JOY IS A FISTFUL OF RAGE- Kung-Fu Strike Review by Maus Merryjest
With Kung-Fu Strike: The Warrior's Rise, Shanghai-based independent developer Qooc has thrown us one hell of a punch. The market has seen its share of brawlers throughout the decades: Bad Dudes rescued President Ronnie and the Lee brothers saved Marian in Double Dragon during the 80s and 90s, but as time went by the genre became repetitive and unimaginative in the mainstream, with only a rare attempt at mixing things up (such as Afro Samurai) popping up here and there. Kung-Fu Strike seeks to break the staleness of this trend... and a few bones along the way.
Picture it: The Tian Empire has been at war with Shaa for years. As the celebrated General Loh, you travel to Talin Temple in order to seize it as a strategic position for your armies. You essentially raze your way through, eventually facing off against Master Mo himself, who has other ideas about the whole situation. Nothing is as it seems, of course, and soon you start finding out things that change the direction of your moral compass... and maybe, just maybe, give you a chance at redemption.
The game has several things going for it, first and foremost being a beautiful aesthetic that draws on historical artistic material such as Gu Kaizhi's “Nymph of the Luo River” and Zhang Zeduan's “Riverside Scene at Qinming Festival.” Chapter cutscenes are presented as illustrated scrolls with dialogues, often displaying beautiful brushwork and subdued watercolor hues. The characters in the game continue with the artistic thematic, being often quite colorful and affecting bold outlines, all of them aptly animated.
The controls are quite simple at first glance: four buttons for directional control, two kinds of attacks, a dodge and a deflect. This serves as a framework for a surprisingly meaty set of mechanics. Special attacks are performed through the accumulation of Ch'i (氣) energy. Traditional schools often believe that Ch'i is accumulated through coordinated breathing, movement, and awareness... which translates, in the world of Kung-Fu Strike, to successfully beating the ever-living stuffing out of anyone foolish enough to stand in your way. Fill your Ch'i gauge and press both attack buttons to initiate a special strike. The screen flashes into grayscale, action slows down briefly, and off you go!
The standard special attack is effective enough, but the fun is in performing all the different special attacks such as the Buddha Stamp- which require you to input a sequence of buttons during the brief slow-down in order to unleash them. You don't start out knowing all of your combinations, however: these must be unlocked by beating the bosses found throughout the game. Once acquired, they must be purchased (using gold that vanquished enemies conveniently drop) and equipped before they can be used. Unlocked equipment, movement and allies can be purchased between chapters, often making you stop and think about the kinds of bonuses you want to bring into battle.
Each chapter consists roughly of one level, which in turn is usually only the size of one area- be it a temple courtyard, the inside of a temple room, or a rooftop. Throughout this level you might find yourself facing off a number of low-threat grunts, a boss, a mini-boss, or specialized enemies- in any possible combination. The first surprise – and the first lesson- that the game throws at you has you fighting a group of monks wielding long staves that can easily defeat you before you can even touch them. It is here that you learn the value of the deflection skill- throwing back an attack at an enemy as they charge it (helpfully telegraphed by a golden glow.) It is only through the deflection of their staff strikes that you can defeat the monks- a deflect allows you to immediately counter and pummel them before they regain their footing for another swing.
Much of the game is like this: throwing enemies at you that can really ruin your day if you mindlessly give in to the pleasure of the slaughter without thinking about your defense. The master must walk the path between offense and defense, bravery and sheer stupidity. Some enemies, such as Master Mo, have extra gimmicks that you have to learn to avoid-- in Master Mo's case it is two energy circles that rotate around him at certain points in combat. If you happen to be caught inside one of them, he unleashes a devastating attack that leaves you all but decimated, so you must time and maneuver yourself carefully. This is a principle that repeats itself with most bosses- though the concrete form of each boss' gimmick varies greatly.
The pace is frenzied and challenging- whether you are fighting a single enemy or a large group, you are always in danger of getting floored by a well-placed attack or bomb if you get too cocky. In one of the most fun and frustrating moments, you will end up going against a giant statue that summons up whirlwinds... these whirlwinds pick up active bombs and enemies, only too happy to throw them in your face while also lifting you off your feet- needless to say, you need to dispose of the bombs quickly by kicking them towards the large statue (the best way to damage it) and disposing of each enemy wave before the next hurricane comes by. The game finds ways of mixing the action up so that you never feel like you're repeating yourself over and over, and there's a high level of challenge that is extremely enjoyable. This is a brawler that doesn't reward you for mashing buttons (that's the path to defeat, grasshopper), but for thinking on your feet.
I've mentioned that the game is frustrating and fun. Oftentimes poorly designed games are frustrating for the wrong reasons- usually bad level implementation, shoddy mechanics, terrible storytelling, but Kung-Fu Strike is frustrating because it is good: this is close to what some of us called “Nintendo Hard” back in the day (before the era of watered-down difficulty settled in)- it is the kind of challenge that frustrates you, but it frustrates you just enough so that you keep coming for more instead of the kind of frustration that usually ends with a controller embedded on your bedroom wall. The game is incredibly fun as a single player or multiplayer experience and it is heavily recommended if you want something a little more substantial for your brawler deficiency. Story-wise, Kung-Fu Strike is reminiscent of every Kung-Fu movie you've seen from the good old days- delightfully over the top, with just enough of a healthy dose of smirk added to the mixture. For what it is, the game is excellent and stands on its own. Perhaps it will teach some of the larger companies a lesson on how to make this genre fun... after, of course, it has beat them up and recited a monologue aimed at their overconfident foolishness.
Four Kung Fu Tigers out of Five.