But you will need to play cooperatively to find a lot of them. Again, Shaolin Monks was clearly designed with co-op play as the focal point, and as such, lots of hidden items, characters, and areas can only be accessed via the "ko-op" mode, as it's titled. Fortunately, this is the kind of game MK fans will want to play at least a couple of times. You can easily play through once in single-player and once cooperatively, and you'll enjoy it for entirely different reasons on each play-through.
Unfortunately, at times you'll feel like you're rehashing some of the same stuff over and over again--and we're not talking about on multiple plays, either. The underlying level design in Shaolin Monks relies heavily on a lot of backtracking through the same worlds to get to different places. A certain amount of it makes sense, since so many of the hidden items and areas often can't be accessed until you gain new abilities, but even when you're just trying to go from mission to mission, there's an awful lot of running back and forth through the same hub worlds and stages. Then again, considering how short the game is, it's not altogether surprising that the developer might try to pad the length a bit via something like this. The game is also all over the place in terms of difficulty. On the default difficulty, most of it is pretty easy--almost too easy--in certain situations. Some of the boss fights are pathetically easy to win, including a particularly anticlimactic fight against Goro. Others, like the 1-2-3 punch of Shang Tsung, Kintaro, and Shao Kahn (all in a row, with no life bar help for you), are painfully cheap. Fortunately, there are times when the game gets the balance right, too. The fight against Scorpion, in particular, is really good. It's just a shame the game isn't more consistent overall. As for other content beyond the story mode, there is a fairly rudimentary versus fighting mode available, but it can't be called anything better than a meaningless distraction, and you only get a handful of fighters to use in the mode.
As with the game's length, Shaolin Monks' plot is stretched thin. Granted, trying to turn the storyline of a fighting game into a multihoured action plot isn't always the easiest thing in the world, even when you're working with the relatively deep Mortal Kombat mythos. Just look at the Mortal Kombat movies, for instance. The first one managed decently enough for a two-hour film, but as for the sequel... Well, the less said about that, the better. Shaolin Monks' story starts off reasonably well, but over time it degenerates into a fairly incomprehensible mess, with all sorts of pseudo-betrayals, overwrought plot twists, and a few halfhearted introductions of random characters for seemingly no reason other than because the developer had to find a way to squeeze them in. Jax, for instance, makes his main story appearance way late in the game, shows up for about a minute, and then disappears. These strained uses of the MK characters are more aberration than the norm, though, so you'll see plenty of main characters, like Raiden, Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Kitana, and the like, used reasonably well throughout the game. And while the story doesn't make an awful lot of sense, overall it's about on par with any of the other Mortal Kombat storylines.
On the technical side of things, Shaolin Monks isn't exactly pushing any boundaries graphically. Close inspection of the character models reveals some fairly low-resolution faces and costumes, and the animations are occasionally choppy and inconsistent. But again, technical prowess is not really what makes Shaolin Monks good. Instead, it's aesthetics and attention to the details that are based on source material. On that level, Shaolin Monks does a fine job of re-creating the atmosphere of early Mortal Kombat. In fact, at times it's downright obsessive. Practically every fighting arena from MKII has been re-created here as some level or another. You'll find yourself wandering through the living forest, uppercutting bad guys into the pit, and navigating the pitfalls of the barren wasteland. The character designs are like a hybrid between classic and modern MK, and they're the right kind of hybrid, too, updating the looks beyond the old days but without straying too far from the original concepts. Unfortunately, the designs for the characters that aren't directly from an MK game aren't nearly as good. Apart from a couple of cool-looking masked soldiers and the evil shadow priests that just float around in the background of a couple of MKII stages, most enemies rarely transcend awkward corpses, generic-looking troll creatures, and a lot of faceless agents of the outworld. Granted, they all die excellently, and cutting and beating them up can be quite satisfying. You'd just hope for a bit more in the way of creativity on the enemy front.
The developer stopped short of including the Mortal Kombat techno theme. But really, just about anything you can think of that's considered classic MK is in this game.
The audio in Shaolin Monks is on a similar keel. Technically, very little leaps out. The voice acting is exceptionally ham-fisted, and in some cases, it's absolutely awful. But conversely, most of the music and many of the sound effects seem to have been lifted directly out of Mortal Kombat II. Liu Kang's ridiculous martial arts shrieks are all fully intact, and you'll even get all the little, subtle sounds too, like the insidious-sounding announcer who says "Excellent" and "Fatality" at the appropriate times. In addition, Dan "Toasty" Forden's voice returns once again to utter the famous line at all the right times. It's totally bananas that the developer would dig deep enough into the vault to actually trot out so many of these old sound effects and musical tracks, and even many of the newer-sounding effects and tracks still sound like the older stuff. From a purely atmospheric perspective, this is awesome.
When it comes down to it, if you're a Mortal Kombat fan, you'll like Shaolin Monks. If you aren't, you won't. The core action of the game will be enjoyable to any beat-'em-up fan, but what makes Shaolin Monks specifically appealing isn't its brawling. Instead, it's the game's unrelenting desire to cater to classic Kombat fans. Average players aren't likely to want to seek out all the crazy, hidden missions you have to accomplish to unlock the included arcade port of Mortal Kombat II, for instance, but fans are likely to squeal with delight at the thought of being able to unlock their favorite arcade fighter. And that's pretty much how it is with the entirety of the game. It's fan service, pure and simple, and as such, the vast bulk of the content is only going to be appealing to those with a penchant for fatalities and toasty guy. So if you played and loved the classic Mortal Kombat fighters, Shaolin Monks is a game well worth checking out. For anybody else, Shaolin Monks might make for a solid rental; but ultimately, this one's probably best left to the fans.