Wisely borrowing gameplay elements from the fan favorite Mortal Kombat II, Shaolin Monks shakes the curse of the first two action titles set in the series universe. Bringing with it almost necessary co-op (err, ko-op as the game of course calls it), this new addition to the line brings new life to the franchise. This is Mortal Kombat II, just with a wild new move set, and the familiar gameplay classic gaming fans have become attached to.
It's remarkable how well this game works. The mechanics should be, by today's standards, horribly outdated. In a rare case, they work better than they did originally. 3-D movement is handled gracefully, and whether you're controlling Kung Lao or Liu Kang, you'll feel like you're in familiar territory. If you've never played Mortal Kombat II, you'll feel like a professional player instantaneously.
Even more incredible is how effortlessly this works. It makes you wonder why 90% of the action games on the market don't take the same ideas and implement them for the better. Most camera issues that are annoyingly prevalent in 3-D action titles are gone (for the most part) from Shaolin Monks, setting the camera up practically stationary to the side, much like any other classic beat-em-up. When things move from this basic perspective, things do go wrong, yet briefly and without much frustration.
Platform jumping feels automatic, and it's the best thing to happen to jumping in a 3-D platform game since Mario 64 created it. It's easy to control, with platforms spaced just right so you don't go too far or too short. It's forgiving, and it's a critical adjustment that couldn't be more appreciated. The speed and physics are carbon copies of the one-on-one fighting game that inspired this.
All of this revolves around "Kombat" of course, and that's why you're here. Even if the stages were not flawless recreations of those in Mortal Kombat II (and they are), you would still know this is based on it. Uppercuts, jump kicks, juggles, and special moves come through with amazing accuracy, all with that classic brutal force the game became famous for. The combo system is deep, involving, and everything has a secondary move, from something as basic as a throw to complicated multi-press combos.
Repetition is a sore spot nearly completely avoided here, the experience system keeping things fresh. Found fatalities become the series best, occasionally borrowed from Mortal Kombat II, and sometimes parodying them (Kung Lao's "Friendship" has now become one of the best kills in the history of video of video game violence). Gore is wonderfully over-the-top and disgustingly funny.
It's with those fatalities that things become to come loose. For a game so focused on multi-player gameplay (the numerous dual special moves prove that), the game stops cold when one is pulled off. If your partner is in the midst of a record setting combo, this will break it, causing him or her to lose valuable experience. Platform jumping becomes a test in cooperation, and even though it's a lenient system when the other person misses a leap, it still leads to some frustrating moments, especially since both players share a life bar.
While these fatalities will never stop being entertaining, running through the same sections of the game multiple times will. This title offers little information as to where you need to be to complete a current objective, and with multiple paths to take, it becomes a confusing mess, with lots of running into nowhere as you look for the right spot. The slowly unlockable one-on-one fighting mode is a cheap Power Stone knock-off (and it's hardly worth searching in the stages to find extras for it), and there are no Xbox Live features, which would've suited the game.
Those few hiccups barely dig in to kill the enjoyment. From the spectacular, unnerving, and brutal animated intro, to the combo system, to the flawless adaptation of a classic in 3-D, Shaolin Monks is an unexpected surprise. This is one for the long times fans who had, up until this point, never been able to experience the high point of the series in a new way. That's what Shaolin Monks does, and does with the flavor and style the franchise depends on.