Is it a beat 'em up? Most definitely. An RPG? Sort of. How about a platformer? Well, almost. If you're in any confusion as to how to really label this beautiful oddity, don't worry - so are we. Imagine Ninja Gaiden meets Jade Empire with a sprinkling of the brutal gore only the MK series can muster, and you're halfway there. The one thing we are certain of, however, is that this dubiously anticipated curve ball from one of the greatest fighting franchises of all time has delivered, and it rocks all kinds of hardness.
For die-hard fans of the series, the storyline is thus: the evil Shang Tsung has tried to corrupt the Tournament of MKII, only to be disrupted by Liu Kang. He then lures the combatants to the Outworld, to face off with the mighty Shao Kahn. Phew. For everyone else, just sit back and watch the frankly breathtaking opening cut-scene that details this saga. It looks fantastic, boasts superb visuals and art direction, and is just as cinematic, if not more so, than any of the high-kicking CGI celluloid offerings of late. Players are thrown straight into the mix, dumped in Goro's lair and left to scrap their way out. Two playable characters (Liu Kang and Kung Lao) are immediately available, each with their own fighting styles. It's nowhere near as intimidating as other MK titles, though, and you'll soon get to grips with the furious fighting nature of the game like Goro's vice-like fingers.
The one thing that separates Shaolin Monks from any other actioner is the aforementioned depth of combat. Every stage is an unrelenting, extended bout of MK goodness, where each individual opponent must be treated as an honourable adversary, and players must use the same high, low, block and aerial attacks from the more familiar Versus mode (also included in the game). Combat is fast, fluid and extremely slick, yet the intuitive controls make juggling a foe in mid-air for a 20-hit combo dead easy. Attacks are easy one- and two-button affairs, yet the results are devastatingly cool.
The action occasionally veers towards the repetitive side, and because save points are very few and far between, it's sometimes frustrating to work through the same level over and over. That said, the learning curve is very well measured, and puzzles increase in difficulty at a manageable rate. These, by their nature, are again governed by the fighting engine, and players must use opponents to smash down walls, drain enough blood into the floor, or throw their bodies onto spikes and use the resulting platform to vault up
and over a wall. It's immensely satisfying to solve a corpse-littered conundrum after the last 20 minutes of scrapping with enemies for no apparent reason, though guiding light Raiden does his best to ease players along with handy tips.
The inclusion of two-player co-op (sorry, make that Ko-op) mode is a first for the series, and is a more than just a homoerotic gimmick too. There's something undeniably cool about playing through a game with a mate, and you're rewarded further with puzzles only solvable with two players. We felt like we were missing out on a part of the bigger picture, as we continually bypassed pairs of floor tiles that must be pushed in unison to unlock some hidden area or secret as we worked through alone... sniff. Then we fired up Ko-op mode and the world was right again.
As players advance through the game, they'll earn XP for every baddie squished, and predictably these are used to buy new moves and upgrades. You're actively encouraged to build up combos and execute stylish kills to increase your XP tally, though this in turn helps the developer really show off the brilliant fighting engine. Upgrading is dead easy too. There's no faffy menus to trawl through - at any point in the game, just access the main menu and see what upgrades are immediately available to you. This instant reward is not only satisfying, but also vital for progression through the game. Come up against a new type of enemy who continually blocks all your tried and trusted attacks? No problem - just instantly add a couple of new, unlocked moves to your repertoire and you'll vanquish them in no time. Again, the multiplayer element is stressed here, as there are moves you can pull off as a pair that are impossible to perform if you're fighting on your own.