on a golem boss. It would have been better if the combat were faster, but the game was varied enough to keep me engaged. It was enough to make the demo feel complete.

Hopefully this year's ChinaJoy will show more of the game than just beating up these lizard monsters. (Picture: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Now, it is just a demo. The full game won’t be out until October 31, so we don’t have long to wait. But it’s not looking great for one of Sony’s main attempts to crack China.

Another way they’re trying to reach the country? Sony’s 2-year-old China Hero Project, which is an investment and promotion scheme set up to support homegrown Chinese games. But recently released games from that project haven’t exactly taken off. 

Both Immortal Legacy: The Jade Cipher -- previously named Kill X -- and HARDCORE MECHA were heavily promoted in China. But they haven’t become hits among Chinese gamers, let alone gamers anywhere else.

Perhaps Sony has more to show of the Monkey King: Hero is Back before the big release. This year’s ChinaJoy is next month. Maybe that’s when Sony is planning to really wow us.