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Black Myth: Wukong is a pleasantly surprising Soulslike, even if it's given me an enemy for life

This monkey means business

Guangzhi swings his fiery twinblade at Wukong in Black Myth Wukong.
Image credit: Game Science

You may or may not have seen Black Myth: Wukong impressions floating around as of late. Some claim it's not a Soulslike, or is merely Soulslike-adjacent. Some say it's a "boss rush" with a world that lets it down. Having spent 90 minutes with it myself, I'd like to add my ferocious take to the pile: you play monke = is good. But no seriously, I think no matter if it's a bit Soulsy or not, my key takeaway is one of relief. There's a lot more substance to back up the style than I thought there would be, alongside it feeling a lot more compact than the behemoth I envisioned in my head. All good signs for the complete package, which strikes me as living up to the crushing pressure of its number one Steam Wishlist spot.

Black Myth: Wukong certainly felt like a Soulslike to me. I say this, because it had the hallmarks of a game that was a bit like Souls, in that you control a Journey To The West-inspired monkey god Wukong who's armed with a staff and a penchant for bashing heads. It led me through some stunning forest sections, where I fought frogmen and crowmen and seven bosses all in a somewhat Soulsy way. I anticipated enemy tells, sipped on my Gourd (Estus) to replenish lost health, and periodically cursed my stamina bar. Any glinty loot or mushrooms, I could cash in at Shrines to craft potions or better gear, and they'd also act as rest and teleport spots.

Wukong jumps away from a crowman enemy in Black Myth Wukong.
Image credit: Game Science

Black Myth: Wukong isn't just a Souls clone, though. If anything, my time with the first chapter did indeed feel a bit like a boss rush, and when I asked developers Game Science whether they'd class the game as such a thing, they gave a resounding no.

"So yes, we indeed have a lot of bosses. What you just played is the chapter one of this game. And when we designed this chapter, we wanted the players to be able to ease into the game and get used to the battles", they said. "However, this is not final, and we are keeping on making improvements and adjustments based on the feedback we get from you guys, and we will make the cadence better in the future. The purpose of this chapter is that we want the players to experience different types of bosses at the very beginning."

Maybe you expected the map to meet Elden Ring levels of sprawl, all open and twisty with heaps of adventure, too. That... also won't be the case. Game Science explained how team restrictions meant they had to focus on what was important. "We are a team of only 140 people and this is our first console-only game. And what we believe is what we're good at, we'll do more of that. So with our capacity, it's not possible for us to do an open world game."

Wukong transforms into a frog in Black Myth Wukong.
Starting from 2021, Game Science said they visited "over 100 locations" in China for "3D environment scanning". And my goodness does it seem to pay off, with beautifully rendered details like swaying grass, dappled shade, and the patina on serene Buddha statues, sat above strands of incense. | Image credit: Game Science

And it was evident in the demo, where dirt paths steered me through relatively linear flora, where I'd occasionally bump up against invisible force fields if I tried to hop on enticing logs or assume gaps led to secret areas. Exploration reminded me a teensy bit of Nioh, in the maps being set out as levels or sections where one path might lead to a chest, while the other clearly acts as a bridge to the next set piece. But I liked the way the maps weren't quite as restrictive as Nioh, which often feels like you're funnelled through a Tough Mudder where the mud's blood and the monkey bars are coated in caltrops.

Wukong's forests, with their bamboo groves and undulating tracks, felt laid out in a way you'd expect from a real life walk, lending its relative linearity a strange sort of authenticity. A sense that you were exploring carefully selected portions of a space, where the wider world was at once there and just beyond reach at the same time - again, I think some of the best video game worlds are those you can't explore. Honestly, the demo's compact spaces were a relief, as they kept me motoring towards an endlessly exciting sequence of boss fights.

Fights are Soulsy in Wukong, there's no denying that, but it would be reductive to call it a clone or a pretender. If anything, I'd say battles against the toughest enemies called me out as a nonbeliever, as someone who watched the promo material and thought, "No way is this actually real, I bet it'll play like shite". Nah, Wukong is wonderful to control! No snagging, no hitching, all responsive and deft in how your thumb's presses (sorry, I didn't test mouse and keyboard) translate to dashes and side steps. Attack combos are both effortlessly cool and equally easy to manipulate with mixtures of light and strong hits, while enemy attack patterns were thoughtfully designed and rarely, if ever, hit you with some unfair nonsense.

So yes, the fundamentals of scrapping were rock solid. But I particularly enjoyed exploring the finer details of the different stances, which are unlockable once you’ve collected enough of Wukong’s equivalent of Souls. One of these is the Pillar stance, which lets you hop onto your staff when performing a powerful attack; or, if you hold down the trigger, you'll sit atop it for longer and charge up Focus. Charge up enough Focus with any stance, by the way, and you'll earn yourself a powerful combo breaker move that does extra damage. So, if you're in the Pillar stance, letting go of the trigger in full Focus mode lets you flip the pole down with the most satisfying of grand thwacks.

Wukong getting battered by a wandering monk boss in Black Myth Wukong.
Another magic spell let me freeze an enemy briefly, giving me breathing room to wail on them for a few seconds or retreat and regroup. I appreciated how it refreshed during long fights, so I could save it for a clutch moment later down the line. Wukong's generous like that. | Image credit: Game Science

Most importantly of all, though, sitting atop your pole lets you rise above any sweeps or slices that threaten the kneecaps. One serpentine lad who I fought in a big lake caused me a bit of trouble in my default stance, but I found instant success once I switched over to Pillar and finished him off with lots of bruising attacks from on high. I loved how cheeky it felt, sitting atop my staff, watching the idiot go for a swipe that met air before crashing down on his skull. God, if I had a ciggy, I would've puffed it up there and blown the smoke in his face for a laugh.

To me, Wukong feels a smidge more forgiving than Souls because it's both more generous and, seemingly, more free-spirited. Where Souls might give you a Dragon's ability or a sword from a fallen boss, they're never quite what you'd expect: your head turns into a dragon's for all of three seconds, maybe, or the sword gives you a rather underwhelming special move that you definitely don't have the stats to make the most out of anyway. After I beat a master twin blader in Wukong (the first boss of the demo), I got a magic spell that just fully let me transform into him for ages. I had his moveset and everything! I could do all his spins and set people on fire and to top it all off, it would act like a second lease on life if my monkey's health was looking a bit ragged.

Having felled a slithery Lucius Malfoy, I could also craft a new Willow staff out of his bones, to match a serpentine set that gave me bonuses when fighting or moving in water (I think resistance to poison was included in that, too). While it's hard to say based off a small slice of the demo, I don't think the gear game will fall into Nioh or Diablo levels of complexity. To me, it seemed a bit like your typical Assassin's Creed Odyssey or God Of War fare, with the rarity rainbow applying to item borders and easy-to-read stat boosts that don't overwhelm.

Wukong fights a massive bear in an arena besieged by fire in Black Myth Wukong.
Another shot of Wukong fighting a massive bear in an arena besieged by fire in Black Myth Wukong.
Image credit: Game Science
Wukong takes on Red Loong, a ferocious dragon in Black Myth Wukong.
Image credit: Game Science

Plentiful tools aren't the only things that carry Wukong's fights, though. The battles themselves are wracked with tension and fireworks. I fought everything from a gigantic wandering Buddha with force powers, to a wild wolf that would scramble along rooftops and lash out as it fell over, to an arrogant wizard who'd summon snakes to do his bidding. Despite many of these fights being back-to-back, I never got fatigued or bored by them, as each presented themselves as 1) fun puzzles to overcome and 2) at times, a bit of cinema.

In particular, one secret optional boss named Loong - who I'm told was part of a "lengthy sidequest" - wasn't only an example of said cinema, but absolutely nails. They'd swirl and twist and lunge through the air at you, while some big jars on its scaly back would hum with electricity and sometimes dispel it onto the battlefield with a tremendous crackle. I managed to get Loong down to around three-quarters health, but it was one of those fights where you needed to lock in without so much as a blip in your concentration. After a final attempt on his life, my hands and my voice were shaking with adrenaline as I announced to the PR I needed a wee break. I remember looking at myself in the mirror having just washed my hands and thinking to myself, "Loong, I will be seeing you again."

Questions remain over how the game evolves over time, and whether areas become more open-ended or the bosses become less frequent. There were small glimpses in my demo, like one time where I bumped into a fella who upgraded my Gourd's potency and a friendly monkey who would sell me upgrades to my Gourd's brew, granting it extra effects. But these were basic chats with vendors, so who knows how you'll get sidequests or how they'll function. Trust me, I'll be there when the game launches on August 20th. Loong and I have unfinished business, after all.

I'm fully aware of the sexism allegations levelled at Game Science by IGN, but the company refused to address these during the preview event.

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