As soon as I saw the name of this RPG I knew what it was about. That is the place the 1970s Japanese TV series 'Monkey' has on me. When it was on, I missed the first couple of episodes, but it didn't matter. We soon picked up that a young boy monk was travelling to get some scriptures in the company of some rather powerful demons, if a bit prone to silly human failings. This one word evokes a lot of memories of when I was 14-15, watching 'Monkey' and of course, the 'Water Margin'. A silly bit of martial arts fun after the all too serious and worthy "Kung Fu" of a few years earlier.
Underlying that is a tale of an aged monk who was once a disciple of Buddha, and a monkey who represents unrestrained thought, and former officers of heaven fallen from grace and a dragon travelling for scriptures from the West (here meaning India) for the Emperor of China. They gets into various scrapes, and lessons are learned, disasters met and enlightenment sought. This was written in the Ming Dynasty, but set in the earlier T'ang dynasty of the 7th Century.
But we were more into the colourful fight scenes and demons and the FUN!
Any thought of a silly intro I had for this review, showing that I knew the source, was blown out of the water, tha author is straight up front about it. If you haven't seen it, try and get hold of the 1970s TV series starring Masaaki Sakai called, simply "Monkey". If you call it "Saiyūki" and you aren't Japanese, I may have to slap you. Watch a few episodes to get the feel, practice the slightly breathy style of the narrator. Go to this site http://www.greatsage.net/ and watch the wee video on the front page for how to call up a flying cloud, we all did at the time.
Adventures in this universe should be a mix of peril, a terrible threat (though possibly served with inept minions), human eating demons, demons that want to be human, vampires, ghosts, treasures, trickery, humour and a step on the path to some greater goal. If you can work in a misguided or evil Taoist magician or spirit so much the better.
So. Here is the game. System light as anything, so one for people to have fun with, not for those who need an airtight system to protect them from the players/GM. CHaracter driven not only in the role-playing sense, but the attributes are character driven, rather than physical. They are paired positive/negative e.g. Charity/Selfishness. You can use these as the basis of skills when making a skill check.
A nice touch is that, should you seen to enlighten yourself by moving towards the positive of a pair, if that attribute is negative, initially you reduce your effectiveness until you start building up the positive side of a pair. You have to unlearn bad habits after all.
Skill checks are by random draws from a bag, so you'll need some coloured beads. One evil and the rest good. The author suggests black and white respectively, but I would suggest red instead of white, as red is lucky and white associated with mourning. He also refers to the West meaning Europeans but, of course, the West is also India which is the spiritual goal of the whole quest. ;)
The system of paired positive/negative character attributes is very stealable by the way, I have a thought for a Film Noir game based around it, and it should focus the players on their character's character, rather than the physical abilities as so often happens.
The system very much suits the game though, and the emphasis is on the light style of the TV show as opposed to the original work of Wu Cheng-en. So cod accents, silly feats and grumbling about doing the right thing, or tricking you're less bright brothers to help you, definitely the order of the day. THIS IS MEANT TO BE FUN. Yup. A bit of terror, a bit of laughter, some peril, a moral and character lesson, but FUN!
There is a handy list of proverbs to chuck in if your own imagination fails you, and a random magic item description table, though the GM will have to rule on what the power of the North Weeping Drum is. Whatever it is, I bet it will be misused. Bound to be.
If you are stuck for ideas, or want to be a bit more accurate in your description of Chinese Society, then an easy intro would be the Judge Dee stories of Robert Van Gulik, which are written as if Ming versions of stories set in the same T'ang time and you can plunder some of the supernatural there for more ideas for your group of Pilgrims to encounter. I'd also recomment the three books by Barry Hughart "Bridge of Birds", "The Sotry of the Stone" and "Eight Skilled Gentlemen"
Two sentence summary?
If you like Mythic China and can have friendly fun, play this game. If you see RPGs as a competition, don't.
[4 of 5 Stars!]