Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior's Rise does itself no favors. At a glance, it's nothing more than a mindless button masher, hastily cobbled together with a few light role-playing elements and some multiplayer modes, and then released as a downloadable game because there's not enough to it to justify a full retail release. If the game had an odor, it would smell like failure.
Give Kung Fu Strike a chance, though, and you might be surprised at how much better it gets. An experience that initially feels like Heavenly Sword with the interesting parts removed evolves slowly into a compelling brawler. It lacks the high production values of those other games, and offers little of the emotional punch, but in place of those elements you'll find surprisingly robust combat featuring a variety of special moves and a system that successfully eliminates the more immediate benefits of button mashing.
The story told in Kung Fu Strike is its weakest link. The tale revolves around a prince named Loh who is working to avenge a horrific betrayal of epic proportions. To do so, he wanders the lands in search of the one who orchestrated his downfall, which mostly means that he punches and kicks his way through one arena after another, fighting armies of thugs and occasionally a more lethal foe. Heavily inked story scenes reveal the bare-bones narrative, and then you can dive into the next of the game's 28 stages.
Combat begins simply enough. The brawny prince you control throughout the game is initially capable of executing only a few moves. He can hop and kick, or he can throw a weak punch or dole out a more extended flurry of punches. Defensively, it's possible to roll around or even deflect attacks, with the latter approach leading to all-out assault because it staggers foes and opens them up to follow-up attacks. Finally, as you take and deal damage, you build up a chi meter that allows you to unleash a powerful move in the direction of your choosing. The screen turns black and white and time slows to a crawl as you deal a devastating series of kicks, hopefully in time to avoid getting caught up in a similar attack that some of your more lethal adversaries aim your way. All of that should sound somewhat standard to someone who has played this sort of game, but there are complications that make it more interesting than is immediately obvious.
As you defeat foes, you sometimes knock loose restorative items and coins. The coins can then be used in a variety of ways, depending on how far you've progressed in the game. Early on, you can buy special moves or equipment. For instance, you might purchase a single-use item that automatically restores 200 hit points if you fall in battle, or a jacket that reduces the amount of damage you take when you run afoul of some explosives. There are also a host of character upgrades, including extensions to your life meter and new special moves that make you a more lethal force on the battlefield. However, equipment and skills aren't the only uses for your earnings. During battle, you can also find bugles (usually dropped by enemies or found in urns that you demolish). You can then call support troops onto the field, and they will serve as a welcome distraction so that you can more easily flank your foes. As you keep playing and clearing stages, the variety of troops you can summon increases.
Kung Fu Strike had potential to get old quickly, but the developers wisely mixed things up to keep the experience reasonably fresh. While most stages do come down to beating the stuffing out of a few common foes, there is enough enemy variety to force a careful approach to each stage. Some foes do a great job blocking and also may attack with weapons such as grenades or a long staff. Others are so freakishly strong that they can withstand a barrage of kicks and still deal fierce attacks in retaliation. Some can even split in two and will then try to skewer you from both sides at once. That variety of enemies is also joined by some unique challenges, such as when you must clear a field while suffering the debilitating effects of poison, or when you have to take out 120 foes within a certain time frame.
Boss battles serve as another highlight, though sometimes they are a bit much. In one stage around halfway through the game, for instance, you must face a fellow in a tomb who moves around with such haste that you can barely get close to him unless he wants you to (in which case close proximity is almost certainly a bad idea). He fires projectiles that you must deflect toward him to briefly stun him, and then you must deal as much damage as you can for a short time before quickly retreating. Other bosses sometimes rely on cheaper methods, such as swaths of light that lead to a fearsome attack if you linger within them for too long.
Fortunately, the game features multiple difficulty levels. In fact, you're rewarded based on the setting you choose. You don't have to pick one setting and stick to it, either; if a stage has been giving you trouble for too long, you can just drop down to Easy and typically fare just enough better that you manage to win, or you can jump up to the Hard setting if you feel like you're not being challenged enough. The game never gets so easy that novices will be able to rush through it without practice, though, so keep that in mind if you're hoping for an easy brawler. This definitely isn't that.
More good news comes in the form of some nice multiplayer options. Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior's Rise features a cooperative mode that lets you play each available campaign mission with a friend. Both fighters have separate life meters and appear within the same field, so there's good potential for fun as teamwork allows you to vanquish otherwise difficult foes. The number of moving parts can lead to slowdown in a lot of fights (an occasional problem even when you're playing alone), but it's a fair trade-off. There's also the option to engage in a Versus mode in one of four arenas. The multiplayer offerings add value to a game that requires anywhere from five to eight hours to work through its main campaign.
If you're the sort of player who is willing to do without a complex plot if it means you can spend more time brawling, Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior's Rise is a pleasant surprise. It sometimes lacks the refinement that you'd expect from a modern release, but the core experience doesn't suffer in the slightest. Make sure that you don't overlook it.