What surprises me the most about Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is the fact that it took Midway this long to realise the potential of a Mortal Kombat-inspired scrolling beat-em-up. Of course, there was a little title known as Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, but did anyone actually play that? I suppose Mythologies' biggest downfall was that fans knew what it could have been, and what it clearly wasn't. But with every failure comes a success (according to my mother at least), as is the case with Shaolin Monks. Midway has taken just about everything we love about the series - a strong cast of crazies, combos galore, and enough blood to coat the country three times over - and bundled it up into a neat little package for our enjoyment.
Blood, guts and sexual tension aside (oh Lui and Katana, when will they ever learn?), Shaolin Monks actually sports a story, and more surprisingly, an interesting one. Well, let's not get too carried away. Monks follows your typical beat-em-up storyline, with plot twists that a primary school dunce could see coming, and plenty of meaningless banter about where to go next, but that's not what Monks is really about anyway. Still, for those interested, Monks takes place between the end of Mortal Kombat and the end of Mortal Kombat II, and for fans of the series, it won't be too much of a surprise to see Lui Kang and Kung Lao as the protagonists of choice.
You'll progress through the story by solving puzzles and defeating enemies (including close to a dozen boss fights) over many classic Mortal Kombat II locations, such as The Living Forest, The Foundry, and The Evil Monastery. The environments are varied enough and are littered with traps, spiked floors, and many other torture devices. After all, what would a Mortal Kombat game be without gratuitous violence and gore? A pretty lousy one, that's for sure.
As you begin the game you'll have to choose to play as either Lao or Kang, or if you've beaten the game, two other secret characters (I'll give you a hint, the first character's name rhymes with... oh what the hell - it's Scorpion and Sub-zero). Each character represents a different fighting style, even though it all boils down to punching, kicking, and throwing your opponent, and as you might have guessed, both Kang and Lao come fully equipped with their respective special moves from the Mortal Kombat series. All of these moves can be upgraded at the cost of experience points, which you'll gain by defeating enemies (or in most cases, multiple enemies) with style.
Now, the combat itself is simplistic and certainly has that easy-to-pick-up-and-play charm to it, but still takes plenty of hours to master. Each button on the controller corresponds to a kick, punch, throw or strong attack, and each can be used in random succession to produce a variety of devastating combos. And as I mentioned before, both characters come with their own set of special moves that can be used to link combos as well. Heck, you can even purchase half a dozen new combos if the original 50 start getting too old. With the combo possibilities being endless, and the combat system so flashy and user friendly, it's hard not to get all giddy when you've racked up a 300-hit combo and ended it with one of the many brutal fatalities the game has to offer - brutal being a severe understatement.
The option to perform a fatality is only available once you've filled up your fatality gauge, which is achieved by beating wave after wave of enemies. If the gauge is full, all you have to do is walk up to the enemy, press a single button, and voila, the screen goes dark, giving you about five seconds to enter in any number of button combinations. Then just sit back and enjoy the show. Both Lao and Kang have close to 10 different fatalities to perform, some taken straight out of Mortal Kombat II (like Lui Kang's craptastic uppercut fatality), while others are brand new to the series and present some exceedingly graphic scenarios. As well as the regular fatalities, as you progress through the game you'll earn a total of three fatality gauges, used to perform the multality - where you kill multiple opponents at once - and the brutality, which is taken straight from Mortal Kombat 3, except you'll have complete control over your character and can generally take down any sub-boss in a only a few hits.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Monks is a rather graphic game that has no doubt earned its rating. The developers at Midway clearly didn't want to hold back as you'll see some truly sickening cutscenes (Baraka anyone?) and the game isn't without its fair share of decapitations, dismemberments and moments of torture to make anyone with half a conscious shudder. If there were ever a game (other than GTA) to cause a political stir, it would have to be this one.
However, Monks doesn't come without its flaws. For one, the game's non-stop action is often broken up with illogical puzzles that seemingly take hours to solve. Most of these puzzles require players to knock enemies into certain objects to open doors and trigger certain story sequences. And while some puzzles have at least one cutscene that hints at the solution, others leave you guessing in frustration. One puzzle has you throwing an enemy onto a row of spikes to use as a stepping-stone to get to a higher floor. Though it seems simple enough to solve, spikes generally = bad, and the idea of using a body as support seems like suicide. This also cuts the game length right in half. Seasoned players, without the help of a strategy guide, are looking at a solid 10 hours of gaming, with the majority of that time being used to figure out what to do or where to go next. Take out the puzzles and you've got yourself a five-hour game.
When you do get past the puzzles, though, prepare yourself for some pretty exciting boss battles, most of which usually have two or three parts to them. The reason why I bring this up is that although it's usually a one-on-one fight, the battle can take many different forms, such as Scorpion's three-part battle where you have to wait for his spear to get stuck in the rock below, grab it, mash the A (or X) button frantically, and pull him over. They aren't your conventional battles and are a welcomed break from fighting the onslaught of mindless drones.
I figured I'd save the best feature for last, and anyone who has been following the game since its announcement will immediately know what feature I'm talking about - the ko-op mode. That's right, you and a friend can go through the entire game in what is easily its biggest selling point. You can purchase special team-moves to perform on multiple enemies and the game even encourages ko-op play with secrets that can only be unlocked with a second player. Aside from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Monks has one of the most enjoyable co-op modes to date.
My only beef with the two-player action is the fact that the second player can't simply jump in and out of the game at any time (like in Lego Star Wars for example). Once you begin a ko-op game with two players, you have to finish it with two players. Also, the game's camera can be a bit of a nuisance when both players are fighting enemies on the opposite end of the screen. More often than not, one of the players won't be able to see his or her opponent, which makes me wonder why Midway didn't program the computer to pan out more in situations where that's the case.
Monks isn't a visual masterpiece by any means, but is in no way an ugly game either. Characters sport a solid amount of polygons, environments are well designed and detailed and for the most part, and the framerate can keep up with the action. Xbox owners will get the most, visually, out of Monks, while PS2 owners will have to settle for lower-end textures and a sloppier framerate in exchange for a better controller layout.
It's good to see that Midway's streak of solid Mortal Kombat titles hasn't been put to an end. Shaolin Monks is a game that console owners have been waiting for, ever since the franchise's birth. It's a load of fun to play, with or without a second player, and with plenty of goodies to unlock, including an arcade port of Mortal Kombat II, Monks delivers on just about every front.