By Scott Ramage / August 27th, 2019
|Developer||Magic Design Studios|
|Publisher||Magic Design Studios|
|Release Date||January 23rd, 2019|
|Platform||PS4, Switch, XBox1, PC|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone|
Journey to the West is one of those literary works that may fly under the radar of some people, but it gets referenced regularly across various media, not the least of which being Dragon Ball. French developer Magic Design Studios also took inspiration from the novel to create Unruly Heroes, a 2D action platformer centered around four people trying to save the world from the forces of evil. If they can’t work together harmoniously, both the world and the game may suffer as a result.
The premise for Unruly Heroes is simple enough. Big bad guy causes a sacred parchment, which maintains balance between the nondescript worlds of good and not as good, to rip to pieces and scatter all over the place. Guanyin Pesa, the goddess of mercy, enlists the help of four heroes to fend off the evil hordes and restore peace. I don’t want to overemphasize what’s clearly not the focus of the game, but the game’s story meanders from there. It implies that Guanyin is just making things up as she goes and the tone is generally that of a Saturday morning cartoon, having a serious overarching problem with a laid back approach to its solution. However, other story bits are completely abandoned. The only time I saw any of the heroes’ names was in the tutorial for the first stage. They exhibit no personality aside from a victory pose after each level and don’t speak for the whole game. Also, why are they called “unruly” heroes? I didn’t know whether I should care or not about what was going on as, aside from getting through levels, not much happened.
Fortunately, Unruly Heroes makes up for those shortcomings with solid gameplay and visuals. In that respect in has a bit of a Rayman Legends vibe to it, with a dash of Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The four heroes jump and fight their way through four areas split into several stages, each with their own special abilities to help get past certain obstacles. For example, the monkey can turn his staff into a bridge to cross large gaps and the pig can fly to higher sections. In addition, the monkey and fighter can double jump while the monk and pig both do a single high jump and then float to the ground. Everyone’s attacks work the same in terms of inputs and quick or strong attacks, all of which work in mid-air too, but the different weapons and ranges for each give some variety. The monk flings short-range energy balls while the fighter uses short-range melee moves. Meanwhile, the monk can throw his staff while the pig can burp a damaging cloud of gas. This makes some heroes better suited to certain enemy types or bosses and otherwise alleviates the feeling that any of the heroes are just dead weight.
Each level has a series of checkpoint lanterns, which require a certain amount of energy to use. Said energy is built up by defeating enemies, though there are plenty of those to go around on every difficulty. Speaking of, each stage can be played on Easy, Medium or Hard. This affects the damage taken and given by the heroes and whether they can be revived if anyone dies, which involves breaking their spirit bubble when it appears somewhere onscreen. Aside from that, there are certain rankings for each stage (bronze, silver, etc.) for completion time and death counts and some, like diamond, can only be reached on Hard. There are also coins and a scroll to collect on every stage, the former used to buy alternate costumes and the latter unlocking concept art. The costumes are largely palette swaps so I didn’t feel the need to grab every coin I saw. As for the scrolls, while they seem like something off the beaten path or hard to reach, most of them are pretty easy to find. They’re nice extras, but feel like there could have been something done to make them more worthwhile.
Things change a bit as Unruly Heroes moves forward. Specifically, in addition to having multiple paths to reach the end of a stage, the way the game is played changes to break up any monotony. At one point all of the heroes revert to a form where many of their abilities are taken away and replaced with something entirely different for four or five stages. A couple times the heroes possess certain mini-bosses (which I guess they can do that?) and navigate the rest of a level or two with them. The controls falter a bit in these sections, partly due to the limitations of the possessed creatures. One can only do a single jump and, unlike the heroes, the jump is the same height every time regardless of whether the jump button is tapped or held. One can crawl on walls and ceilings, but sometimes it would fall off a wall for no apparent reason. Several times I had to crawl across rotating platforms in the ceiling and the monster would get stuck in a falling animation while still crawling across the platform.
Beyond that, Unruly Heroes likes to toss in puzzles and boss encounters, the latter showing up in all but a handful of levels. Puzzles are in virtually every stage, though keep in mind that my definition of puzzle is “anything other than moving forward and attacking bad guys.” Sometimes it’s just hitting a switch somewhere to open a door, while other times I had to plug a series of steam vents with ground pounds or thrown rocks to make something explode. Sometimes it’s moving an ability statue across several gaps. There’s just enough of a split between puzzles, enemy encounters and platforming to not make any of them feel like they’re overstaying their welcome. As for the bosses, there are two kinds: the smaller bosses at the end of individual stages and the big, grandiose, multi-phase bosses at the end of worlds. The major bosses usually involve some creative way of fighting them, but the mini-bosses aren’t much of a challenge and sometimes feel unnecessary; they arrive, say a couple lines, get beat up and disappear. Once in a while they make multiple appearances in a single stage, but otherwise it felt like the game could have easily cut four or five of them. The same could be said for some stages though. Of the 29 stages, 18 of them are in two areas. Even with the changes in gameplay, those two areas felt like they overstayed their welcome.
Sound-wise, Unruly Heroes is a mixed bag. The in-game sound effects—hits, buildings crumbling, rocks falling, ambience—are quite nice. Voice work, what little there is, sounds like everything was done in a single take and with little direction. It’s apparent that three people voiced every character, but less noticeable was the music. It’s mostly pleasant orchestral work and perfectly fine as background noise, but the only thing I struggle to remember more than any songs in the game are any of the characters’ names.
Unlike the audio, I have zero issues with the look of Unruly Heroes. The hand-drawn art used for the environments is every bit as beautiful, intimidating, calming or dreary as each level needs it to be. Moving objects in the background, be they huge monsters roaming the wastes, waterfalls or lava flows, really bring everything to life. The same can be said for the major bosses, their scale, detail and design making me go back and check their unlocked concept art so I could get a better look at them. The characters are also hand-drawn—though most of their animations aren’t—and they all move and attack fluidly, though some attack animations feel like they have too long of a cooldown to them, particularly for some of the fighter’s punches.
I was really enjoying Unruly Heroes until I hit the last few stages, when all the little things that bothered me in prior stages all came back to haunt me. Wall jumps are easy to pull off, except when the game doesn’t realize I’m touching a wall and I fall to my death. Some mechanics, like being able to grab and swing from hanging cloth, are introduced with no explanation. Given how these easily blend into the background, I didn’t realize I could grab them at first. I would take damage from geysers of fire that weren’t onscreen and die to instant-death pits I couldn’t see below me or in auto-scrollers to things I didn’t have the time to react to. A couple times I got stuck in a falling animation on a moving platform and slid off into lava. The heroes can grab onto ledges or rings, but it wouldn’t work sometimes for no apparent reason. One special item used to cool down hot ledges for platforming would work in mid-air, but not when moving on the ground. It was the type of frustration that, by the time it was over, I had trouble enjoying the ending.
If this were just a review of the first ninety percent of Unruly Heroes I’d give it a higher score. It’s enjoyable and challenging enough to keep wanting to see what’s next. However, the perfect storm of problems near the end left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s still a fun experience, one that lasted almost seven hours for me, though one that comes with a big asterisk. If having friends along for the ride helps, there is local and online co-op, inexplicably called “Player Vs Player” in-game, for up to four people (though I couldn’t find anyone to try it with). At $20 across all storefronts, I’d recommend it as long as you’re patient enough to make it through the endgame.
Review copy provided by publisher.
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