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Monkey King Review: Digital Domain’s VR Debut Stumbles

by David Jagneaux • August 1st, 2017
Platform: PSVR
Positives

- Faithful adaptation
- Fun storytelling and narration

Negatives

- Doesn't use VR very well
- Feels like it would be better outside of VR
- Disappointing visual fidelity
- Struggles to get the viewer engaged

The tale of the Monkey King in the Journey to the West, a classic 16th century Chinese novel, is something you’re probably familiar with in some capacity without even knowing it. Some works are simply known as “Journey to the West” as a direct homage, or the “Chinese Odyssey” but even not so obvious stories take inspiration from the tale as well, such as the enormously popular Dragon Ball Z manga and anime series. The core of the tale centers on Sun Wukong as he completes a journey of self-discovery and mastery of the martial arts.

There is even a video game called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which was developed by DEXED creators Ninja Theory. This latest iteration of the tale, simply known as Monkey King, is an original animated VR series by Digital Domain, a company that’s made its name from impressive visual effects for Hollywood films and commercials. Monkey King is their episodic VR debut.

To be clear, this is not a game in any way. There is a “MonkeyKing VR” game available on Steam right now from Gene Games Technology, but it has no connection to the Monkey King series from Digital Domain. For all intents and purposes this entry is purely passive and asks you to simply sit, watch, and look around while everything plays out before you.

We’ve seen a lot of really impressive and moving pieces in VR that require zero interaction from the viewer. The likes of Dear Angelica and Henry from Oculus Story Studio as well as Allumette and Rose from Penrose Studio all come to mind.

Unfortunately, Monkey King shares very little with those other works. What makes VR such a powerful medium for storytelling is its ability to immerse the viewer in the world like never before and direct attention in clever, subtle ways that aren’t possible with traditionally flat 2D displays. When a VR experience is at its best it’s entirely impossible to capture it outside of VR in the same way. Many of these methods are commonly referred to as going “beyond the frame” of a traditional screen.

In this adaptation of the Monkey King you watch the story unfold before you as a floating observer in the sky. Much of it takes place while your point of view is stationary off to the side, in a tree, or somewhere slightly removed from the scene itself. While this is common for animated shorts in VR, I never really felt part of the story in this case.

Narration is good and does a great job of setting up each scene, but visually I found myself severely underwhelmed. Textures appeared to be flat and lifeless, especially when inspected up close. A bit more detail was afforded to objects around the “core” of the scene, but if you looked around too much you’d start to find the inadequacies.

For a medium like VR, where the user should be encouraged to look around and explore, this seemed like a big missed opportunity. Funneling the viewer to a single point of view at all times made it feel like it’d have been just as effective, if not more so, outside of VR completely.

The story itself is told well enough with interesting characters (even if I found myself really disliking the main protagonist) and there is a satisfying arc across the three included episodes. The story is incomplete right now though, which is unfortunate.

Final Score: 5/10 – Mediocre

Monkey King isn’t a bad VR animation, but it’s just not that great either. The three episodes dovetail together nicely, but it never feels like it really takes advantage of VR as a medium. Visually it felt underwhelming and left a lot to be desired.

Monkey King is available now for PlayStation VR (PSVR) and includes the first three episodes for $9.99. Eventually, it’s expected to also release for Vive, Rift, Gear VR, Daydream, and Cardboard devices. Read our Content Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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  • Robbie Cartwright

    Sad, it kinda looked interesting…

  • Xin Chung

    Seems like made for Chinese customers and/or Chinese investors?