Game Description: Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style for the PlayStation is a violent and explosive fighting game. The characters are all members of the popular rap group Wu-Tang Clan, including Method Man and ODB. There are a total of 11 fighters, with some that have to be unlocked by completing certain tasks. Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style is the first four-player fighting game on the PlayStation, and it’s full of characters with individual moves and all of the flair and excitement that the Wu-Tang Clan is known for.
Is there a following of martial arts in the black community? This story started, of course, when Bruce Lee arrived onto the big scene and ushered in an era of martial arts to the world. Shortly after, the shocks swept onto on our shores and created a period now lovingly remembered as the 'Blaxploitation Era'. This was a time when all kinds of black stars were kung-fu fighting their way on movie screens in cheap stereotypical roles. After this unfortunate period in movie history faded, a small following of martial arts fans still lingered. Movie theaters sometimes catered to these fans by showing horribly dubbed or subtitled releases on their big screens. It was then that a couple of kids walked into a Manhattan movie theater for the first time and saw a film called Shaolin And The Wu-Tang. They were quickly hooked after this first viewing and they soon had all their friends and family hooked as well. Their love and fascination was such that when they got together years later to form a rap group, they called themselves the Wu-Tang Clan and named each other by their favorite characters from that movie series. And with their hard work and successes, they have gone on to produce several successful albums and now even have a videogame made based on themselves. This, of course, is what we're most interested in.
Upon first viewing, Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style appears to be a game made solely for fans of the group. It comes with their trademark style of mixing martial arts with the 'streets.' Every member of the group is in the game and the game comes with three tracks made specifically for it. Some consider Shaolin Style to be a revival of the music videogame that found its way onto CD-consoles a few years back and, to a large extent, they would be right. Shaolin Style never does anything well enough to overshadow the fact that it's a gimmick; a game made solely for those hip enough to get the Wu-Tang history and motto. It starts with a story that sounds like a personal feat for the rap group to anyone in the know, but it falters big-time because there is more than a slight resemblance of it to the storylines of countless cheesy martial arts films, not to mention a famous band of mutant turtle ninjas who also habitually lost their master a few years back. And the cut-scenes, though handled in above-average, computer-generated full-motion-video, hark back to those days of stereotypical black and Asian caricatures. Sometimes, they come off as a spoof like Keenan Ivory Wayan's I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, but other times it's just a bit insulting.
Because of the lackluster story, the gameplay is thus called upon to carry the game through. And what kills me is that there was an opportunity here to do something really great. There are over 20 characters to choose from and each has a huge selection of moves and their own unique style, which adds a rare level of depth in this brawler. Shaolin Style is also the first four-player fighting game on the PlayStation, which should be another plus. Unfortunately, it isn't and, to be blunt, once they started the game, it seems as if no one took into consideration how four-player fighting would wind up. During the story mode, I would sometimes find myself in situations where I was outnumbered and oftentimes, I could do little but watch the computer double-team me with a barrage of moves as my character was lucky to even get a couple of hits in (let alone a combo or special move of my own). To make matters worse, pulling off moves in this game can require a level of precision that no brawler should ever demand of a player. Strategy in the game devolves to standing in the corner while hoping and praying that the enemies will forget about me for a while. When playing against friends in multiplayer mode, things got no easier. As you may remember from Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers, when the action begins, it's easy to forget your combos and just slug it out, but unlike Super Smash Brothers, Shaolin Style lacks any kind of strategy thanks to the oft claustrophobic stages.
This brings me to the second (but most publicized) selling point. Some of our hardcore gamer readers will see Shaolin Style as an answer to their prayers being that it is the first commercial release using the notorious Thrill Kill engine. For those of you who don't know, Paradox created a game called Thrill Kill a while back that allowed four players to fight onscreen at once. What got the most attention, however, was the sheer amount of violence and gore in the game. It was so extreme that it made Mortal Kombat and Kill Zone look tame, but like those games before it, it succumbed to the negative media attention and was never released. After playing Shaolin Style, it is apparent why: to put it plainly, Shaolin Style is a bloody mess. I don't mind blood flowing from a character I just slashed with a sword knife (then again, I wouldn't mind so much if no blood flowed either), but Paradox went to great lengths to make sure that the blood-flow never stops. For example, if you have only a little energy left, then it's a guarantee that the next hit you take will send your body parts flying to the four corners of the screen. Plus, something that I prayed would never come back, the fatality, is here in full force and is pulled off seemingly after every round to the point of just being trivial. Aside from the gross-out factor, the downside to all the gore and dismembering is that the backgrounds of all the levels had been reduced to their lowest form. This left the game with low-res textures and a truly uninspiring look overall.
Maybe it was the way the Wu-Tang Clan pushed the game onto publishers that got Activisions attention, maybe the passion they had for the game just came through and Activision jumped at the chance. Maybe Activision and Paradox came across some data that showed some sort of connection between rap fans and martial arts. Or maybe Activision just needed a reason (any reason) to use the Thrill Kill engine and found that this game was it. Whatever the reason, Shaolin Style ultimately comes off as a gimmick game. Like the blaxploitation films mentioned earlier, it doesnt stop to think how everything involved will make the characters look or impact the consumers of their product. With all eyes on this type of violence in videogames and the level of scorn that rap is under, I would think that the developers of a game like this would try to distract critics and the media away from those two elements. How about gameplay and stronger stories to make up for the baseness of the game? Instead, everything is overshadowed by the graphic content and shoddy play. I had high hopes for it but in the end, it should be buried right alongside the Thrill Kill game that spawned it.
Dale mentions in his review that Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style had the potential to be "something really great" and its not hard to see why. I don't consider myself a rap connoisseur, but I still really enjoyed those full-motion video sequences that Dale apparently had issues with. The storyline is admittedly kitschy, but that wasn't what I liked about it. It was more the offbeat style from the amalgamation of old-school Hong Kong chop-sockey flicks and youthful urban hip-hop flavor with a dab of Hollywood pop-culture that caught my eye. Usually, computer-generated images look dry and lifeless, but the ones in Shaolin Style by comparison are bursting with personality and plays like a straight-faced parody that manages to be funny and serious all at the same time. There is a bit of stereotyping (its actually more camp if you ask me), but it doesn't dominate the sequences and there's clearly a level of dignity toward the representations of the Wu-Tang Clan as I'm sure they had final approval over their digital counterparts.
Shaolin Style surprised me again after spending several minutes practicing with a few of the characters in the training mode. I immediately noticed the amount of depth and complexity that went into the vicious over-the-top attacks. It's clear that the developers put forth a solid effort in conceptualizing a wide variety of attacks for the multitude of characters in the game. Its also worth noting that the training mode in Shaolin Style is especially useful the way it displays onscreen the directional motions and button-presses necessary to execute a particular move and the display only changes when the player properly performs that move.
However, the unique style and sheer amount of attack moves cannot save Shaolin Style from its utterly repetitive and dull gameplay. I didn't mind the gore so much (in fact, I was mildly amused), but there wasn't a sense of competitiveness like there was in Smash Brothers or a notion of strategy as in Power Stone. As Dale indicated, every battle, whether against computer or human opponents, more or less leads to overly chaotic and bloody pileups where technique and skill mattered little. The game also tries to keep things interesting by maxing out the 4-player brawl premise by having three-on-one or two-on-two match-ups. But no matter how the game tries to dress things up visually or through the story, every stage plays more or less like the one before it and there isn't a sense of progression or development. Things got even more repetitive later in the game when I had to replay difficult stages over and over again until I finally managed to win.
Shaolin Style isn't the worst game to ever come under our inspection. The game has its merits, as I had mentioned earlier, and I can see fans of the Wu-Tang Clan having a good time with this one. It's just a shame to see a game with its heart in the right place and seemingly so technologically capable to finally come up short in the gameplay department. Shaolin Style clearly could have been a contender.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood & Gore, Animated Violence
Parents should be doubly-warned here. There is an option to remove all the blood and gore in the game thanks to a lockout code that must be entered once you start-up the game. This is something that should be considered because the game takes bodily dismemberment, gore, and blood to all new levels, but you must keep in mind that the enterprising youth you are trying to shield the graphic material from can very well find the code, which leaves the whole effort moot.
Wu-Tang fans, this is the game for you. The soundtrack is all Wu-Tang, the Wu-Tang characters are here, and both are in a quasi-Wu-Tang storyline.
Fighting game fans will want to take a look at the multiplayer simply because it's the first and possibly the only kind you'll ever find on the Sony PlayStation.
Anyone with an Nintendo 64 looking for a multiplayer game should look to Super Smash Bros., Mario Party, or Turok: Rage Wars, as these are all better all-around games. And despite being only a two-player brawler (not four), the similar playing, but much more diverse Power Stone will keep Dreamcast owners far more satisfied.
Thrill Kill mavens who have been patiently waiting for a game based on the infamous engine to appear; here it is and it doesn't disappoint.