Unruly Heroes review – Rayman goes east

I get sent a lot of unsolicited game codes these days. Most of them are for games I’ve never heard of, and most of them are average games at best. Some are downright awful.

But every now and then I come across a hidden gem – and Unruly Heroes is one of them. The game was first released back in January, but it completely passed me by then, only entering onto my radar when a PR company sent me code for the new PS4 version back in May. And after finally getting around to playing it, I’m impressed.

Unruly Heroes is from Magic Design Studios, an indie developer that includes several former Ubisoft employees who worked on Rayman Legends. And the Rayman influence on Unruly Heroes is clear from the off: for a start, the animation is simply gorgeous. A stunning animated intro gives way to silky smooth 2D platforming, with beautifully fluid combat. Gosh darn it looks good.

And the excellent presentation also includes some wonderful music and sound effects – I particularly liked how switching between courses on the level-select screen elicits a note on a Chinese instrument (I’m afraid I can’t tell you which one, my knowledge of Chinese instruments is very limited), and I found myself happily composing little tunes by flipping back and forth between levels.

The game takes its inspiration from the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West, which is incredibly famous in the east but not that well known on this side of the planet – although you may have come across the story if you’ve played Ninja Theory’s Enslaved or watched the classic 1970s TV show Monkey Magic. Unruly Heroes lets you take control of four characters, which you can switch between at any time: there’s Monkey and Pigsy, who I recognise from Enslaved, as well as Soulmonk and some other bald monk-type character. Frankly I have no idea who these last two are, but presumably they have a big role in the original folklore tale.

And speaking of the original story, in some ways this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to educate westerners about the classic Chinese tale. We get the barest bones of exposition at the start, but little in the way of explanation other than that – it would have been nice, for example, to include collectible bits of lore on the levels that flesh out the characters a little bit. I mean, I’m at the end now, and I’m still not sure what that bald guy is called. And on that topic, what’s with the name, Unruly Heroes? Possibly it’s some reference to the original text, but it just seems like the most generic, forgettable name that gives no hint of what the game is actually like. It’s so unmemorable that I literally couldn’t remember what the game was called when I was trying to look up some background on it the other day. Why didn’t they just call it Journey to the West?

Anyway, dodgy name aside, Unruly Heroes is a fun platforming romp with a nice line in varied and interesting levels. As you progress, you gain abilities like a dodge, a fan that cools lava and a cloud you can zoom around on and fire lightning from, and generally each level introduces a new mechanic of some sort or another. Each of the four characters has a unique ability, too, which can be used at certain shrines in the level. For example, Pigsy can blow up like a balloon to float up to high areas, and Monkey can conjure up a giant staff to act as a bridge.

In terms of controls however, Monkey and Soulmonk are essentially the same – both get a double jump. Meanwhile, Pigsy and bald bloke get a floaty jump instead, which lets you glide by holding down the button. Although to be honest, it doesn’t matter which character you choose most of the time, as you can get past all of the obstacles using anyone, except for those special shrines that require a particular character to use. Each character can die, although when they do, you simply carry on from the last checkpoint using another character. Then the one that died appears in a bubble after a short while, and if you pop it, they rejoin the roster.

It’s a very forgiving system that basically means you have infinite lives, although the score you get for each level goes down with every death. (Not that this really matters at all, unless you’re trying to beat a personal high score.) And although I appreciated the game’s forgiving nature, I did find that the infinite lives took away from the urgency somewhat. On top of that, it seemed a little superfluous having four characters, since most of the time it really doesn’t matter which one you choose – their attacks are almost identical, along with their movement abilities. It would have been a bit more satisfying to have to frequently swap between them to get past different parts of a level, a bit like the excellent Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.

Still, the levels are generally well constructed, and I loved some of the ideas they introduced – like turning the protagonists into children and giving them entirely different abilities for a few stages. Then again, there are a few levels that are absolute stinkers: the one where you have to climb up a mountain while wind pushes you back down immediately springs to mind. It’s about as much fun as it sounds. Likewise, there are some very frustrating parts where you’re being chased by some sort of giant enemy and you have to negotiate platforms and hazards with perfect accuracy lest you get sent back to the start of the battle. Oh, and that final boss battle above a vat of one-hit-kill lava can absolutely do one.

It’s a shame the levels are so linear, too. Each one features 100 collectible coins, which can be saved up to purchase additional costumes, so in that sense there’s some reason to go back and play through them to nab the coins you missed first time around. But unfortunately the costumes you can buy are a little uninspired, being basically palette swaps, so my will to collect all the coins had all but disappeared by the end of the game. It would have been nice, for example, to have alternative routes through some levels, or more secrets and hidden things to uncover – anything to give more of a reason to replay them.

I also found my will to keep going fell away towards the end, and the last five levels in particular felt like a slog. If you could draw a graph of my enjoyment of the game, it would come in high at the start, rise even higher towards the middle as the game throws out more and more clever ideas, then plummet to basically zero in the final third as the levels get more repetitive and frustrating.

That said, I’m not a massive fan of 2D platformers in general, so if you’re keen on the genre, you will undoubtedly get a lot more out of Unruly Heroes than I did. Likewise, if you’re played all the Rayman games and can’t wait for a new entry in the series, then Unruly Heroes admirably fills that gap. It was a pleasant surprise to discover such a gorgeous and enjoyable game, but ultimately, Unruly Heroes turned out to be a minor disappointment, if only because the promise it showed at the start couldn’t quite carry through to the game as a whole.

Unruly Heroes was developed by Magic Design Studios and is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One and PS4. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Unruly Heroes was provided by Renaissance PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.