The problem with being an ancient Chinese folk-hero is that you always end up being tasked with some honourable quest in the name of your people – one that you, and only you, can endure. Such is the burden of General Loh – a man battling to bring an end to civil unrest in his native China. Playing as the aforementioned General, you go about this specifically by fending off wave after wave of angry Chinamen, using only your fists and feet to keep the peace. There’re more than enough baddies to keep your palms sweaty, but in the words of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, ‘Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one’.
And Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior’s Rise trades on that very principle throughout. The foetal stages aside, nothing comes easy. The combat itself is simple enough – one button for punch, one button for jump attack, one press to block, and one to roll out of the way – in fact the most complicated combination early on is combining two buttons at once to activate powerful ‘Chi Move’ attacks – but utilising this basic bundle of buttons effectively proves to be an unexpected challenge.
From the outset, developer Qooc Soft sets out to saturate each of Kung Fu Strike’s twenty-eight campaign set pieces with more kung-fu fodder than you can shake a well-worn martial arts cliché at. Each stage brims with cell-shaded antagonists, swimming in a haze of fists and backflips. A scene, one might imagine, not unlike the average lunch-break during John Woo’s time at elementary school. Suddenly then, the pedestrian button set-up becomes an exercise in timing – knowing when to block, how to counter and where to dodge to, becomes an essential tool for survival.
All these handy self-preservation techniques serve as a means of guiding General Loh closer to his ultimate destiny, but more importantly as a way to rack up high-scores accompanied by a big shiny letter, grading your performance on each stage. Story isn’t really important – something about honour or vengeance, or something – although it’s noteworthy that the frame-by -frame, wall-hanging storyboards that separate each chapter, while acting as both a tidy loading-screen smoke-cloak and an economical budget-squeezer, actually serve to both break up the frenetic pace of each stage and add flavour to the atmosphere, with a pleasant Chinese calligraphy aesthetic. The accompanying text includes some fantastic one-liners, too – ‘prepare for my iron fists’ and ‘don’t try and flatter me with your forked tongue’ among the best.
The cut-scene bleed-through into Kung Fu Strike’s in-game action is quite beautiful at times. Wispy calligraphic paint strokes punctuate the imposing oriental structures – from gloomy, dusty-brown temple dungeons, to bright-red, terracotta townships – all of the above lays a perfect canvas on which to laminate the cell-shaded veneer of the hyperactive foreground sprites – at its best when ‘Chi Moves’ are activated. Such moments drain all colour from the screen during the briefest of freeze-frames. There’s little similarity from vista to vista, either. Some stages will play out in a basic town square, some involve running around a monolith or being restricted to a small stage or platform. There are always destructible objects to take advantage of – most spewing out collectible currency and health bonuses, although it’s a shame environmental damage never made it to the final cut.
What’s really important, though, is Kung Fu Strike’s fantastic classic arcade beat-em-up formula. For Qooc Soft to label Kung Fu Strike’s hardest difficulty setting as ‘hard’ is, frankly, a matter best dealt with by Trade Descriptions. It’s like saying that frozen fish-fingers, covered in dried cement, are a bit stiff – quite the understatement. This is no bad thing though – for one thing you can turn down the difficulty – something that you’ll more than likely find yourself considering at least once or twice. The obvious aside, Kung Fu Strike’s cute intermingling of precise timing and furious button mashing, carry off well. There’s a degree a cerebral consideration here too, while KFS unashamedly lobs mob after mob your way – and sheer volume is a constant and significant obstacle throughout – the variety and dexterity of the opposition at hand are what make the challenge of the combat all the more involving.
Happy-slapping ten or so of the same hired goons in the first level can quickly accelerate into dozens of cronies at once, later on. The buffet of monks, magic witch-women, reanimated metal warrior statues, lumbering golems and bomb-chucking loons – among others – congeals into a thick paste, filling every spare inch around you. This makes the timing and accuracy of your swipes and dodges ever more crucial.
There are no two classes of foe that present the same exact challenge, each one has their own pattern of attack and opening for riposte, the more time you spend with KFS, the more likely it becomes that you’ll start to evaluate the battlefield tactically, prioritising and picking off the chaff, first. The same can be said for the boss fights – usually falling at every fourth level, many of these will take a while to master, and brilliantly, the only way to find the right key to victory is to put yourself in harm’s way and grind through some old fashioned trial and error.
As the end-game draws nearer, the distinction in each boss’ fighting style is showcased perfectly. Over a few levels, you must choose each of the waiting bosses from the side of an arena of combat, in the order you see fit, and fight them one after another – many of the boss fights evolve from being smushed at the first attempt to getting closer and closer until victory is achieved. It’s a rewarding and oddly collaborative experience – while Kung Fu Strike can be unforgiving, it always feels like it was built to be beaten, but it’ll be damned if it’s going to let you off easy. Even when you are crushed like a fly caught with chopsticks, the game makes getting back on the wagon feel like a worthwhile step forward – in spite of inevitable future deaths.
Saddling the pony back up is made all the easier by Kung Fu Strike’s adrenalin-fuelled soundtrack. A coal-filtered blend of stirring pipe-music, thunderous drums, ominous boss-fight ostinatos and classic electric arcade gaming guitar riffs that grow to a blistering climax during moments of heightened significance. Enthusiastic whoops and shouts and the satisfying pitter-patter of palm on gi do nothing to detract from the sweet phonic massage. KFS might not have needed to spend a week at Skywalker Ranch to populate the acoustic pigeonholes, but what’s there does the job well enough.
There’re plenty of reasons to keep playing, long after you’ve beaten the campaign. The entire thing can be played through in two-player co-op and any stages cleared in co-op that haven’t been passed in single-player (or vice versa) will contribute to your character’s overall progress and bank balance. If anything, it’s one of few disappointments that the multiplayer is so similar to the campaign, even if the volume of flesh bags to pummel increases nicely. The other of Kung Fu Strike’s preeminent foibles surfaces the most in the cooperative arena.
For some reason, the tiny amounts of camera movement required to accommodate two players, causes a few problems. The view usually draws back slightly to capture two separate scuffles as required, but losing sight of yourself can be an annoyance. Usually, enough fevered button mashing gets you out of a pickle, but under harder conditions and after reaching the climax of a longer battle, failing because of this can grate. The problem isn’t exclusive either – playing alone, there are occasional odd level-design scruples. With most of the levels apparently built in their entirety (as opposed to just what’s on camera) the odd pillar or piece of wall will float in to view at inopportune moments. These peccadillos aren’t a big detractor at all, but given the well-waxed exterior KFS has, they stick out when they do pop up.
The only tangible gameplay flaw falls in some of the two-player boss-fights. Specifically designed with one player in mind, it’s odd that Qooc Soft would try and squeeze two human-controlled characters into the play-space. Most fights don’t suffer for this at all, but when the freedom to roam is reduced to a side-on, classic one v one beat-em-up format, for example – the spare player becomes a bit of a loose third wheel.
Multiplayer gripes aside, the additional content available is a welcome extension of what is a thoroughly moreish experience. As well as high-score chasing and level-specific challenges to complete, KFS offers a player vs player mode as a bonus for completing the campaign. While a campaign-run on the easiest setting could be managed in a single evening, experiencing Kung Fu Strike in this way would be a missed opportunity.
If there’re two things that become clear when playing Kung Fu Strike, it’s that the developers behind this addictive bundle of fun love both old-school beat-em-ups and classic martial arts to their very core. The wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm brought to market oozes out of every pixel. Every swipe of an extended forearm, every duck, dodge, weave, block and beat down are a love letter to both genres. Represented with the faith and devotion that only a true fan could offer, Qooc Soft are caught in the middle of a spectacular love-triangle, with the two true loves of their life.
A ballet of violence, a test of perseverance and endurance – Kung Fu Strike might well leave your wrists aching and your thumbs sore. But to quote the late, great Bruce Lee ‘A fight is not won by one punch or kick’. And to quote an ancient Chinese proverb, ‘A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song’. Kung Fu Strike’s song is well worth hearing.
Audio/Visual – 3.5/5: Pretty clusters of pixels, accompanied with nostalgic retro audio.
Gameplay – 4/5: Fast and frenetic to the point that your hands will hurt and it’s bastard hard when it wants to be. KFS marries arcade action with intelligent design.
Innovation – 3.5/5: Button mashing has been done before, but a surprising amount of variety when compared to its peers.
Value – 5/5: 800 MS points on XBLA with unlimited replay potential for high-score lovers and sadists alike.
Final Score – 4/5