The 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West has been adapted to all manner of media over the years, but it’s a story that works particularly well in video games. There have been countless adaptions: from Capcom’s 1984 arcade game Son Son, to Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (with many more between).
The latest of the is Unruly Heroes, an action puzzle platformer from Magic Design Studios, a French Indie game studio that’s filled with many Ubisoft veterans. That pedigree is instantly apparent when you start up Unruly Heroes because if I didn’t know better, I’d have said it was from the very same people who made Rayman Legends. The art is strikingly similar, as is the game’s general aesthetic, right down to the slightly out of focus elements – like flags and other bits of scenery – creating depth of field before the foreground. It really is a beautiful game, with everything in it looking hand-painted, brought to life by magical animation. It’s beautiful to look at, and for much of it, it was beautiful to play.
In it, you’ll play as four characters based on the characters in the novel: Wukong – the fearless monkey king, Kihong – the greedy pig, Sanzang – the wise monk, and Sandmonk – the sensitive brute. They’re mostly true to their characters, save for Sanzang, who’s a worthwhile mystical fighter now, instead of the crumbling wuss he usually is. The quartet is tasked with collecting bits of an ancient scroll, whose disappearance has caused disharmony and chaos, manifested as evil creatures. It’s up to our heroes to restore the balance and bring about peace. Instead of just picking a character and carrying that character through, if you play the game alone you’ll be switching through them, as they each have specific abilities beyond jumping from platform to platform.
Two of the characters are able to double jump, while others can glide after their jumps, so you’ll have to switch between characters to traverse through stages, doing the sorts of things you do in puzzle platformers. You’ll jump, avoiding obstacles and defeating enemies as you make your way towards the right side of the screen. Of course, there are coins to collect (for buying character skins) and hidden items to find. Each character is adept at combat, with a variety of attacks. Wukong has his fabled staff; naturally, Pigsy has a spike-rake; while the monk uses energy and the brute uses his bare fists.
Though there are different directional and weighted attacks, combat largely devolves into button mashing combined with the very handy dash mechanic. When a character has built up enough energy, they’re able to unleash a sustained super attack – handy for clearing out rooms or taking on the game’s cavalcade of interesting bosses, pulled from Chinese folklore and wild imagination. There are some frightfully clever, but simple puzzle bits that use each of the characters’ special abilities.
When you encounter character specific shrines, you can use those unique traits. For example, the monkey king can magically increase the size of his staff (none of that!), using it as a bridge or a barrier. Pigsy, meanwhile inflates to a giant floating ball, letting him reach otherwise inaccessible areas. These abilities start being used in interesting ways as the unruly heroes make their way westward. There are bits where you even take control of enemy characters, using their own abilities to progress. They’re largely creative and interesting, but the difficulty curve gets in the way and makes the game more frustrating than it ought to be. It’s not the difficulty itself that’s frustrating though; instead, it’s the lack of precision in control that often hampers the experience. If you’re going to make a platformer where there’s potential for an untimely death around every corner, then you’d better make sure that controls are as tight and responsive as they could possibly be.
Thankfully, death isn’t much of an obstacle outside of the game’s harder mode. When you die, you simply switch to the next hero, who can them be brought back to life by popping their ethereal, floating spirit bubble. The only worry here is when you’re in a boss battle because bosses can pop those spirit bubbles, making death a little more permanent. It’s a fun but flawed game in single player, that becomes a beautiful, chaotic mess if you’re able to play it as a same-screen 4-player co-op game. Here you do pick a single character making your own death, and as a result, teamwork much more meaningful. The recently released PlayStation 4 version has a few extra features available until they get patched into the game as it exists elsewhere. There’s a PvP mode that’s a little like Smash Bros, an even harder difficulty mode, more skins to unlock and a photo mode to play around with.
It’s a beautiful and charming game that’s fun to play, but that needs a little more polish when it comes to its controls. I also found the humour a little juvenile and forced. I adored this game when I started it, but as I worked my way through, the charm started wearing thin and I found myself frustrated by the imprecise platforming.
Last Updated: June 4, 2019