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With the rise of China’s video games industry gaining a foothold in the Western market, Black Myth: Wukong surely stands as its shining beacon.
While its subject matter is unambiguously Chinese, based on the country’s most popular 16th-century novel Journey to the West that has no shortage of adaptations across media, looks and feels unlike anything many had expected to come out of China, an industry that has predominantly associated with either cheap imitations or free-to-play mobile titles with egregious gacha mechanics.
Since its first trailer debuted back in 2020, showing 13 minutes of pre-alpha gameplay, it has sent tongues wagging, garnering over a million views on developer Game Science’s YouTube channel and over 10 million views via IGN to date.
Since then, we’ve only seen a continuing rise of games from China finding audiences beyond its borders, notably the extremely popular Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, both developed by Shangahi-based developer HoyoVerse, while the big players Tencent and NetEase have been busy acquiring studios both in the West and Japan. Nonetheless, many of these haven’t escaped their free-to-play live service trappings, wuxia-inspired battle royale Naraka: Bladepoint actually going free-to-play earlier this year.
Black Myth: Wukong, however, is resolutely a single-player premium title intended to be released as a one-time purchase. And it certainly looks the part, with production values you might expect from a Western AAA studio, its dark fantasy reimagining of the Monkey King, known here as the Destined One, combined with precise and brutal combat making it stand toe to toe with a FromSoftware title. Things have only continued to get more impressive with every new in-depth video from the Hangzhou-based studio including its switch to Unreal Engine 5 in 2022.
Yet aside from these videos, information had also been quite scarce, perhaps due to the pandemic but also a lack of communication with the West (according to its Steam page, Black Myth: Wukong is presently a self-published release).
However, its presence at Gamescom, where the public were reportedly queueing for four hours to get hands-on, and the debut of its English dubbed trailer at The Game Awards, is an indication that Game Science is gearing up to the final stretch of its long journey to the West when Black Myth: Wukong launches on PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S in August worldwide.
“It certainly looks the part, with production values you might expect from a Western AAA studio, combined with precise and brutal combat making it stand toe to toe with a FromSoftware title.”
And even while there is an interest in premium titles in China via platforms like Steam (albeit with heavy restrictions), free-to-play remains the dominant way to access games back home, making it more imperative for Black Myth to find a global audience if it’s to become a success.
So what can we expect from the game itself? As mentioned before, it definitely takes inspiration from Soulslikes, that is unforgiving combat where heals are limited, resting means enemies respawning, and repeated death is the path to mastery, which of course culminates in epic boss fights against powerful creatures of Chinese myth.
You are, however, also a nimble monkey man with a stick, making fights faster than the slower, more methodical encounters of Dark Souls, while perfectly-timed dodges slow down time, much like in Bayonetta. There’s also a system more akin to Nioh where you can change between different fighting stances, each giving you different attacks, combos and timings.
That’s not counting the cooldown-based magical abilities also at your disposal, whether turning enemies to stone letting you freely wail on them or even transforming into a more powerful damage-dealing beast. So there’s no shortage of tools and techniques to suit your play style, even if this is a more character and narrative-focused game than a typical Soulslike (Sekiro does however also spring to mind).
Fighting for the same territory as FromSoftware is, of course, no easy task, especially in the same year we’re also expecting Elden Ring’s much anticicpated expansion. But where Game Science benefits over the likes of Lords of the Fallen or Lies of P, which make unfavourable comparisons by being so nakedly derivative of Dark Souls and Bloodborne respectively, is that it can mine from its own culture and myths, while there’s also an irreverent tone that’s befitting the mischievous Monkey King.
Its latest trailer certainly gives more of a flavour of the kind of oddball characters and fearsome enemies we can expect, from a dwarven Pinhead-type person, an anthropomorphic tiger, a bird with an old man’s head, to gargantuan beasts, including a winged bug-like creature that our Destined One can be seen riding. In other words, a whole lot more than just the stereotypical dragons, though there’s one of those too.
Whether or not Black Myth: Wukong makes a mark on the Soulslike genre, its release in 2024, which will also be the Chinese zodiac year of the dragon, a symbol of nobleness, honour, luck, and success, it will almost certainly be an important moment for the future of premium Chinese games.