9Dragons is a classic MMORPG set in ancient China and mostly known for its martial arts combat. But that is water under the bridge and while the game is still around today, the golden years are clearly behind it. The 9Dragons name, however, still strikes a chord with many players and is making a comeback in 2019. As an awesome, new, fully-fledged MMORPG?

Of course not, don’t be silly! 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena is a Battle Royale game.

Now that I’ve burst your bubble – the hint was right up there in the headline –, let’s look at the game with a bright, positive mindset. After all, it’s not by chance that the genre is so beloved by millions of players all around the world.

9Dragons Kung Fu Arena Chi Blaster Attack

For Honor and For the Dragon’s Jade Key

The open beta of 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena shows a game full of promise, and without any troubling limitations to your enjoyment. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of progression system set in place and you must work with the characters and weapons that you’re initially given, but as you set foot on Gado island with a stylish, death-defying landing, a vast and rich playground is waiting for you.

Before we get into the thick of it, here’s a word of warning. As I launched the game, every word was in Korean. 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena’s Steam page did mention an English language option, so after a few plays I decided to mess with the menus until eventually discovering where the language selection was “hidden”.

Suddenly, there was light. Not that the game was downright unplayable in Korean language – I managed to grasp most of the controls and skills – but English should always be the default language.

9Dragons Kung Fu Arena Hiding in Plain Sight

There are four characters or costumes to pick from, but with the same gear, skills and statistics: Brotherhoods, Imperial Guards, Wu-Tang and Imperial. Each one starts with a blunt sword, the Chi Step skill and nothing else in the way of armor or skills. 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena doesn’t fall far from the proverbial Battle Royale tree, so you’ll have to search Gado island for any kind of loot: weapons, armor, food, health, mana potions, and skills, or should I say books – heaps of books.

The books that you find during your travels are the skills needed to improve your character with new abilities and to upgrade your weapons via the available slots. You can increase range, damage and speed, among other things. Your inventory is limited, but there are backpacks around to carry more items, if you are lucky to find them.

Mana is in fact called Chi, and it regularly self-regenerates as it is consumed. You spend Chi Points by using your weapons, including the powerful Chi Blaster, which would surely make some Dragon Ball Z characters proud, or the Chi Step, which is in fact the sprint ability and is crucial to travel on this island at a dazzling speed. You can trade this skill for another such as the Chi Leap, which will let you jump high in the air and make death rain from above over inattentive enemies. Learning to juggle these skills will turn you into an expert in the elusive arts of fast traveling and aerial combat.

9Dragons Kung Fu Arena Chi Leap Attack

Watch the World Burn

Solo is the only option available for now, but duos and squads are on the menu. 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena’s battleground supports up to 50 players, and even with such a vast island to explore, encounters will happen frequently, and sometimes more than you would wish for. Prepare yourself for some exciting martial arts combat, with over 30 weapons and items to use. You spawn in a random location and then you need to get moving, as time is of the essence.

However, there is a nice twist to this tired and almost beaten to death genre. There are two winning conditions: the always effective ‘kill everyone in your path and be the last one standing,’ and an objective-based alternative that drives the entire gameplay.

Your goal – and everyone else’s, for that matter – is to scour the island in search of a Dragon’s Jade Key. There are nine ruins that used to be a clan’s house and three of those have a key. As soon as you, or another mercenary, gets the key, the location of the hidden chamber where the nine dragon’s legacy resides is revealed… to everyone. This leads into a race where all players will try to stop the one holding the key, as he does his best to reach the chamber and stand ground, where the dragon awakes and makes some impressive beastly noises.

9Dragons Kung Fu Arena Lava Trap

Now you ask: what about the mandatory shrinking circle that is present in every Battle Royale game in the universe? You are in for a surprise, my friend, as 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena turns the concept on its head and goes for more… fiery ways of pushing players together. Not long after someone gets hold of the key, traps from the ruins are activated and lava starts flowing from these diverse island locations. Now everyone is in danger and as much as it is visually pleasing, you shouldn’t stop to watch the world burn.

During your journey, you must get your fingers on whatever loot you may find and discover your preferred combat style. Here’s an advice: keep an eye out for a ‘suspicious girl’ that occasionally appears in random locations. When you reach her, she will gladly tell you about the lore of the island before vanishing in a cloud of valuable loot. Is she worth the risk, as other players will likely try to ambush you? It’s up to you to decide.

9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena has a praiseworthy combat system that would work wonders in an MMORPG. It’s noticeably like Black Desert Online’s combat both in speed and visual flair, which can only be a good comparison in my book. Paired with the acrobatic stunts and aerial maneuvers, it’s as good to watch as it is to play. Carrying a melee and a ranged weapon is vital to adapt to any rival, and my only gripe is that the environment is hard as a rock (pun intended). Nothing is destructible; no wooden shack or even bamboo trees will ever yield to your mighty sword. For now?

9Dragons Kung Fu Arena Suspicious Girl

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Stealthy Merc

The Unreal Engine 4 powers all the beautiful vegetation, bridges and deserted buildings that comprise Gado Island. It’s picturesque, with some postcard-worthy scenarios, but it could be livelier with a few birds flying around now and then to spice things up. Such striking flora would only benefit from the cosmetic introduction of fauna. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I like my virtual worlds to look and feel as real as can be.

While I would trade 9Dragons: Kung Fu Arena for a true MMORPG any day of the week, we must take what we can, and this is shaping up to be a pretty decent Battle Royale game with an accomplished and original ancient Chinese atmosphere. Adding an objective to go with the thrilling martial arts encounters is a big positive in my book, and the way that the shrinking circle is replaced with several spots of all-consuming, scorching lava is a nice twist.

Now all that it takes is to see what kind of progression system will be included, how rewarding it will all feel, and if there is enough content to keep players coming back for more. For now, color me intrigued.