Thursday, May 14, 2020

Streets of Rage 4 Review

Developers: LizardCube, Guard Crush Games
Publisher: DotEmu
Available on: PC, NS, PS4, XBO
Number of Players: 1-4 Local, 2 Online
Price: $25
Version Played: PC

It's been 28 years since Streets of Rage 2 came out. Beat 'em ups have come a long way since then. Capcom threw everything but the kitchen sink at the genre with Battle Circuit in 1997, Double Dragon Advance brought a classic series back with re-imagined combat in 2003, and more recently, the bar was raised even higher by games like Fight'N Rage and River City Girls. In my opinion, it’s the depth of the combat that makes a great BEU. Streets of Rage 4 plays like a game made in a bubble, though. It feels like it's purposely ignoring everything BEUs have done since SOR2.

Streets of Rage 4 is basically SOR2 with juggles. It feels more like a sequel to SOR2 than a sequel to SOR3. It's slow and feels like a step backwards from SOR3 in terms of mobility. I get the feeling that the developers balanced the game around local co-op, where you can juggle enemies back and forth, and don't constantly feel like you have to be everywhere at once, so they only gave a run to Cherry, one of the 2 new characters in the game. I understand wanting to make each character unique, but there are better ways to do that. Characters in SOR4 just feel like they're missing essential tools. This might have been okay if the online didn't suck, but it’s absolutely worthless, and not everyone has people to play with locally. Most of the time, I played the game alone, with Blaze, and I always felt like I was missing something. Having to slowly walk across the screen to get to an enemy is tedious. Maybe if the game was in 4:3, it wouldn't feel so slow, but it's not 1992 anymore. The lack of running makes the game feel archaic.

None of the main characters have SOR3’s vertical dodge rolls, either. They could really use them, though! A lot of enemies and bosses have attacks which have them quickly running or jumping all the way across the screen, or shooting guns, and your only way to avoid them is by slowly walking up and down, or using a defensive special and giving up health anyway. Again, it feels like I'm missing an important tool here. This becomes increasingly frustrating as you work your way into the higher difficulties, where you fight faster and more aggressive enemies with even more armor.

I say “main characters” because you can unlock all the SOR2 and SOR3 characters (minus Roo/Victy the Kangaroo) in their original, pixelated, 16-bit forms. These old-school characters have all the old moves, including running and rolling for the SOR3 characters, but lack some of the moves designed around keeping juggles going, like off the ground attacks and air specials, so they feel kind of handicapped when compared to the SOR4 characters. I really don’t like using any of them. You unlock characters as you get points for beating stages in the game, and the SOR3 characters are the last ones you unlock, so you have to play quite a bit to get them, too.

Streets of Rage 4 lacks the depth of games like River City Girls, but it is still fun. I like the juggles and the moment to moment combat, even if I feel like I don’t always have the tools to do what I want. The way you can regain the HP you use on specials by doing damage before getting hit again is pretty cool, too. SOR4 plays like a better SOR2, and I think SOR2 still holds up, so I can’t say I don’t like it. I just think it would have been a lot better if it had running and rolling. Some fighting game input moves would have been cool, too. SOR4 feels shallow, even when compared to Capcom's games from 20+ years ago.

Streets of Rage was never a real arcade game, but it was always structured like one. Not SOR4, though. You get infinite continues in Story mode, but there is no mode in which you can just continue right where you died and pick another character as if you’ve put another quarter into the machine, like in the Genesis games. If you die, you restart the level, and if you’re playing co-op, you just have to wait until the other players die or beat the stage to continue.

SOR4's modes remind me more of games like Devil May Cry than SOR. After you beat the story and unlock Stage Select mode, you can play whatever stage you’ve reached in any difficulty. So say you beat the story on normal, you can now go into Stage Select and play any of those levels again to farm points or go for better grades. Cutscenes still play in Stage Select, and you keep unlocking new levels as you play through the game again on higher difficulties, so there really isn't much reason to keep playing Story after unlocking Stage Select mode. Your lives are reset to the difficulty's default after every stage in Story, too, so the only real difference in playing Story is that you can use Assists after dying. Assists give you more lives and special moves, but cut your score by some percentage.

There is a mode called Arcade, but it's actually a 1 credit clear mode. You always start from the beginning, you can't save your progress, and you don't get any continues, but your lives aren't reset after beating a level. There's also a Boss Rush and a Battle mode in the game. Battle doesn't have a VS CPU option; though, so I only played it online, and that sucked. Online is just terrible in all modes. It's always like playing in slow motion.

I feel like this game’s focus strayed too far away from the arcade style of the Genesis games. Beat ‘em ups were never about letter grades, high scores, Boss Rush, or the tacked on VS modes. Leaving out something as obvious as a real arcade mode in Streets of Rage, when your main influence is obviously SOR2, is just beyond me. This game can never be that game you play with relatives during the holidays, like an old Ninja Turtles arcade game on MAME, in this state.

This game does look amazing, though. I think LizardCube's comic book style really works for Streets of Rage. The 2D shading techniques really give the game a gritty sort of look, even if it's very different from the rough, pixelated look of the Genesis games. I think the new character designs strike a good balance between the anime and comic book styles, and look pretty cool for the most part, too. I think they did a good job making the characters look like their 16-bit versions while aging them and bringing them into HD. I don't really like how Axel aged 20 years while Blaze and Adam only aged 10, though. I especially love the backgrounds. They’re all so detailed and full of little references. I saw stuff that reminded me of SOR, TMNT arcade and NES games, Final Fight, Street Fighter, and even Shinobi.

Streets of Rage 1 and 2 (not 3!) were always known for their great soundtracks, so SOR4 had a lot to live up to. There's definitely some good tracks in SOR4, but there are also some stinkers. I know SOR had all sorts of music genres on Genesis, but some of these tracks in SOR4 just feel out of place. The game abruptly transitions from an awesome, SOR2 stage 1 remix by Yuzo Koshiro to some wacky EDM mess right in the middle of the first level, for example. I wish Koshiro had done the whole thing. He's obviously the man to go to for SOR music. He only did a handful of songs, though. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty hit or miss. Too much dubstep.

I'm trying really hard to be positive here because this is not a bad game, but it makes me mad just thinking about it. If they wanted me to play this like a Devil May Cry game where I keep playing it on harder difficulties, then they should have made the combat Devil May Cry quality. It's a fun game, it looks great, and it feels like SOR, but I expected more from a modern BEU. It's just not in the same league as stuff like River City Girls, or even 23 year old Battle Circuit. I'll still go back to this if I ever get the chance to play it in local co-op; though, because that seems like the best way to play it, and I didn't get to do that.