There’s nothing like a good scrap, right? Fighting games are something that we don’t cover here at oprainfall quite as much as I’d like, so I was excited to have a chance to try out Kings of Kung Fu, the upcoming title from Jae Lee Productions. The game draws much of its inspiration from old martial arts movies, with playable characters based on those old fighting stars. It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, but is that enough to appease the kung fu master within?
Fighting games aren’t often known for their sweeping, epic stories, and Kings of Kung Fu is no exception. It’s a simple premise; a fighter by the name of Red Ronin challenges a group of movie stuntmen to a one-on-one tournament for the chance to star in their own action film. Each stunt double is the master of a certain martial arts style, meaning that there’s a nice bit of variety between each character. Plus, since they’re stunt doubles for some of Hollywood’s biggest martial arts stars, while you aren’t playing as those stars, the characters do look like them. So, that’s something, right?
One of the most impressive things about the game was the hand-drawn character portraits on display on the character select screen. It really lends to the idea of an aesthetic for animated characters which still look realistic when the actual combat starts, not unlike more current versions of Street Fighter. Unfortunately, the gameplay graphics simply do not match up to this idea. While I can see that they were going for a classic aesthetic with a film grain overlay to make it look like I was watching one of those old movies, the characters models themselves were so stilted in their movements – with plenty of clipping and hanging polygons – that I had an incredibly hard time suspending my disbelief.
So, no, the game doesn’t look too wonderful, but I’ve always been a guy who values gameplay over graphics. The question, then, is whether or not Kings of Kung Fu’s combat made up for the presentation. From a purely analytical standpoint, the games menus are pretty standard for the genre. There’s a classic Arcade Mode, a local-only Versus Mode and a Practice Mode where players can beat on a non-hostile opponent to perfect their attacks. With no other warm bodies to fight against in Versus, I jumped straight into the Arcade Mode. It’s a pretty basic setup; you fight each character – even yourself – as they appear on the selection screen until you reach Red Ronin at the end.
Sadly, from the very first fight, I was just as disappointed in the gameplay as I was the graphics. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by years of fireball-throwing karate men and ice-slinging ninjas, but Kings of Kung Fu took its gameplay in a decidedly more realistic direction, with almost all attacks performed in a practical, down-to-earth fashion – no Hadoukens or Hurricane Kicks here. That in itself isn’t the problem, though. When a game goes for a more realistic approach like this, you would expect the combat to make up for it by being faster and more visceral. Unfortunately, the controls for the game are just… clunky. Instead of weak or strong attacks, the face buttons control punches and kicks from either the left or right side. This can allow for chaining together combos, though, since there is no tutorial or similar guide, it will be up to players to discover the best ways to perform them. It can be pretty confusing, but it’s usually enough to just find one decent combo and just spam it over and over until victory is achieved.
Each character also has a collection of special attacks, though they are still firmly grounded in reality. I preferred using Chen Fu, the Drunken Master, as his unpredictable attacks allowed me to attack high and low fairly quickly, which always kept the computer on its toes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy to pull off even simple attacks. It almost seemed as though the game was forgetting what attacks I could do as I continued playing. Sometimes, these special attacks would trigger multiple times simply by continuing to attack. Other times, it would take several attempts to activate it. I may not be a pro by any stretch of the imagination when it comes to fighting games, but when it takes me several tries just to correctly pull off a simple “down-right-punch” attack, I can’t help but feel that the inputs could use a little more tweaking.
I also feel that something ought to be done about how much damage these attacks do. Matches count down from 99 seconds, and, even if I stay on the offensive the entire fight, rounds usually ended by timing out. Your opponents are strangely defensive, and even when you do hit them, it isn’t for much. As such, it didn’t take long before I reached the final boss, Red Ronin. Everything I had experienced up until that point went right out the window once the final fight began. Ronin is extremely aggressive, and has attacks that can take huge chunks out of your health. It took me several tries to finally beat him, and even then, it was by the skin of my teeth. Of course, that’s par for the course when it comes to bosses in fighting games.
Initially, I wasn’t too impressed with the game’s sound design, either. The music was oddly repetitive and the quality of the sound effects themselves left a lot to be desired. It was an oddly low-quality collection of hits and yells that just didn’t match the same kind of combat noises you hear in other contemporary games. However, I eventually came to the realization that this might have been by design all along. Continuing with the “old martial arts movie” aesthetic, these sound effects would fit right in with those films. Even the slightly annoying, incredibly stereotypical announcer fits in here. I was initially put off by the way he’d scream “Select yo’ fightah!” whenever I started a new game, but he eventually grew on me after that realization.
I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that this game was simply not made for me. I do greatly enjoy fighting games, but fighting fans are going to be sorely disappointed with Kings of Kung Fu at this early stage of development. Clearly, this is more meant to tickle the nostalgia bones of fans of those Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly and Nora Miao films of yesteryear. The art, music and character aesthetics all harken back to these movies, and, while they do seem to be a faithful representation (coming from someone who has never seen a single one of them), the mechanics themselves still need a lot of work. However, if Jae Lee Productions can smoothe out the gameplay and maybe put a little more polish on the character models, they very well may have a winner on their hands. With the promise of bug fixes and even more characters coming to the roster, Kings of Kung Fu could be something great some day, but, for right now, I think I’d rather just watch Enter the Dragon than try to recreate it.