You’re probably more familiar with the classic Chinese story Journey to the West than you might realize! From the ever popular anime Dragon Ball to Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the story of the Monkey King and his adventures have had a heavy influence on pop culture over the years. Unruly Heroes is a more on the nose homage to the classical work because it stars reversions of the story’s main characters.
Four unlikely (some might say, unruly!) individuals, Sun Wukong, Kihong, Sanzang, and Sandmonk, have been called upon by the bodhisattva Guanyin Pusa to prevent the spread of evil after demonic forces successfully corrupted and destroyed a magical, sacred scroll, sending its damaged and darkness imbued shreds to the land and causing great evil to spring forth. What this largely entails is making a journey westward, cutting a path among evil monsters and powerful demigods intent on stopping you from saving the day. The most striking thing about the game isn’t the adaptation of the source material. Rather, it’s the eye-popping and arresting visual style that’s bound to be Unruly Heroes’ chief selling point. It bears such a strong resemblance to the UbiArt Rayman titles that I had to double-check to see if they had developed it. It was instead made by Magic Design Studios and to say they aped the style of Rayman Origins is being disingenuous to the strong stylistic approach they've taken. The bright, colorful and often exaggerated artwork is perfect for this kind of game because it lends the adventure a fairy tale vibe that works well in its favor.
Levels are of a side-scrolling variety designed to put each of the character’s unique skills to use. You’ll navigate across levels that run horizontally as well as vertically, jumping to and from precarious platforms hanging over bottomless pits and spike traps. Certain zones inside each level are almost impossible to traverse on your own and the presence of special, character-specific shrines are a clue that the hero’s special ability might help, such as Wukong’s Jingu Bang or Kihong’s talent for blowing himself up like a floating balloon. Some stages even see you possessing a creature or taking control over mystical objects, like a special gourd that can suck up patches of darkness. In combat, each character has more or less the same moveset of light and heavy attacks. Enemies aren’t pushovers like they were in the Rayman games and know how to take and dish out a punch. Attacking frequently builds up a power meter that is used to unleash a special and devastating attack that, in the case of Wukong, really shows off the game’s fantastic animations.
But don’t let the colorful cartoon aesthetic fool you. Unruly Heroes can be a tough game most of the time because it doesn’t mind throwing in lots of enemies at any given time, many of which take a substantial amount of hits to kill. There are also a lot of tricky and dangerous obstacles and puzzles that leave little room for mercy. If a character dies (and they totally will), you’ll be sent back to the latest checkpoint with any one of the remaining characters. Fallen comrades don’t stay dead forever and reappear on screen as a small bubble that takes a few seconds to form. Popping the bubble with a weapon makes that character playable again but only with a third of their health. As long as at least one character stays alive long enough to revive the other three, then it’s possible to never see a game over screen. I only got it once but that was because the game glitched and didn’t respawn a character. I would have liked more opportunities to regain health after coming back to life because it’d be a lot more convenient than having to go back to a checkpoint or starting from the beginning of a multi-form boss battle.
If I could pick out one thing I really had trouble with in the game, it’d be the often frustrating platforming bits. As pretty as the game looks, I found it immensely difficult to tell where the hitboxes lie for such things like spiky columns that can trigger an instant kill at the merest touch. There was one puzzle room I saw myself dying over and over because of this and a strange quirk involving the magic gourd. My issues with the platforming extend to a feeling that the Xbox controls aren’t as responsive as they should be. Jumping is a good example. Kihong and Sanzang jump high and can hover in the air, making them the most maneuverable characters in the game. Wukong and Sandmonk, however, can double jump yet their jump height is pretty low, making the process of clambering up platforms and wall jumping, especially during the levels that force you to keep moving or else a monster gobble you up, feel a little shaky. So much so that I found myself playing the game exclusively as Kihong because he proved to be the most reliable of the group.
Unruly Heroes is a beautiful, gorgeous game that’s sure to attract eyeballs because of the luscious, colorful aesthetic. As a side note, I wish the soundtrack received as much attention because outside of bosses or major skirmishes, it’s a pretty quiet game. The gameplay and level design are inventive and challenging, though more often than not I found the game’s difficulties more like tests of patience. My overall experience was a mixture of fun and frustration — once I got a better handle on combat and platforming puzzles, I felt myself getting into a solid groove, only to get stuck having to repeat whole sections because a particular jump or traversal puzzle didn’t succeed as planned. There’s fun to be had and things to like in Unruly Heroes, though there are moments I felt the gameplay and mechanics had an annoying habit of getting in the way.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.