The endless commodification of nerd culture would have been an item of concern a decade or so ago. These days it’s just kind of something we accept. We’re slowly but surely growing past that phase where video games are just toys for children…well, except on the streaming platforms that serve as the primarily marketing vehicle for games, where they’re absolutely treated as if they were toys for children. Other than that, though, video games are gradually turning into something that everyone just does rather than a hobbyist sort of thing.
Naturally, the greater exposure something has to the mainstream, the more corporate, classless and cookie-cutter it becomes. Video games and the Internet used to be the Wild West. Now they’re Wal-Mart, greeters and all. When something is all about money, it’s best not to take risks. What happens, then, when something does nothing but take risks? You end up with an experience that diverges from the usual. You end up with Kung Fu Jesus and the Search for Celestial Gold.
There’s a plot here. We follow Kung Fu Jesus, who looks and behaves pretty much exactly as you’d expect from someone with a name like that. He’s a drug runner for a bad guy named The Boss, and he ends up involved in some crazy multidimensional nonsense wherein the fate of all existence lies in the balance. We’ll not go any further into it but suffice to say the game goes places.
At its core, Kung Fu Jesus is a Streets of Rage-styled brawler. It’s not an especially good one from that perspective, either. Enemies take a lot of damage, deal a lot of damage back to you and tend to not respond to attacks the way they should. You’ve got a vast array of combat skills, but really you mostly need the jump kick (because, NES-style, you’re invincible while doing it and can use it to cheese everything to death) and the various projectiles that our hero learns later on. Difficulty ranges from the simple to the absurd.
I’m pretty sure I’m one of like five people to have obtained a couple of the Steam achievements because the game’s tough as nails when it wants to be. It’s also a little buggy here and there. I can’t imagine most people have gotten through its absolutely absurd 60-hour run time to have seen everything. I’m still working on it myself.
Here, though, is where I kind of spiral off and let my own feelings turn this review into a bunch of mushy sludge. I kind of love Kung Fu Jesus and the Search for Celestial Gold because it is, put simply, absolutely insane. KFJ, as we’ll call him, is losing his damn mind and it shows. He watches crazy TV shows filled with conspiracy theories at home. He’s got a subscription to a podcast about reptilian invasions of Earth. Sometimes he takes a break to play what amounts to an entire, fully-fledged vertical shooter for a couple hours – and yes, you do have to win, the game locks you out of progression until you finish it.
There’s a go-karting segment. There’s gunboats. At one point, KFJ battles the elemental embodiments of psychedelic mushrooms in order to gain their powers in his fight against the Illuminati and an evil wolf spirit. Every time you think you know where this game is going, it just kind of swerves and sends you flying off into a ditch.
Does any of this mean this is a game everyone should play? Nah, probably not. Does it mean it’s a game that most people should play? Eh…not sure we can go there either. On the other hand, it’s an experience unlike any other at a point where the landscape, both from a AAA and an indie perspective, is saturated with open-world collectathons thanks to the success of Breath of the Wild, deckbuilders thanks to the success of Slay the Spire and roguelites thanks to the success of The Binding of Isaac.
Kung Fu Jesus hopes to do something different by serving as a sort of canvas that the developer flings paint, blood and maybe a little bit of poo all over from every possible angle. He then frames it and puts it on Steam, where it dares you to check it out, then dares you again to finish it. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to take that dare.
Presentation? Yes, this is a game that’s presented to you. It’s a bizarre, brain-melting mess. Characters come in a variety of art styles. Who knows where the assets came from? Maybe they’re original. I couldn’t say. They speak in Banjo-Kazooie-style nonsense, except when they don’t, which is sometimes. There’s FMV sections where a Scottish guy, presumably the real-life Kung Fu Jesus, yells at our hero and encourages him to commit suicide.
Incidentally, that Scottish guy is a musician by trade, so this game’s music is unquestionably great and contrasts heavily with the rest of the word-salad of code that comprises the rest of the experience. It’s a car wreck with Bach playing behind it. You can’t look away, especially when it sounds so good.
This game is absolutely mental. That’s the easiest way to describe it. It’s a goopy mish-mash of questionable brawling, questionable minigames, questionable storytelling and some of the best music in video games. In the end, Kung Fu Jesus and the Search for Celestial Gold feels like one of the games “they” don’t want you to play, whoever “they” might be. It’s the kind of thing that would have been stomped out of the industry and left to rot on some forgotten corner on itch.io.
It’s not, though, it’s right there on Steam, a diamond buried in the platform’s endless rough of softcore porn, asset-flip shovelware and idle games. There’s really nothing else like Kung Fu Jesus and it’s not going to get the attention it merits. Speaking entirely for myself, I think you should probably give it a look. Oh, and the soundtrack’s available too. It’s damn good. Check that out, at least.