The best kung fu movies are the ones where the story sets up a wild and barely plausible premise, and then quietly hides in the corner as fists and kicks fly for the duration of the running time. Likewise, the best brawlers let the story fade from view, only bringing it back up to vaguely explain why this particular stage is set on the moon and why you’re beating up on mutant dino-men wearing red hats this level. Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior’s Rise comes pretty close to this ideal.
The XBLA brawler from 7sixty Games is a lavish tribute to the best of bad martial arts movies. Taking place across 28 3D stages, the game borrows heavily from westernized Chinese mythology. The story is at once simple and twisting, retelling the tale of an Tian Empire general, General Loh, as he tries to single-handedly (or with the help of a friend in co-op mode) take control of a strategically important monastery in order to secure the empire against nebulous (but clearly evil) rebel forces, only to be catapulted into a plot full of intrigue, corruption, revenge, and redemption. It’s no Pagoda of Death, but it transitions from scene to scene perfectly.
The artistic direction also draws inspiration from Kung fu culture, with the beautiful cut-scenes drawn in a heavily stylized “Chinese scroll” fashion. The in-game graphics, on the other hand, are much less interesting. It’s obvious where the 7sixty team was going with the heavy cell-shading and bold lines, but the game rarely gets all the way there. Don’t get me wrong, for a $9.99 title from the XBox Live Arcade, they are far from bad. They just suffer from a severe case of “almost made it”. I guess it’s a matter of opinion whether it’s better to reach for the stars and fall short or never to reach at all. In this case, I’m going to go with the latter. Very few games have managed to do true 3D comic-book style graphics well, and in this case they look a little hokey. Then again, given the rich history of cheesiness in Kung fu flicks, that might have been the point.
The formal introduction now over, let’s talk about how this bad boy actually plays. First, it’s not a traditional brawler, in that there is little lateral movement in the stages. In fact, most stages are structured like 3D fighting games: a large square-ish arena surrounded by impenetrable walls, with the occasional change to a more side-to-side but still three-dimensional configuration. This is definitely not Double Dragon. If you’re looking for a massive side-scrolling world in which to punish all manner of multicolored ninjas, this is not your game. If you like the idea of having each stage be a self-contained battle royale, on the other hand, the static nature of the stages makes for some good fun that can be had in bite-sized chunks. One major issue I had playing through, though, was the poor camera. Apparently, there is a maximum zoom that it will go out to, and on some of the wider stages, my battle companion and I (in co-op mode) would often BOTH be out of camera range, making for some frustrating moments unless both of us stuck to the middle of the stage.
Enemy design, however, is pretty fantastic. Sure, there are some generic baddies that get reused level to level (after the requisite change of pants color), but most stages have plenty of unique bad guys to beat up on, from Kung fu warriors to little old men (don’t be fooled, they’re kung fu masters) to suicidal exploding monks. There are plenty of things to hit in this game, and most of them are interesting, unique, and well-thought-out.
The fighting itself is a pretty major upgrade over the traditional punch/kick/special move kind. While the attacks are limited to two buttons (one for a ground attack, one for an aerial attack), the game also adds a block button that allows you to block and counter enemy attacks, as well as execute evasive maneuvers. The fighting system relies heavily on executing hilariously long combos (my personal best is 173 hits) by chaining counters, regular attacks, and powered up Chi attacks executed by combining buttons when your Chi meter is filled up. For a standard brawler, this is a major improvement, but judged on its own merits, I found the combo system far more amenable to feverish button-mashing rather than a methodical fighting-game approach. In fact, it seemed the more I tried to concentrate on actually executing special moves and timing my combos, the poorer the system performed.
The couple of problems I’ve mentioned wouldn’t be so bad by themselves, but they are grossly exacerbated by two things:
The awkward combo-breaker system used by the bosses, which flashes the button or button combo you need to input to break through an opponent’s block and pre-empt their combos. It’s not necessary and it breaks the intuitive nature of the brawler. It would have been far better had they simply built dedicated combo-breakers in and let you grow accustomed to using them.
The game is hard. Really hard. Let me put it this way, I beat Battletoads & Double Dragon on my first playthrough in one solid run. With Kung Fu Strike, I had to downgrade from “hard” to “easy” by stage 8. And I still barely made it through to the end.
So all in all, would I recommend this game? At $9.99…absolutely. If you’re remotely interested in brawlers, it’s a pretty good one (If it ever went on sale for less than that, I would say pick it up in a heartbeat, if only because it makes for a great party game). If you’re a fan of traditional side-scrolling brawlers, the small arenas and the constant breaking up of the action as you transition levels might turn you off, as might the touchy and often frustrating combo system. And the camera angles would make most people cringe occasionally. So here are my recommendations:
You’ll love this game if:
- You thought Battletoads & Double Dragon was too easy
- You got giddy executing 100-hit combos in Killer Instinct
- You want to sit down, play a level, and then put it away
- Cheesy martial arts movies make you giggle uncontrollably
You’ll hate this game if:
- You thought Tekken was too fast-paced
- You like sitting down and playing through a long, involved level
- You prefer some brain with your brawn, and like beat’em-ups with some puzzles and exploration thrown in