Here in the west, we don’t see too many games from China. That makes Qooc Soft’s Kung Fu Strike: the Warrior’s Rise quite unique. Part brawler, part historical epic (the only genre of story legally permissible in China these days), this game certainly looked promising in early screens and videos. Plus, co-op! Sadly, poor balancing and several other issues threaten to defeat Kung Fu Strike before it can achieve gameplay glory.
Kung Fu Strike is an arena-based beat-em-up in which the player(s) take on hordes of enemies in each level, proceeding to the next level if they’re lucky enough to survive. Levels pan and zoom a bit, but they’re almost all confined to single courtyards or rooms – only a few stages dare to mix things up by taking place in circular rooms that can’t fit on one screen. There are tons of levels, but they lack for variety other than the combinations of enemies contained within.
Still, a brawler doesn’t absolutely require memorable level design like Double Dragon in order to work. As long as the combat is enjoyable, things can come together. For the first few levels, Kung Fu Strike does actually deliver an enjoyable fighting experience. Based on the wuxia genre of films and stories, this kung fu fighting is fast and features lots of mid-air dashing and juggling of hapless combatants.
While the game only uses a single primary attack button, numerous attacks also involve the jump button – for example, when using the Xbox 360 controller, pressing X and A simultaneously performs a special attack that consumes a precious chi bar (you start out with one and can eventually unlock a whole two bars for fueling special moves). Doesn’t make for deep combo opportunities, but at least you can learn it quickly.
The protagonist also has both a block and a dodge button at his disposal. Pressing block just as an enemy attacks will stop the move and open a brief window to counterattack and receive a small health bonus. Good idea in theory, but eventually enemies come in such numbers as to make successfully blocking all but impossible.
The dodge button rolls the hero out of harm’s way. This quickly becomes super important thanks to the unblockable attacks that many enemies and all bosses employ. When a bad guy glows red, forget about blocking or even hitting him or her; they are immune to all but the special attacks I mentioned earlier. Not a great mechanic to begin with, it’s made worse by the fact that advanced enemies’ unblockable attacks actually home in on the player, making them way too hard to dodge. I’d say unblockable attacks suck about forty percent of the fun from combat.
In case I haven't made it clear, Kung Fu Strike’s biggest problem is its difficulty. The first ten or so levels are pretty fun, but the remaining 20-ish (it feels like 40) just cry out for proper balancing. Enemies relentlessly swarm the player, which would work in a Dynasty Warriors-sorta way if not for cheap mechanics like the unblockable attacks and semi-QTEs.
See, sometimes a button appears over the enemy and if you do anything other than quickly hold that button, he or she will block and then get an automatic hit in. That might be okay if you only fought two enemies at a time, but with 6-8 foes on-screen and very little time to react, let alone target the right foe, it often ends badly. The odds are stacked so poorly against the player, even on ‘Easy,’ which is the equivalent of most games’ hard modes. The developers seem to subscribe to the old Mortal Kombat school of difficulty level labeling - or should I say mislabeling?
Kung Fu Strike’s shop system had a chance at alleviating the difficulty. Players earn points the first time they complete a level or by completing that level’s optional challenge. But the system falls apart for multiple reasons. One, you’re broke most of the time because many of the challenges are crazy difficult and levels pay practically nothing on repeat playthroughs. Two, almost all the moves you can buy are tied to the same two-bar Chi meter and the same two buttons, meaning you can only use them occasionally at best and they add very little to the fighting in general. The shop also sells equippable items, but they have so scant an effect as to be useless. In short, no amount of upgrades can properly balance the scales in the player’s favor.
2-player local co-op should have been Kung Fu Strike’s saving grace. Even though Multiplayer Campaign is a separate menu option, progress is shared with single-player, so it might as well have been drop-in, drop-out like the god of co-op intended. The second player controls a mustachioed, nameless clone of the main character General Loh – sort of an old-school touch, like from the era before games had enough memory for two different player characters.
That’s nitpicking though – far worse problems drag down co-op. Even though players are confined to the same screen, the dynamically zooming camera struggles with keeping both on-screen at once. Far too often, one of us would get too close to the edge and simply disappear from view. Other games either don't allow players to leave the screen or warp the off-screen player somewhere closer to his teammate, but not this one.
Co-op would at least reduce the frustrating difficulty if not for the fact that enemy numbers, including bosses, usually swell in 2-player. Double the unfair bosses equals double the chances to die. Worst of all, if either player runs out of health, both players have to restart the level. It’s like a game from 1987 that wasn’t as fun as Double Dragon time-traveled to the future and completely missed the co-op innovation of reviving one’s partner! Come on - Kung Fu Strike doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
I could list other problems like the completely forgettable and inane story scenes that precede every.single.level or the PC game’s ridiculous lack of graphical options, but ugly gameplay is what killed this beast. Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior’s Rise has exactly one thing going for it: wuxia. In every other way, this game feels like a soulless, propagandistic, and needlessly sadistic effort from a handful of developers who apparently haven’t played a beat-em-up (or even a PC game) in the last 10 years. If you must play an Asian brawler, skip this and go for Dungeon Fighter instead.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Kung Fu Strike was based on the PC version of the game. The review copy was provided by the publisher.