Monkey King: Hero is Back Review – PlayStation 4
+ Great art
+ Slow-motion finishers
+ Authentic Chinese flavor
- Poor performance
- Insufferable loading
- Limited content
- Repetitive game loop
Monkey King: Hero is Back is a movie-licensed title, and we all know how those generally turn out despite the fact we don’t see that many these days. To put a twist on the genre the movie in question is a “2015 box office smash”…in China, so one has to wonder how you can leverage a movie-licensed game when most people have never seen your movie. And it probably doesn’t help when your new 2019 game looks like it was designed in the 90’s then given a next-gen facelift.
This classic 3D platform-brawler kicks off with some gorgeous story panels that introduce our hero, Sun Wukong and gives us a brief history of the warrior leading up to his 500-year imprisonment and subsequent release when he is accidentally set free by Liuer, a young boy caring for the even younger An-An, riding in his backpack. A short tutorial ensues, teaching you the basics of combat, world exploration, item collection, secret discoveries, and even a bit of crafting. While all this sounds like standard stuff for a 2019 game, Monkey King: Hero is Back does exhibit design elements that hearken back two generations of gaming.
Despite being able to unlock new skills and abilities, Sun Wukong has a limited set of combat moves, and while the combat and fancy slow-motion finishers are entertaining for the first hour or so, things start to get stale long before you reach the end of this 8-10 hour adventure. It also doesn’t help that the enemies are limited to less than a dozen creature types including a handful of boss battles, and there are only ten levels to explore that may look different but play the same. The level designs aren’t all that complex which begs the question, why are there so many loading screens? It’s like this game was designed for a system with the RAM of the original PlayStation.
There are these dotted lines visible in the level that totally ruin the immersion as well as trigger a several-second load when crossing over. You can’t even get out of the first cave in the intro without a load screen, and these aren’t new level loads; they are just loading the next section of the current level. Even more annoying was the first time I was encouraged to climb a tower there was a load screen for going up and back down the ladder. The same goes for entering/exiting most structures with a door. Clearly, this game is not optimized properly or the designers have no experience in dealing with memory management on the PS4. Regardless, these numerous load screens frequently break any immersion you might have with the game.
The main gameplay loop is basically running around these levels kicking enemy butt and collecting plants and other items that you can convert into useful items at your local traveling merchant. I did appreciate this interesting approach to crafting in that you didn’t create the items but merely purchased the item by providing the ingredients. Same thing really only your crafting bench is now this insane looking merchant. There are also statues scattered about where you can cash in the collected souls of your enemies to unlock new spells as well as save your progress and exit the game.
Monkey King: Hero is Back looks incredible at times. The cutscenes reach near-PIXAR quality at times; Liuer even reminds me of the scout from UP, but in a world where cutscenes have become seamless with gameplay, there is a noticeable transition between gameplay and narrative here. The actual gameplay looks good if you keep the camera pointed down but once you include anything on the horizon the FPS drops into sub-30’s and there is some super-aggressive motion blur at work when you pan the camera side to side that was making me nauseous. The audio mix was fine with some reasonably good voice acting, immersive music, and competent sound effects. The entire presentation showcased its Chinese influence and themes nicely.
In a world where many of our favorite classics are coming back with a fresh coat of paint (Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, MediEval) that look and play better than ever, it makes Monkey King: Hero is Back a tough recommendation, even at $40. There are definitely some fun and interesting elements in the game, and I caught myself smiling on more than a few occasions, but the overall retro design (and not in a good way), limited content, and poor performance, not to mention source material that you’ve likely never heard of, would have me waiting for a major sale or maybe a free offering to PS Plus members. Monkey King: Hero is Back is also available on the PC, but a cursory look at the Steam page seems to indicate the problems are even worse on that platform. Unless there is a major patch in the works I’m going to recommend you pass on this game for now.