A sweet, satisfying and short co-op experience.
Set directly after the events of the first game in the franchise, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is a retelling of the original's sequel that sees Shaolin warriors Liu Kang and Kung Lao on a quest to prevent the notorious sorcerer and sore-loser Shang Tsung from bypassing the laws set by the Elder Gods, by launching an attack on Earthrealm to obtain power after losing the tournament that would have granted him full control over its inhabitants.
Being a huge fan of Mortal Kombat II back in the day, I had mixed feelings when I first heard about this game - while I was looking forward to the idea of revisiting what many consider to be the best title in the series, Midway's disastrous attempts at moving the series into the adventure genre with Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces hinted that I might get a more enjoyable and painless experience by getting sweet oral lovin' from Mileena. Fortunately, Midway LA did a great job at creating an explorative beat-em-up that provides frantic and fun fighting action while taking us on a trip down memory lane with plenty of references to the first two arcade classics.
Where the game really shines though is in its implementation of two-player features, including a cooperative mode where you run through the main story with a friend and a surprisingly extensive versus mode that pits your choice of 8 classic characters in one of 15 arenas littered with power-ups and weapons, making each battle varied and a blast to play. Encouraging you to experience multiplayer at least once, certain secrets can also only be found by going through the game on co-op - this might put some socially challenged completionists off, but it's fortunately possible to go through the game with a second control on your lap if you don't mind a giant weakspot following you around or an endless stream of jokes about playing with yourself.
The developers have managed to create a world as faithful to the series as possible with a painstakingly large amount of detail and plenty of little touches and references that are bound to strike up a healthy amount of nostalgia in older players. The various locations you'll explore on your journey are all based on the arenas in the original games and make full use of natural obstacles and environmental hazards that you can use to your advantage, such as knocking enemies into acid in the Dead Pool or launching your opponents up into the spiked ceiling of the Kombat Arena. The sound effects and music are also reminiscent of the first two games, though the latter is often drowned out in the action and not particularly memorable (much like the original tracks).
Sadly, Shaolin Monks isn't without its share of flaws - the game can be far too easy at times and the poor balancing of the EXP system means you'll likely gain all of the more powerful attacks within the first hour or so, and the AI of the bosses is woefully simple as each can be beaten with the same block-and-counter pattern. The game is also very short and can be completed in around six hours, and even though this may have been intentional to give the co-op more of an arcade-styled feel I still felt it was a shame Midway didn't expand the story to cover the events of the third game as well, or add a separate story mode for the two unlockable characters to lengthen the game a bit more. Fortunately, there are a vast number of secrets to uncover such as concept artwork, photos of the development team and so on that should add a few more hours onto the game along with the original arcade version of Mortal Kombat II, though you're out of luck if playing on the PAL version of the game as this addition was removed entirely.
The dialogue and storytelling also leave a lot to be desired, which is strange considering how much thought usually goes into the background of the franchise. A crucial twist towards the end of the game is explained to the player early on leaving Liu Kang and Kung Lao looking rather stupid as they carry out each task completely ignorant of the blatantly obvious, which isn't made better by poor choreography in the cutscenes and voice acting that has almost every character sounding like the last one - with the odd exception of Kabal who quotes Sun Tzu while doing an Elvis impersonation.
Don't get me wrong though, Shaolin Monks is a great game at its crux that should provide a satisfying experience for those looking for fast, frenzied arcade action to keep them entertained for a couple of hours. Fans of the franchise will definitely want to give this a chance and put fears of another abysmal spin-off behind them, especially if you have a friend willing to assist you on your journey to dismember and decapitate everything in your way.