Built off the back of nostalgia for a bygone era of gaming, Streets of Rage 4 seems like it should be a triumphant return for a series that hasn’t seen a release in more than 25 years. It certainly looks the part. But stripped down to its bare basics, this game feels constricted by its own insistence on adhering to what it used to be.
As a 2D beat ’em up, Streets of Rage 4 belongs to a genre of games that has been largely dead with very few exceptions since Streets of Rage 3 came out for the Sega Genesis in 1994. Players move from left to right, fighting enemy after enemy in hand-to-hand combat, controlling characters with names like Axel and Blaze, and occasionally picking up a health item, money, or a weapon for assistance. There is no blocking, only a couple of combos, no checkpoints in levels, and a real lack of variety.
I imagine the level of enjoyment one would glean from Streets of Rage 4 depends entirely on whether or not you played one of its predecessors in the early ’90s. As someone who did not (because I wasn’t even a year old when the last one came out), I have no ties to this series and no nostalgia for beat ’em up games. To me, it doesn’t really stand on its own.
The art of Streets of Rage 4 is very pretty and immediately enticing along with the soundtrack, which is unarguably banging and makes for a great backing track while shuffling through levels and punching goons. The levels are filled with life, each stop along the journey offering up a distinct and fun backdrop, from a graffiti-filled prison to a sewer system erupting with painful green liquid. The levels are almost caricatures, which is a nice self-aware way to couch the whole premise of the game.
Speaking of premise, Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t have much of one. The crime syndicate that’s been the focal point of the series is back and it’s up to no good, so this gang of fighters is going after them. The story is about as deep as the gameplay.
If Streets of Rage 4 proves anything, it’s that the beat ’em up genre died out for a reason.
The gameplay primarily consists of moving and punching, with the occasional bit of jumping. By mashing the regular hit button, you can perform a combo that will send enemies to the ground; two joystick flicks plus the hit button will initiate a dash move; jumping plus hitting will do an air attack that is a bit more powerful than the regular hit; and moving up to get close to enemies will put them in a hold where you can hit and throw them around.
There’s also the special attack that hits for more damage and gives you the chance to regain a little health if you land some regular hits after it. But also drains a bit of health in the process so if you get hit after, you’ll end up with a deficit. Finally, there’s the star move, which you need to pick up a star power-up to perform, and is a much more powerful and far-reaching attack.
This all would be fine if there were a bit more freedom of movement, but then it wouldn’t really be a classic beat ’em up. While all the characters have a different feel and different movement speeds, all of them still move at a snail’s pace. With no option to block, avoiding attacks just means you’ll be walking slowly up or down to get out of the way. It’s not exactly exciting.
There are moments in Streets of Rage 4 where I start to think I’m seeing the light, where I start to think, hey, maybe this very basic style of game has merit in the modern era. But then eight enemies pop out at once and all I can do is hit in one direction at a time and lackadaisically move around to try to break their numbers, and I realize that I am not actually having a good time.
One of the more frustrating things about this game is the lack of checkpoints. A handful of times I fought my way through a roughly 15-minute level, made it to the boss fight at the end, and then lost my life while trying to take them down. When that happens, it’s all the way back to the beginning to do the whole thing over again, and if you want some assistance like extra lives, you can choose to take it but it decimates your level score. Even on levels where I used no assistance and felt like I cleared it very smoothly, I never got above a C score.
It’s not that I don’t like difficult games. I love challenging games, especially simple ones that reward precision and timing. When I beat bosses in Streets of Rage 4, I don’t feel like I’ve improved as a player. I’m just mashing through crowds over and over again. With no improvements to abilities or new skills to unlock, there’s little incentive to continue.
With a few concessions to modern game design, Streets of Rage 4 could be a fun and rewarding experience. As is, it feels like a dated game only meant for people who played the old games in the ’90s. If Streets of Rage 4 proves anything, it’s that the beat ’em up genre died out for a reason.
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