Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is a 3D Beat em Up set right after the events of Mortal Kombat 1. The story starts off with Liu Kang winning the Mortal Kombat tournament but is unable to capture the master of the tournament called Shang Tsung. Thinking the threat to be over Liu Kang and his friend Kung Lao return to the temple to celebrate but their victory is short lived as Shang Tsung launched a surprise attack against Earth, slaying all in his path. What follows is a neat retelling of the events of MK2 that has you traveling across various realms in order to defeat the sorcerer Shang Tsung. From an Evil Forest to acid filled narrow rooms, this has pretty much all of the MK2 maps recreated in a 3D environment. It is similar to Metrovania in level design as it is open world but you will unlock new abilities to allow you to reach previously unavailable areas. Scattered around the world are statues that will allow you to save the game and restore your health though they are few and far between.
The main focus of this title is coop and teamwork as you pick from either Kung Lao or Liu Kang who fight substantially different from one another making them feel truly unique. You will need two controllers to even be able to click Koop mode but for those of us going at it by their lonesome there is also a single player mode where we can pick from either character. Shaolin Monks was clearly designed around coop as both character show up in cutscenes even though you are by yourself and the balancing of it feels far better suited for two people to handle. There are also puzzles that can only be solved by the use of two characters which will cause you to miss out on the unlockable goodies such as trailers, concept art and extra characters to play as in Versus. Versus mode is exactly what it sounds like and has you fighting against a friend in whichever unlockable arena you choose from. You can pick from a variety of characters such as Johnny Cage, Reptile and Baraka if you have them unlocked but if you don’t have a second controller plugged in you will not be able to even try this mode out. Playing it by yourself definitely feels like you are playing this game the wrong way but it is still fun nonetheless.
Gameplay is far different than any of the Mortal Kombat games and is more akin to something like Devil May Cry where you will rake in huge, awesome looking combos. You have a button for light, heavy and juggle attacks which have a really great flow to them, so much so that I rarely found myself using the preset combos since it was so fun to experiment with random button presses instead. When launching an enemy into the air he is helpless and you can land some devastating combos without fear of retaliation assuming his buddies aren’t around to break him out of it. You will also be able to throw enemies around and can be a really useful way to put your demonic surroundings to use such as throwing an enemy into a blood thirsty tree. These environmental hazards are no doubt cool but often times the game will require you to use them to progress turning them into a cool addition giving you more ways to dispose of enemies to busy work that won’t allow you to fight the way you want. Throwing is not too accurate so you may find yourself fumbling about to throw an enemy instead of fighting them since they will infinitely respawn unless you do what the game asks.
Occasionally you may find some weapons to use such as human skulls, swords and crane hooks which are powerful but you can’t block while they are equipped. They are a bit too slow to be your go to weapons but it is a nice variation from using your fists and it never gets old hitting someone in the head with a skull from across the screen. You have four special attacks that differ from character to character such as being able to teleport around as Kung Lao or throwing fireballs as Liu Kang. They are pretty powerful if used properly and are kept from being overpowered by a stamina bar that drains after using them. The bar quickly recharges so it is more of a way to keep you from spamming ranged attacks than to keep you from experimenting with your combos. Defeating enemies earn you XP which in turn can be used to purchase new combos and stronger special attacks. You will be able to unlock what you want pretty soon so it becomes rather pointless to fight the waves of respawning enemies after you revisit a zone and I often found myself running right past them. In true MK fashion you will be able to perform incredibly violent fatalities to finish off a foe once you fill up your red meter from fighting.
Along with fatalities you can also perform brutalities that slow down time and allows you to easily dispose of a group of enemies. There is quite a bit of options available to you during combat which really makes it fun and impactful. The areas are interconnected together by portals that take you to different realms and you are given a map in the start menu to know where you are. That map is near useless and a complete pain to figure out. It is not always apparent where you are supposed to go next leading you to explore the land and simply run past enemies to save yourself some time. It does not happen much but sometimes they truly leave you no clue as to where to head to next. There is some platforming sections that work surprisingly well and help to break up the monotony of pure fighting as well as making it fun to try to find secrets. This game features a ton of secrets such as brand new boss fights that won’t appear if you don’t keep an eye out. It’s quite surprising that they managed to add decent platforming to a beat em up and you will get new ways to traverse the further in the game you get such as wall running or double jumping.
Controls work well enough though it does feel a bit loose and it will cause you to miss opponents or overshoot your attack until you get used to them. The same can be said for the camera, it works well most of the time but there can be certain occasions where it is a detriment. One thing that really grinds my gears about Shaolin Monks is the way too common “Test Your Might” mini games where you must rapidly mash a button in order to pull a lever or something else that allows you to get through the area. You will have to mash that button very fast and it gets annoying fast. Other times your ways to progress are really cryptic such as one section in where you are required to cut a bunch of corpses blocking an entrance with a sword while your giant hat blade that you’ve been using to chop people in half until now did nothing. Nothing gamebreaking but it does drag the experience down. Now that I’m mentioning the bad aspects of this game I may as well mention the voice acting. It is awful in a cheesy kind of way and the story is pretty poor as well though a treat for anyone with nostalgia towards Mortal Kombat 2. Speaking of Mortal Kombat 2 you will be able to unlock that game by completing a few quests for Smoke or via a cheat code. It is just as hard as ever and you will likely get your face ripped off as you try to remember how to play.
Having a full game as an unlockable is pretty cool and it is a neat way to see where the stages & story of Shaolin Monks comes from. The bosses of this game is both the best and worst thing about it. For one you will be facing iconic MK characters in an intense battle to the death which is all well and good unfortunately they are gimmicky as sin. As an example you will be fighting Baraka in an epic fight and suddenly he sets a few monks on fire which then proceed to run all around the arena screaming and touching them only damages you. After beating this sequence Baraka will jump across a giant pit that is splitting the room and you will be forced to get into a ranged based battle where he will run around across his side of the room and dodging behind rocks as he shoots at you. That does sound awesome as heck but the combat mechanics was never intended for ranged combat and ultimately ends up like trying to shoot a duck at the fair instead of the epic Matrix like battle they were going for. What is really infuriating is that you will have to beat a boss by using a fatality that will kill him violently. Sounds awesome too, right? Well yeah, but they also execute it very poorly by flashing a specific combination you must press that disappears in a second and you literally have two more seconds to rapidly input those button combinations. Failure to do so or messing up on a button will cause the boss to regain 25% of his health which is such a huge pain as you are given far too little time to input those commands. I don’t see how the developers ever thought this was a fun or even rational mechanic.
Baraka is coincidentally the only boss you don’t kill with a fatality. Instead you must “Impale Him”. Er, okay? How are we supposed to do that? A strong attack? Wrong he just regained his health because of that. Some kind of combo combination, a heavy attack from the air or attacking from a certain angle? All wrong, what you are actually supposed to do is throw your sword at him…. twice since one sword stuck right into his skull is not enough. Seems like a really dumb and unnecessary problem to have that is caused by being way too vague and forcing a gimmick on people to finish the fight exactly how they want it. Bosses are not easy by any means so you can imagine how frustrating it is to mess up one of their gimmicks repeatedly, get killed by your opponent that resurrects more than Goku from Dragonball Z and having to start the entire fight all over again. The worst part is that the combat system in this game is really good for one on one fighting as you combo each other into oblivion, use weapons, side step each other’s flashy ranged attacks and do whatever it takes to win. Boss fights could have been amazing but the fact that they went out of their way to ruin them is really disappointing.
Beating the game unlocks either Scorpion or Sub Zero for story mode depending on the character you beat the game with. They have their own set of attacks and honestly made me want to replay some of the game to kick ass as Sub Zero. Good luck beating the game by yourself though. You will be facing three of MK’s strongest foes back to back with very little health recovery in between. If ever it was apparent that this game was made for coop that part would be it. It’s not impossible but be prepared for some rage as Shao Kahn murders you with a giant hammer for the 100th time. Funnily enough that was the most enjoyable boss fight since it was devoid of any gimmicks other than that forced fatality one. All in all Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is a fun game that surprisingly executes some of its ideas such as platforming and transforming MK into a 3D beat em up while being held back from greatness due to bad ideas such as a constant “Test Your Might” gimmick and cheap boss fights. If there was ever a sequel to fix out the kinks it could truly be a legendary game. As it stands it is a decent time waster if you go at it solo and even with all of its flaws I would definitely recommend it if you have a buddy to play with.