It’s kind of surprising just how few broadly released games feature Sun Wukong (a.k.a. the Monkey King or just Monkey), the central character of Journey to the West. With his roguish antiheroic persona and a litany of powers to rival Superman, he’s an ideal video game protagonist, and yet what do we have? 2010s Enslaved, a game that pretended to be based on Journey to the West and that maybe seven of you remember.
But I think that the Monkey King is going to make a big splash in digital space in the next few years. In a previous article, I mentioned Black Myth: Wukong, but it looks like Spanish developers Trazos and Red Mountain has beaten that one to the punch with The Crown of Wu. But does it capture the feel of controlling the literary legend?
First, a refresher for those who aren’t so familiar with Journey to the West. Sun Wukong is a monkey born of a stone, one who masters so many mystical techniques that he becomes a deity in his own right and ascends to the realm of the immortals. He proceeded to beat every mystic he could find, until the Jade Emperor and the Buddha took action and banished him from the heavens, trapping him beneath a boulder. His imprisonment ends when a young monk comes across him while on a pilgrimage, in turn asking for the Monkey King's help in his own quest.
The story of The Crown of Wu is pretty much that, except cyberpunk-ish. The game’s Sun Wukong lives in a world which houses tremendous natural energies that are gathered by robotic monks before actual usage. Upon his escape, Wukong finds that the illegitimate emperor has turned these monks into an army and has sent them to stop Wukong from recovering his stolen crown.
I say “cyberpunk-ish” because the setting lacks some traits one would normally associate with cyberpunk. It’s not urban, for one — Wukong’s world has a very mystical bearing, but with robots and strange science. It’s a world of ancient stone bridges and iron gates controlled by computers with interfaces designed after the I-Ching.
There are three aspects to the gameplay: combat, platforming and puzzles. These aspects are not at all equal.
Combat is the heart of the experience. Anyone who’s played a game described as a “Souls-like” knows what you’re in for here. Wukong possesses a few different attacks, along with a dodge and block. He also gains a suite of other powers, though most of these are used more for exploration and puzzle solving than combat. There are a few different enemy types, but as you’d expect, even the lowliest robot monk can take you out if you’re not careful.
Platforming is easily the weak link here, something that’s a shame for a character who famously flew on the clouds to the edge of the universe. The awkwardness in the air and the camera’s lack of cooperation make this version of Wukong not quite built for platforming. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of platforming and the game is merciful with checkpoints.
The puzzles are a varied lot — some feature standard third-person block pushing type puzzles, but a few get more interesting and demand observation and exploration. There aren’t a lot of puzzles either, but they break things up a bit.
Maybe my biggest disappointment with The Crown of Wu is that Wukong is a silent protagonist. The Monkey King is the original lovable jerk — irreverent, disrespectful, tactless, but also witty and charming. What this game is missing is that attitude.
Don’t get me wrong, if you have the taste for this kind of game with this kind of combat, you’ll enjoy The Crown of Wu. However, I’m hoping that the next game to feature Monkey captures a little more of the attitude that made the original character so iconic.
To Sum Up
The Crown of Wu is a cyberpunk take on the Chinese classic Journey to the West. It will appeal to anyone who appreciates Souls-like action games, but probably won't change your mind if those games aren't to your taste.
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