Monkey King: Hero is Back is not the groundbreaking experience it could have been
Sony’s first marquee China-themed game is based on a hit animated film, but the gameplay is uninspired
Relying on beloved characters from a blockbuster animated film isn’t enough to make a great video game when the gameplay feels like an afterthought.
Sadly, this was my main takeaway from my time playing Monkey King: Hero is Back, which is Sony’s first marquee video game for the PlayStation 4 in China. The game is based on what was once the country’s most popular animated film (a title that now belongs to Nezha).
The problems in this game are many: An uninspiring, button-mashing combat system, a repetitive lineup of enemy types, an unjustifiable amount of loading screens, and unchallenging level designs. That’s contrasted with some gorgeous animation, but that’s not enough to save the game.
This is an unfortunate turn for such a beloved character. The Monkey King is the iconic character from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. It tells the redemption story of the superpowered, god-killing Sun Wukong, as the Monkey King is known in Chinese, after a monk set him free from shackles laid by the Buddha himself.
But in this adaptation, the monk who set the Monkey King free is an adorable fanboy of the legend. Initially irritated by the child monk’s unbridled interest in him and his constant preaching about doing good, the Monkey King undergoes a change of heart when the boy is kidnapped by a demon. As a result, the Monkey King has to regain his forgotten powers to rescue the boy.
While the movie was a huge hit in China, the game is much more disappointing. It’s essentially the same story with very limited playability. It will get you about seven hours of gameplay, but at US$39.99, that’s not much bang for your buck.
The main issues with the game are the button-mashing gameplay, the lack of interactivity and repetitive enemy types. So while you get to beat up monsters, upgrade your skills and unlock spells, moving through the different levels just feels like going through the motions.
The combat system mainly offers a three-hit light attack combo -- though you can upgrade with more hits -- and a single-use heavy attack. Without more variations, there isn’t an actual combo system in this game.
When you’re not busy mashing buttons to beat up enemies, you can pick up objects like benches and rocks to use as weapons or projectiles. But you might be frustrated by just how few items you can interact with at all. And while you can expend your mana to activate spells, it’s unnecessarily hard to summon spells in combat.
These other modes of attack don’t really matter, though, because enemies are ridiculously easy to take down and health potions are often readily accessible. So why bother summoning a spell or grabbing the nearest rock when you can defeat your enemy just as easily by simply tapping the same button over and over again?
You’ll get sick of those enemies pretty quickly, too. There are only about half a dozen types of enemies and a couple of bosses, so fighting quickly becomes boring. And if you’re thinking that changing characters would be enough to change up the gameplay monotony a bit, you’ll be disappointed to know that you can only play as the Monkey King.
The game does occasionally sprinkle in some platforming elements throughout your journey, but it feels too simplistic to be engaging.
Another thing you’ll get tired of really quickly? Loading screens. Get used to them. There are a lot. Climb a ladder? Load screen. Enter a room? Load screen. Walk over a bridge? Load screen.
There are way too many places where you can literally see everything past the load barrier, but you still have to go through the loading screen. Why is this still a thing?
But OK, I’ve been pretty harsh with this game. Is there anything to appreciate? Absolutely. The game is beautiful.
The art style in Monkey King: Hero is Back stands out immediately. It even opens with two carefully crafted animated cutscenes. It’s enough to make the beginning of the game feel like the strongest part, similar to what you might expect from a game like Kingdom Hearts III.
It makes sense that the art is the game’s forte. After all, it’s adapted from an animated movie. But while the opening sequence is very effective at setting up the chemistry between the two main characters, the progression of the plot later drags with long walking scenes accompanied by a monologue to fill you in on what’s happening.
It’s possible I had some unnecessarily high hopes for this game. After all, there are plenty of other movie tie-in games that are mediocre at best (I’m looking at you, Pixar games). But since the end of China’s console ban in 2015, Chinese gamers have long been hoping for something uniquely local like Monkey King that would also be a great console game. Unfortunately, the wait for such a game continues.
A game backed by Sony shouldn’t feel so monotonous. The gameplay shouldn’t feel like an afterthought. It’s great that they used a beloved Chinese franchise and that it looks faithful to the movie, but it’s unreasonable that there’s so little to offer hardcore gamers -- the people who are actually likely to buy a gaming console in China.
Even on Steam, where the PC version of the game is available, the game has overwhelmingly bad reviews. It’s a missed opportunity. Maybe Sony can try again when the next Monkey King movie comes out. After all, there are a lot to choose from.