Unruly Heroes, at first glance, is a pretty standard platformer that takes a lot of structural cues from games like Rayman Legends. The game quickly reveals that there's more beneath the surface, especially with its narrative ties to perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Chinese literature in existence: Journey to the West. Written in the 16th century, the novel details a monk's adventures as he makes his way west and meets up with all kinds of fantastical gods and demons deeply rooted in Chinese mythology. Unruly Heroes plays around with and streamlines the story, while making it more accessible for modern audiences and the end result is something truly extraordinary.
Unruly Heroes is France-based Magic Design Studios' first game, but the team behind it is definitely not new to the medium. Most of the designers previously worked for Ubisoft on popular titles in various series like Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia and, naturally, Rayman. A lot of these games inspire in some way. shape or form Unruly Heroes, especially the latter two. The game has the aesthetic and artwork of a Rayman title while its combo-based combat system feels very Prince of Persia-esque. Of course, Magic Design doesn't just settle for a copy and paste approach to gaming (there is plenty about Unruly Heroes that feels fresh and unique) but the inspiration from these titles is there right in the DNA.
Story-wise, of course, Unruly Heroes is its own entity altogether. Players can alternate between four separate characters, each with their own unique combat style that will need to be utilized to solve the various puzzles and properly traverse the offered areas throughout each of its 29 levels. These characters are on a journey to the west, much like the original novel the game is based on. Perhaps more importantly, each of the four are based on vital characters from Journey to the West: the Monkey King, Tripitaka the monk, Pigsy and Sandy. Naturally, the characters aren't exactly perfect recreations of the novel versions as Magic Design instead elects to offer their own spin on both the characters and the story. This is all for the better as it allows the studio to tell an old story in new ways.
Of course, the story of Unruly Heroes is only half of the fun. The puzzles and combat mechanics are what really drives the vehicle most of the time, and while they can prove to be frustratingly challenging at times, there's always an internal logic to things. Work hard enough at it and you'll eventually find the answer. Nowhere is this more true than during the game's various boss battles, especially the more layered and multi stage ones at the end of each of the four worlds that comprise Unruly Heroes. These boss fights are equally thrilling and challenging, but there's never the sense that it's a hopeless battle.
The artwork, much like a Rayman entry, is absolutely breathtaking and it's clear that Magic Design took their time constructing every single piece of Unruly Heroes. It helps that mostly everything about the game is just incredibly polished. Lag or dropped frame rates are a rarity, though there is the occasional stutter or two at the main menu when it's loading assets. Still, that's almost not even worth mentioning when the rest of Unruly Heroes runs like a well-oiled machine. The popping colors of the game's maps are enough to bring curious players in, while the rest of the game's mechanics will hopefully keep them enticed.
Speaking of map design, Unruly Heroes' levels are very much expertly made. They are never too long to wear out their welcome nor too short to feel like you're not getting your money's worth. These maps are filled with various puzzles that are never overly complicated (this seems to be a recurring theme in the game) and enemies that, while not exactly brimming with variety, are fun to destroy with combo attacks that make the player feel like a genuine warrior. There is a learning curve to things, especially with those unfamiliar with the genre, though the game even likes to throw curveballs at experienced players once in a while with levels that require possession of certain enemies to progress. These random characters come with their own mechanics and combat style and it only further serves to break up any sense of monotony that it would perhaps otherwise have hanging over the game.
Unruly Heroes comes with both the adventure story mode, which can be played with up to four people in total in local co-op, as well as a versus mode that can be played both locally and online. While it's a shame that the story doesn't include online co-op, it's not altogether unsurprising. Latency issues for a mode like that combined with the platformer action aspects that levels bring perhaps make such a thing a near-impossibility for a smaller, more independent studio like Magic Design. Versus mode more than makes up for this, with four players fighting to the death in a Super Smash Bros-like combat setting, though obviously lacking the complexity of a more bigger budget game like that.
Unruly Heroes is an exciting twist on the age-old tale of Journey to the West and, while it's not the first video game or even piece of pop culture inspired by the novel, it's perhaps one of the most fun and quirky versions of the story in a long time. For a first time effort for the studio, Magic Design has already proven itself an asset for the indie game developer scene and it's hard not to be excited for whatever they bring next. For now, players can happily follow Monkey King and his companions on an adventure they're not likely to forget anytime soon.
Unruly Heroes is available now on PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch for $19.99. A PlayStation 4 version is still being worked on, though no release date has been confirmed. Screen Rant was provided with an Xbox One copy for the purposes of this review.