Surrounded by hordes of bloodthirsty, demonic, humanoid monsters known as Yokai, the fight has been fast and furious. Dodging between foes, my blade a whirl of glinting steel, I have methodically chipped away at the health of my opponents, and the final moments are at hand. As a large, green Yokai raises its sword to strike, I dart forward, swinging my weapon in a vicious upward curve that cleanly separates its forehead from the rest of it. A split second later, I whirl about and block, deflecting the blow a smaller Yokai had aimed at my exposed back. While exposing myself to attack in this manner would usually be careless, it is exactly what I was hoping for. My block, perfectly timed, throws the little monster off balance, allowing me to follow up with a counter attack - a lightning fast dash with my blade held horizontally. This dash not only beheads my attacker, but also tears into three Yokai behind it, severely damaging one and turning the other two into literally half the monsters they used to be. Swinging my blade again, it meets the remaining Yokai just below the knees, resulting in the Monty Python-esq effect of most of the Yokai sprawling, but leaving two feet standing all by themselves.
A tongue-in-check, side-scrolling beat ‘em up for up to four players, the appropriately titled Shing! sees players take on the role of one of four heroes (or all four of them if you’re playing solo). Players attempt to retrieve the Starseed - a mystical energy source that was stolen when an army of Yokai launched a surprise attack against their city. In doing this, players will journey from the ruins of the city, to lush forests, barren mountains, and underground lairs.
As much as I enjoy a good beat ‘em up, as a genre they do tend towards the mindless button-masher. Thankfully, this is not the case here, where button-mashing will see your characters put in the ground swiftly and often. In fact, combat is pleasingly deep, requiring ever-shifting tactical decisions, not to mention finesse. In large part, this stems not only from the combat moves (more on that in a moment), but also the brilliant use of ‘orthogonal enemy design’ - a fancy way of saying that combat challenges comes from having a mix of different foes with different strengths, weaknesses and attack patterns rather than simply being able to soak up and deal more damage (one of the design features that makes games like Doom so good). Along with rank-and-file melee foes, some Yokai throw bombs, others feature a shifting body-shield, necessitating you to aim your attacks at heads or legs respectively (or search for an altogether different way of defeating them). Some fly and launch ranged attacks, other burrow underground and send entangling roots to lock you in place giving others a free chance to attack. What’s worse, they all work together intelligently, with ranged Yokai resolutely hiding behind those enveloped in protective shields which give a nasty zap if you get too close. There are also several, more traditional boss fights which serve to mix things up nicely.
With another nod towards Doom, necessary resources can often only be gained by defeating foes. Green Yokai drop health orbs (the only way to restore your health - so if you’re not careful, defeat is an almost certainty), while other Yokai drop a range of temporary bonuses – from shielding, to faster or more damaging attacks, bombs which drop whenever you dodge, to the ability to shoot out waves of energy (perfect for smashing those pesky shields).
All this, before considering combat moves. Along with the ability to dodge, block and parry, players get access to a light attack, heavy attack, kick, and a special. While this might not seem like much, the attacks vary depending on where exactly you’re aiming and the combo. Also, the ability to instantly switch mid way through an attack to a block or a dodge keeps combat fast and fluid. Best played with a controller, its worth mentioning that attacks can be controlled by either presses of the buttons, or by using the right thumb-stick. Want to launch an opponent into the air? Push up. How about spin your blade in a figure eight? Start rotating the thumbstick in the direction you want to go. Attacks going over the head of smaller Yokai? Simply aim diagonally.
All of this comes together in a satisfying challenge that progressively gets more and more complex as you get closer and closer to the final boss. Not only does this mean that the game never gets boring, it also maintains a stiff challenge. While defeat only comes if all four heroes fall in battle, this can and will happen - and it’s not at all unusual to reach the end of a level with all four heroes limping past the finish line on minimal health.
Regarding the heroes, in a single-player game it is possible (and indeed necessary) to switch between them. More than just giving additional ‘lives’, this can be used tactically, and I often found myself slicing through a green Yokai and instantly switching to one of my near-dead characters in order to boost their health. Thankfully, while the individual attacks may vary in form or in specific application (for example, the counter-attack of the axe-wielding Wilhelm is a boomerang throw which leaves him in place, whilst the same command for the other heroes sees them performing a blade dash), they each handle sufficiently alike to make switching easy.
Combat also features something highly unusual for computer games – blades that not only cut, but cut where you aim them. To clarify, most beat ‘em ups (and indeed, most other games) treat bladed weapons as a form of club. In Shing!, however, they very definitely slice and dice. If the killing blow intersects a foe’s arm, that arm will go flying. Likewise, not only is it possible to take off an opponent’s head, but highly likely you will only take off part of the opponent’s head (this is a game that take ‘face-off’ literally). While on paper this can sound excessively bloodthirsty, in execution, it is more over-the-top cartoon/arcade than anything else. Although, it should be noted for the squeemish it is possible to disable these effects.
The four characters also lead to something that I was not expecting, but rather enjoyed: humour. Shing! is full of tongue-in-cheek, irreverent (and often immature) laughs whether it’s characters’ banter, the callous disappointment of ‘running out of interns’ due to the Yokai attack, the sarcastic AI, or the elevator muzak. These kept the game feeling light and moving along.
All in all, whether it was tearing through the Yokai army, attempting some of the fiendishly difficult challenges, or listening in on the ridiculous banter, I really enjoyed Shing!. If you’re a fan of the beat ‘em up, or are just looking for something you can causally dip into and keep coming back to again and again, Shing! is definitely worth your consideration.■