Dasheng, once imprisoned for 500 years for defying Buddha, must learn how to help children not get eaten by monsters in this PS2-esque Chinese tale.
Monkey King: Hero is Back is a simple, entertaining movie tie-in game which feels like a lost PlayStation 2 title, with all the benefits and detriments that statement contains. Based on the Chinese animated film of the same name and part of Wu Cheng'en's famous Journey to the West series, Hero is Back sees players controlling Dasheng, the titular Monkey King, as he struggles to learn how to do good deeds in order to regain his magic powers. Once one of the most powerful beings in the world, Dasheng has been imprisoned by Buddha for the past 500 years because he tried to name himself lord of all creation. Now freed, the Monkey King must go about setting things right and saving children from monsters in order to redeem himself.
Gameplay takes place in small areas connected via loading screens, the separation of which is indicated by a string of glowing dots across the path in a manner which immediately evokes memories of Final Fantasy XII. Combat in Monkey King: Hero is Back consists of heavy attacks and light attacks, with the ability to upgrade later from the normal 3-hit combo into a 4-hit or 5-hit one. There are also unlockable powers which Dasheng obtains after defeating boss enemies, such as the ability to spot interactable objects with yet another form of Arkham Asylum's much-copied detective vision, as well as things like enhanced speed and a flurry of monkey kicks.
Some of the game's larger enemies require elementary forms of strategy, such as attacking from a certain angle or repeatedly targeting a particular area in order to expose the enemy's weak point. However, most of the player's combat encounters in the game will consist of simply mashing the Light Attack button repeatedly and every now and then using Heavy Attack only to to break up the monotony. Most of the game's grunt enemies put up little to no challenge, although they can become something of a nuisance during battles which feature both endless spawning monsters and a larger boss at the same time.
Speaking of nuisances, Dasheng is accompanied on his journey by two (well, technically three) characters. The first is Liuer, a small boy who discovered and accidentally freed Dasheng from his prison while running from monsters. The second is Liuer's little sister, who the young boy carries in a basket in Banjo-Kazooie fashion. The third is Zhu Bajie, a former friend to Dasheng and part-pig deity. Unfortunately, because of the game's audio design, players are almost guaranteed to grow to despise the sound of these character's voices, Liuer's in particular.
From the very beginning of the game Dasheng is accompanied by Liuer, and the child continually makes his presence known every few seconds thanks to him shouting "AHHHH! MONSTERS!" at the beginning of every single combat encounter. Once Zhu Bajie joins the party, he too consistently expresses disbelief at coming across yet another group of enemies, even after watching the player defeat hundreds already, but his screams are drowned out by Liuer's, who, being younger, has a much higher, more ear-splitting pitch. Thankfully, during cutscenes these characters are much less annoying, and the story of Monkey King: Hero is Back is well-paced and rather heartwarming in a children's film sort of way.
Certain problems indicative of the game's target audience persist throughout. The game is exceptionally over-tutorialized, even worse than the tutorials in Red Dead Redemption 2, with nearly everything being spelled out to the player both in the plainest terms possible and usually more than once. This is unfortunate, because when the game does let go of the player's hand and lets them explore and roam around and fight at their own leisure it can be a very enjoyable experience. Combat, while simple, feels fluid and easy to execute, with a variety of different objects like benches and rocks to employ along with Dasheng's magical kung-fu.
The environments are distinctly Chinese in their atmosphere and design, and although levels in Monkey King: Hero is Back contain an over-abundance of invisible walls each one still feels unique unto itself. The addition of Earth Gods, small creatures hidden inside clumps of dirt, rocks, flower circles, and other obscure areas like Koroks in Breath of the Wild, mean players will likely spend lots of time exploring these areas, since finding Earth Gods is the only way to unlock more heath, magic, and combos. Dasheng himself is, thankfully, quite fun to control, making segments where players are circling and re-circling levels trying to find that one last Earth God a little less tedious.
There are few actual challenges in Monkey King: Hero is Back, but the gameplay finds a balance between rewards, combat, exposition, and scenery changes to keep things moving at a steady pace. Sure, players can run around an area in circles looking for lost Earth Gods if they want to, or they could just move on to the next zone and continue the story. While somewhat of an irritating character at first, Dasheng himself becomes a rather likable protagonist by the end of the game, and certain scenes between him and Liuer are truly touching.
Monkey King: Hero is Back feels like a lost title from the PlayStation 2 era, and that's not a bad thing. Although the gameplay may lack the comparative complexity of other recent third-person action adventure titles, Monkey King is a perfect choice for younger gamers who may feel overwhelmed by some of today's larger experiences. With a heartwarming story, occasionally frustrating sound design choices, and a main character who can summon a Kung-Fu Bench out of thin air, this game is perfect for children and anyone who wants to go back to when games were a little less complicated.
Monkey King: Hero is Back is out now on the PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. We reviewed the PC version.