Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is conflicted.
On the one hand, it's designed for Mortal Kombat fans -- charting some of the series' untold back-story, home to virtually every quirk, sound effect, special move and character from the period it draws upon. On the other, it's almost bizarrely accessible -- a third-person action game complete-able using just a handful of core move combinations, which blend greatly simplified takes on classic kombat attacks together.
On the one hand, it's designed for people to enjoy together co-operatively -- with a great many areas and secrets that can only be reached or unlocked by introducing a second character. On the other hand, there's no option for a second player to duck in and out at any time -- you either play together from the start or you don't.
And that's ignoring its rather odd title, featuring a colon where philosophically speaking you might imagine a wall's actually meant to go. Guffaw.
Well, I say "philosophically speaking" -- actually that's Google speaking. I just went and looked at the first thing that popped up and stuck in a "clever" comment on the end of the intro. Best to betray myself though, because it's precisely that degree of thought and application that goes into enjoying Shaolin Monks. Ninja Gaiden -- another beat-'em-up to action-game spin-off -- held my attention with its absurdly gorgeous looks and the subtleties of its ferociousness, which demanded as much thought and strategy as guts and the desire to spill guts. Shaolin Monks is another beast entirely -- it's deeply troubled and troublingly shallow, but it's not all that troubling the rest of the time and it looks nice and you can uppercut a guy's head off and then scissor-kick it to smash his torso into bits. So that's alright.
The basic gist is this: things pick up at the end of the first Mortal Kombat tournament and it's all going a bit off-script. The "Mortal Kombat" tournaments are contests designed to stop the Outworlder Shang Tsung taking control of Earth by forcing him and his evil chums to try and beat the Earth's best before he's allowed in. But now he's not playing fair -- apparently defying the gods by marching in and causing havoc at the good guys' temple. So it's up to Liu Kang and Kung Lao, operating at the behest of goody-god Raiden, to patch things up after his initial attack and then journey to the fiery Outworld realm to give his wispy beard a violent tug and set things back in order. You can choose to play as either Liu or Kung (or one each if you're playing "Ko-op") and have to annihilate hordes of nasty mutants and spectral horrors, complete the odd puzzle, and smash up recognisable bad guys like Reptile, Baraka, Scorpion, Goro and co. on your way up to Shang Tsung and whoever else lurks in his shadow.
It's a good idea and initially well executed. Each character has a basic arsenal of attacks that can be chained together easily, and the special moves that made up the core of the earlier 2D side-on beat-'em-up are boiled down to simple "R1 + button" style attacks that can be threaded happily into more fluent combat. Learning how to uppercut enemies into the air, leap up and juggle them to the pit of their health bar used to take ages; here you just smack 'em, jump, mash a button, hit another to scoop them up again, mash some more buttons, then smash them into the ground as you both start to tumble back to earth. In a nod to some of the later MKs, you can also pick up weapons from time to time and do bloodier murder using those. Just press a button to pick something up and then mash the others to wield it.
This simplified approach is offset by the need to build up experience points by killing lots of the rank and file enemies to unlock the better moves, which are more damaging versions of the easy stuff. Liu Kang's ridiculously swift flying kick can be upgraded into his more demented bicycle kick with a handful of XP, for example, and the only difference in execution is that you have to hold down the button for a second or so to unleash the tougher version.
There's also the issue of fatalities and their various derivatives. MK's most recognisable aspect, fatalities are ridiculously violent finishing moves that come right at the end of a bout when an opponent is already beaten. In the olden days, myself and a friend used to stay up late with a player's guide trying them all out and marvelling at the gory delights that came from blindly inputting a particular string of button presses successfully. Here you're told what the button-presses are in advance, you can check them in the pause menu, and you make use of them by pressing the fatality button when your fatality meter is full up, and then inputting the right sequence of d-pad directions followed by attack button, all of which is shown on-screen.
Each stage is bristling with incidental violence. You can uppercut enemies onto spikes, you can smack them into the jaws of evil trees, you can toss them onto catapults and watch them flung across the level, you can toss them into some nearby fire and watch them burn. Killing enemies this way robs you of the experience and any health blobs they might leave behind, but you'll still grin. More than that, some of these environmental hazards are key to making progress.
Unfortunately this is where it starts to fall down and feel a bit contrived. Sometimes you don't mind -- having to impale an enemy on spikes to form a platform to reach a higher area is amusing enough -- but on other occasions it's a bit daft. For example, having to uppercut an enemy into the mouth of a tree in the Living Forest might tickle you once, but having to do it three times at prescribed points goes a bit far. The other problem being that sometimes you just don't "get" what a particular puzzle is demanding of you -- the game's a bit nondescript about this sort of thing and doesn't stop you doing things wrong until it's too late, so you could conceivably get to the end of a section without realising what you were actually meant to be doing and then have to go all the way back and do things properly. Fortunately, the goons respawn wherever you might need to bash them into a particular puzzle mechanic. Actually, that sounds less like good fortune now I've written it down.
That said, you might not be thick like me, but you'll still have to do lots of backtracking. Part of it will be out of a desire to see what your new ability (Long jump! Fist of Ruin! Etc.) can be used to unlock in a previous section. But sometimes it's because the developer's being silly. Die at Reptile's hands, to stick with that area of the game, and you have to redo the platform bit beforehand, which also makes you redo things again and again if you fall off. Mostly though you have to backtrack because the game actually wants you to run back and forth. Kill a boss deep in the heart of a stronghold and you might expect to be transported back to the hub area. You're being helped along by a god after all, and the boss in question presumably doesn't like traipsing around either. But no -- you often have to walk out of the boss area and along the path all the way back to where you came in. Fighting! Not hiking! No wonder Liu Kang moans about being tired.
It has some signposting and level design issues, then. Otherwise it's fairly technically proficient. Artistically it's a sort of graft of early-days MK designs onto a 3D engine that works well enough, and the important stuff -- i.e. the character animations and how they connect in combat -- is close enough to spot on. The third-person camera is controlled by the game, but like Prince of Persia it offers a few different placements including a "panoramic" view to give you a better angle on your surroundings, and although there are some times when it seems slightly loath to show you what's going on it generally does its job. Sadly not so much in [grinds teeth] Ko-op though, where there's a tug-of-war elements to fighting enemies at opposite ends of the screen. Best to stick together.
But will you actually play it with someone else? That's another question entirely -- and it's worth coming back to that point about not being able to duck in and out. It just doesn't make sense -- both Liu and Kung appear in cut-scenes together, and many sections remind you of the need for "an ally", but there's nought to be done about it. That seems to fly in the face of the completist attitude of the rest of the game too. This is clearly a game for Mortal Kombat devotees -- all the relevant characters are in there at some point (to the extent that some are totally superfluous, actually), you can unlock Scorpion and Sub-Zero as playable alternatives to Liu and Kung, you can unlock the entire Mortal Kombat II game, there are hidden "Smoke" missions, you receive an XP bonus when you react to the famous "Toasty!" sound effect in a particular manner, and you can even "unlock" some new fatalities by scrutinising the concept artwork. But for all that, you can't get all those percentage points out of it without having someone else tag along.
Even so, Shaolin Monks has taken aim at a sensible niche and does a pretty good job of hitting it. Every step along the way has something that you can trace back to a particular element of Mortal Kombat, and fans will revel in the task of unlocking everything and mining the depths of the combat system. For the rest of us, it's no God of War of Ninja Gaiden either visually or mechanically, and there's some contradictory design that's hard to overlook if you don't think it's awesome that most of the old myths about Mortal Kombats I to III have finally found a home. If there's a rhyme or reason to it, perhaps it's that the violence and gore are still satisfyingly novel, but that this time it's more show-and-tell than learn-and-apply.