Review: Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (PS2)

Genre: Action
Platform: PS2/Xbox
Rating: M (Mature)
Publisher: Midway
Developer: Midway Studios Los Angeles
Release Date: 09/20/2005

The Mortal Kombat franchise has had two spinoffs in the past…and they both sucked. Perhaps the third time’s the charm? Spinning out of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II, we’ve got Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, starring Liu Kang and Kung Lao. Does this 3D beat-’em-up surpass its predecessors? Read on and find out!


STORY

Our tale begins at the very end of the original Mortal Kombat, where Liu Kang, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage, Kano, Reptile, and Sonya Blade are all fighting in Shang Tsung’s martial arts tournament. (If you noticed that I left a name out there, don’t worry, you’ll see why in a moment.) In a lengthy cutscene, we see all of our fighters beating on each other using various signature moves as the decrepit Shang looks on. Until, of course, Liu Kang challenges the old man to battle, and faster than you can say “doppelganger,” Shang enters the fray. His mystical powers nonwithstanding, Shang is unable to defeat Liu Kang, and instead summons Goro to deal with the fighters. The four-armed monster dishes out the punishment, and Shang creates a portal to Outworld which he uses to escape. While this is going on, some of Baraka’s mutant troops arrive to subdue the fighters, but one of Shang’s guards reveals himself to be Kung Lao in disguise. The group of fighters eventually dispatch their foes, but all is not well; in typical villain fashion, Shang’s fortress now starts to crumble. Raiden teleports in (wondering where he was, were you?), and tells everyone that they must escape. Everyone manages to make it out, except for Liu Kang and Kung Lao, who are trapped when the floor starts to crumble. Falling down in Goro’s Lair, the real game begins. Now Liu Kang and Kung Lao will fight their way to the Outworld to discover Shang’s secrets, and meet some new foes in the process…

Tying in the storyline from the first two MK games was the smartest move the developers made for Shaolin Monks. While the series has had its ups and downs, any MK fan would agree that the first two are absolute classics, and many would argue that they were the best in the series, period. While a few liberties were taken with character designs and such (which I’ll discuss in the Graphics section below), this is classic MK at its finest. Plus, many events in MKII are now explained; for example, how Sonya and Kano ended up chains in Outworld.

(Rating: 7/10)


GRAPHICS

All of your favorite MK and MKII fighters are back in MK:SM, as well they should be. Each character’s been given a bit of a visual overhaul, however; the Shaolin monks’s costumes are a bit more detailed (though Liu Kang’s still sporting the mullet!), Sonya Blade now wears a tight tank top and low-rise camo pants with a very visible thong, and the ninjas (Sub-Zero, Reptile, and Scorpion) all look very different from one another, rather than just being pallette swaps. Animation’s good, too, with characters fighting with their signature styles, moves, and poses. As expected in a MK game, there’s blood and gore all over the place. Just about every hit generates a splash of blood, and the more powerful hits and fatalities produce gallons of the stuff.

More important than the characters, believe it or not, are the backgrounds. Levels from MK and MKII have been lovingly recreated in 3D, and they look even better as a result! Plus, background environments from the original fighting games now come to life; for example, the glowing eyes in Goro’s Lair will come out to fight you, as those eyes belong to some nasty Oni. Remember the Haunted Forest? Well, now you can toss enemies into the trees and watch them get chewed up. Even the witch flying in front of the moon on the Pit level is back! MK:SM is truly a visual feast for the old-school MK fan.

(Rating: 8/10)


SOUND

There’s a bit of new music here and there in MK:SM, but the real audio treat is the classic sound effects. From the annnouncer’s deep voice, to Liu Kang’s Bruce Lee-esque yells, to the ever-popular “Toasty!”, the sounds you hear in MK:SM will surely bring back memories. There’s also remixes of MK tunes new and old. The only thing that really brings the sound down is the voice acting; while it’s occasionally passable, most of it sounds like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.

(Rating: 7/10)


CONTROL & GAMEPLAY

Even though MK:SM plays somewhat like a fighting game, don’t confuse it for one; this is strictly a beat-’em-up, albeit with a strong MK flavor. X is your jump button, and the other three face buttons are your various attacks, which you can chain together over and over again to build up combos and rack up experience points. These can be used later on to unlock more powerful attacks. You can also use the L and R triggers to grab enemies, lock-on/block, use special moves, and trigger fatalities.

It just wouldn’t be a MK game without those fatalities, now would it? However, you don’t need to beat an enemy within an inch of his life to use them this time. Instead, you continually pull off combos until your fatality meter is full. Once that’s done, use the L1 trigger to hit your enemy with a fatality stunner, then input the correct combination of buttons to pull of the fatality. Each character’s got multiple fatalities; some old, some new. You’ll have to figure most of them out for yourself, but that’s part of the fun. The ever-popular brutalities are here, too, and to make things even more interesting, we’ve got “multalities.” These are exactly what they sound like: fatalities on multiple opponents.

MK:SM also has a bunch of different modes to enhance the gameplay. First, there’s your regular Single Player Mode. Then there’s Ko-Op Mode, where you and a friend can team up to take down the enemy. (Sadly, Single Player and Ko-Op are indeed separate modes; you can’t have a friend “jump in” halfway through the game.) Ko-Op mode is definitely the best way to play MK:SM; not just for the unlockables, but for the devastating team attacks. If you’ve got a room full of foes, a team attack will get them out of your hair with due speed.

Vs Mode is self-explanatory; you pick an arena, and beat down your opponent. It’s much like a real fighting game here, and all of your special moves and fatalities can be used, as expected.

Tight control is essential in any action game, and MK:SM thankfully delivers. You’ll only run into problems when you’re at a far edge of a screen (especially the back edge), when being assaulted by many enemies at once. Sometimes it can be hard to see who’s who, and this can lead to a quick death if you’re not cautious. Also, even though your character can block (and this is essential in later stages, where enemies will block as well), the blocking system can be a bit twitchy. Blocking also acts as a “lock on” function, and you’ll automatically lock on to the enemy closest to you. You’ll block his attacks…but often, another enemy will take this opportunity to immediately attack you from the rear. Granted, being quick on your feet and attacking multiple enemies is key, but when you’re faced with the “hard to see” problem I spoke about a few moments ago, it can get frustrating.

(Rating: 7/10)


REPLAYABILITY

In case you thought other MK titles didn’t have enough random junk to unlock, MK:SM continues the tradition with loads of unlockable content. Every single level in the game has piles of secrets, and many can only be accessed in two-player mode. The secrets range from concept art to extra arenas for Vs Mode to additional characters to use, complete with their own special moves and fatalities. You can even unlock the original Mortal Kombat II arcade game! (If you don’t already own Midway Arcade Treasures Vol. 2, that is…) You’d expect this kind of hidden material from an RPG, not an action game. MK:SM will occupy you for weeks on end as you try to find absolutely everything.

(Rating: 9/10)


BALANCE

Like any good game should nowadays, MK:SM starts out with a tutorial. Raiden himself teaches you combat tactics throughout the first few levels, and he’ll appear at various points over the course of the rest of the game to assist you when necessary. The learning curve isn’t steep at all; as the game progresses, however, you’ll definitely need to make use of what you’ve learned, so pay attention. Enemy AI improves considerably over time, and you’ll need to be able to block and parry attacks if you don’t want to get torn to pieces.

(Rating: 7/10)


ORIGINALITY

MK:SM may seem like a bit of a rehash of older MK games, and it is, except for the different gameplay mechanics. MK:SM is firmly rooted in material that’s over a decade old; while most games would suffer because of this, MK:SM does it on purpose. It’s blindingly obvious that MK:SM was specifically designed as a fan service to classic MK diehards. While not the most original game on the planet, MK:SM will please its core audience.

(Rating: 5/10)


ADDICTIVENESS

If you’re a classic MK freak like I am, you’ll play MK:SM over and over again, if for no other reason than to relive the past. That said, if classic MK is not your thing, then MK:SM may just be that beat-’em-up you play once and complete before moving on to something else. How addicted you’ll be to MK:SM really depends on your personal preferences concerning the early MK games. Haters won’t find much to keep them playing…but then again, haters will likely roll their eyes at MK:SM to begin with.

(Rating: 6/10)


APPEAL

MK:SM is targeted more at MK fans than the regular MK games are! Specifically, it targets those players that have loved MK since its inception, and even those who got sick of the franchise after MKII. Though it’s got the stigma of failed past MK spinoffs to deal with, MK fans will still check this one out, and they’ll be most surprised with the results.

(Rating: 8/10)


MISCELLANEOUS

In case you want to vary things up even further, MK:SM comes with a built-in demo of The Suffering 2. The first Suffering game was rather popular, and Midway knows what it’s doing by incorporating the gory sequel’s demo into a similarly gory game. Even if Suffering‘s not your cup of tea, Midway’s at least doing their job by giving you a free chance to try out something new.

(Rating: 6/10)


Final Scores:

Story: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 7/10
Control & Gameplay: 7/10
Replayability: 9/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 6/10
Appeal: 8/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Overall Score: 70/100
FINAL SCORE: 7.0 (GOOD!)