Devotees of antiquities would immediately have the bell in their head rung at the mention of Journey to the West as a deeply complex and virtuous tale that stands head to toe to some of the world’s oldest classics such as Homer’s Illiad. It bears a significant cornerstone to the Chinese civilisation ever since its conception and has gone on to garner a worldwide appeal and fanfare. Time and again, this timeless masterpiece made its global footprint at the forefront of cultural exchange and starred as a trademark icon in many facets of entertainment, be it movies or video games.
The Monkey King had its fair share of appearances across titles regardless of prestige and size. Cut the long-winded nag, to add to the never-ending pile of games based on the literature, comes Journey to the West - a Kickstarter indie goodie packaged neatly in a deckbuilding box and is the brainchild of Zhan Yu (Z Studio), available exclusively on the App Store and Steam.
Source: HangZhou animation museum in 2023, Journey to the West and its mascot: Monkey King depicted in an older medium
True to what’s promised, Journey to the West lets you experience the saga in a deckbuilding style. With only Sun Wukong available at the time of writing and the few others needing the bucks to unlock, you command the Hominid deity to engage your foes in turn-based battle using basic RPG commands: fight, defend, evade or enhance. Not slacking on the teambuilding aspect, along the way you get to recruit either classic cookie-cutter monsters or figures of legend to your team with a maximum count of up to 4.
Heck, if you got the luck of the draw, you can call upon them in mid-battle and make use of their cards with varying effects such as healing, or have them act as your personal damage sponge. In your arsenal, you can harness extra quirks through consumables or relics.
With that said, Z Studio got the core formula of team-building games right, even with just one character (minus the generic allies alongside you). You are treading on deep water when it comes to strategic planning with the many cards at play, each with its rarity that scales with energy cost. Feeling ballsy? Just go ham by stacking your buffs and see big red numbers as well as carcasses of your foes.
It never fails to send a pleasurable sensation to see enemies being smacked by a super-buffed Monkey Bar. Of course, all things must have some balance as dictated by the ying yang concept since it's relevant. So, there is an energy system in place that puts a cap on how much action you are permitted each turn. The synergistic effects and chain combos are by all means empirical and easy to grasp.
Roguelite madness in ancient Eastern landscape
The rest of the game plays out in a roguelike fashion. You traverse through a vast map with many nodes dotted around various paths that ultimately lead to the final stage. With how things go for a game of this genre, it's the standard affair. You go through enemy encounters on stages to acquire some loot, bumble into random question-mark nodes for surprises or buy from merchants at others. The scenarios themselves are somewhat interesting. As too many battles make the Monkey King dull, these random nodes sometimes contain simple mini-games such as card-matching, which is neat.
There is another mechanic in play that affects the development of your character, primarily when it comes to random encounters in the roguelike modes. Each choice you pick has consequences. You are presented with the option to embrace the good Samaritan path or stray from it. As for the ending? We would love to let you experience it first-hand without spilling any beans.
Newgrounds flash game in ancient Eastern style
With little to no emphasis on pulling an extravaganza front, naturally, the User Interface and overall graphics have a "Newgrounds" feel to them. Presentation be damned - you will find your senses at the mercy of the clutter. Characters with non-existent animations feel cartoonish and not very eye-candy-friendly to feast on.
The premise of the story remains faithful to the lore. To rewind, you play as the Monkey King - heaven's primary troublemaker and free-to-play players' sole unlocked character - who whips up a storm of mischief in the kingdom until subjugation comes literally at the hands of Buddha. One fateful day, the Goddess of Mercy descends and awards you a "get out of jail" ticket for dealing with an insidious monster outbreak heralded by the Devil King. Now it is up to you to clear the streets of stalking apparitions with the MonkeyBar.
Hilarity can ensue as story dialogue leave a lot to be desired and come packed with that signature jank commonly produced by machine translations. Despite this, it did not fail to portray the extreme duality of the hominid King’s personality: courteous and formal on one face, while gung-ho and haughty when his alter-ego switch is flipped.
As implied on the character selection screen, with some moolah the option of playing through the story from other characters' perspectives will be made available, featuring Holy Monk who is a direct representation of Sanzang, White Dragon whose design is reminiscent of Ao Bing from the blockbuster Ne Zha, Faithful Devil and the goofy Swine King. The quintessential element that drums up the gameplay experience will no doubt be the soundtrack composition - and boy does it not disappoint. The game truly has a knack for music, and when it hits high, it's a jam.
Ultimate end-game mania - Tis’ a bliss
As a definitive end-game content whose implementation becomes a necessity to keep people playing in this saturated and competitive market, Journey to the West presents a mode that allows you to cycle through its roguelike labyrinth to your heart's content. It's no doubt a hotbed for experimenting with all kinds of combinations. As the game's tutorial is brief, it tones down the hand-holding and leaves you plenty of room to figure out the individual effects of each card. Likewise, it is also up to you to mix and match the best relics.
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It's a fine game that operates by the motto "short-burst fun" that can last hours in succession or when playing offline. It is rough around the edges when it comes to its simplistic presentation but the core gameplay is remarkable with a very steep learning curve.
A wanderlust by nature who regards video games as an artful medium for creative storytelling. I implore thee to join me on my jubilant voyage through the sea of video games. PS: I find great pleasure jamming to Touhou songs while riding on public transports.