Almost thirty years after the third game in the franchise was unleashed on the world in 1994, DotEmu and Lizardcube have combined forces to release Streets of Rage 4, but are they relying on nostalgia to lure in fans of the series or is there actually a good game under the hood?
Packaged with the new 16-bit Sega Genesis when we purchased it in the early 90s, Streets of Rage 2 was without a doubt one of the games my older brother and I played the most in those early years. I remember playing as Axel Stone and my brother as his friend, the bigger, stronger Max “Thunder” Hatchett, and repeatedly tearing through the levels having fun each and every time. The cool characters, fast action, awesome special and standard moves, thumping music, beautiful environments and interesting enemies all combined into what truly was one of the best games for the Genesis. Going back to play the original Streets of Rage (Bare Knuckle) years later, I could clearly see the evolution of the game from a simple beat ’em up brawler to a fighting game in the streets reminding me of Street Fighter 2 which had just been released a year earlier. Where SoR1 characters were slower with not much to separate them except different sprites and some basic move animations, SoR2 sped up character movement, gave the characters their own basic moves and introduced individual special moves for each character which were much cooler than what was before – calling for backup which would see a police officer race onto screen and fire a rocket into the crowd of enemy.
Streets of Rage 3 dove even deeper into that formula to continue to progress the game mechanics creating a much more strategic and refined game, but one that divided the fans regardless because of a slew of issues revolving around the new features, lack of true graphical upgrade, lower music quality and the odd censorships made to the American version from the Japanese version. Regardless of version, in SoR3 the character’s stats meant more than ever before. Each character had distinct areas where they excelled including power, technique, speed, jump and reach. There was now a strength bar which, as long as it was full, allowed the characters to use their specials without losing their health (which is how it was implemented in SoR2). If you did use a special while the strength bar was low, your health would be reduced equal to the amount the strength bar was empty. It was a strategic trade off, but implemented well. They also introduced running and dodging both horizontally and vertically in this version which allowed players to quickly close the distance on enemy and escape from ambushes. This was very helpful on gunners (like Gold), ranged enemies (like Electra) or to escape from ambushes or imminent hits. This was a big change from the original two games which had you relying on your walk speed alone to catch up to and dodge enemy.
Fast forward over thirty years later and an entirely new development and production company and it’s easy to see why people were afraid. After SoR3‘s changes, what direction was this company going to go with the new game, especially since none of them had a hand in the originals. Once screenshots of the game were released, many wrote the game off as doomed as it ditched the sprite graphics in favor of beautiful hand drawn graphics and animation, reminiscent of the company’s earlier outing, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Luckily, all the detractors were wrong as Streets of Rage 4 is a wonderfully crafted game that not only continues the legacy started with the original three, but even manages to upgrade them in others. Throughout the roughly 4 hours campaign, you go through the standard slew of levels that contain a few surprises, but most importantly they hold up to expectations. However, it’s not without a few hiccups along the way.
The story picks up ten years after the end of Streets of Rage 3. Axel has been called back into the city by Blaze after it seems the Syndicate has come back to life and is up to no good. They bring in Cherry Hunter, Adam’s rockstar daughter who takes up the fight in his stead (much like Skate did in 2 and 3), and Floyd Iraia, a muscular former construction worker who lost his arms due to a construction accident but was able to get cybernetic replacements thanks to Dr. Zan. Other characters feature into the story as it plays out, some becoming playable after that. Players traverse through the twelve levels that take them through areas we are familiar with (The Streets, Cargo Ship, Underground) and new areas (Police Precinct, Skytrain, Art Gallery). Like the previous officially released games, this is a linear path that the character must fight their way through to the level boss which, much like the levels themselves, are a combination of new and old boss characters.
Once again, each of the player characters has their own stats. Axel and Blaze are the central characters of the game stat-wise with Floyd taking up the power spot formerly held by Max and Zan. Cherry takes up the speed role that was filled by her cousin Skate. Just like the former games, they all have different basic moves and specials to bombard the enemy with, but it differentiates itself from earlier games by only giving Adam the ability to dodge and Cherry the ability to run horizontally. The strength bar is gone, but not forgotten. Now when you use a special attack, a portion of your life will turn green. You refill this bar by defeating enemy and, if enough enemy are taken down, you won’t lose life. If you are hit before you fill up the bar, you lose that amount of life on top of whatever the hit costs. It’s a good motivator to get back into combat and take down more enemy, much like the health power-ups in Doom 2016.
Star moves are back in a new way. Now you find stars throughout the level in broken obstacles such as barrels. If you keep them until the end, you get a big score bonus. However, if you need to you can perform a Star Special which will cause a huge attack the will devastate many enemy around you with a huge attack. Although I understand the idea behind the tradeoff, I miss the upgrades of the power attacks and I can’t help but feel like these somewhat demininsh your “normal” special attacks. Despite how I felt about them, the presentation is stellar. The specials have superb, gaudy art and animations that take up the entire screen. All the graphics and movement for each of the characters looks so gorgeous to look at, and you will often find yourself staring into the great environments for small details and easter eggs which there are plenty!
The enemies get the same treatment as well! Back are the whole lot of them including the Signal gang, Donovan, Galsia, Bongo and more with newcomers Dylan, Goro and various police officers including Foroccio. Some are variants of originals such as the swap to the Honey biker gang from the original masked bikers in SoR2. No matter whether they are new, old or remade, they are all wonderfully animated with amazing art and sound effects. Speaking of the audio, it is also amazing all across the board. The album was composed by Olivier Deriviere but they also brought back the composer of the original three games, Yuzo Koshiro, to help return the game to its roots and multiple other musicians such as Motohiro Kawashima, Das Mortal, Harumi Fujita and XL Middleton to bring new beats to the mix. They all blend wonderfully into an excellent soundtrack that will keep you rocking in and out of the game. The sound effects are also spot on, mimicking the originals in glorious fashion. Yet another thing that feels great: the game mechanics. Arguably better than the look and atmosphere the game gives off, Streets of Rage 4 just feels right. The timing of the moves are nearly identical to their counterparts making this game flow straight from its predecessors. In fact, if you watch the Behind the Game developer diary you will see them actually set up both Streets of Rage 2 and Streets of Rage 4 to operate off of one controller allowing them to get the timing just right and it shows.
However, not everything feels right in the Streets of Rage 4. I found myself too often grabbing enemy when I didn’t want to. Victoria is a new enemy in the game who throws grenades or poison, electrical or fire bombs at you. If you accidentally grapple her while she has one in her hand, it will drop on the ground doing damage to anyone within range of the explosion which is you if you don’t get out of the way in time. I understand the limitations put on the controls in the original games, but newer systems have many more options for buttons. Would it have been too far off the beaten path to add a grapple button to prevent this? As I mentioned earlier, unlike Streets of Rage 3, dodge is only available with Adam Hunter and running with his daughter, Cherry. At that, they can only do so horizontally. That leaves Adam, Blaze and, of course, Floyd without any way to close in on the enemy, and quite often the enemy is faster than you, can jump diagonally, have long distance moves or weapons, or come in some paired grouping incorporating enemy that can do that which makes you feel like you are playing at a disadvantage.
To add insult to injury, the bosses have uninterruptible attacks. When they flash white, the bosses will perform an attack from their list that can not be interrupted – your only option is to move out of the way. In the case of the Commissioner on the police level he literally dodges across the entire screen to grab and throw you. Barbon on the bar level spin kicks you. All bosses about halfway through their life get powered up meaning their uninterruptible attacks get powered as well. Barbon performs multiple spin kicks, each in your direction. Diva, one of the snake wielding bosses, doubles the range of her electricity circle. Now, they telegraph these moves well in advance. If the flashing white doesn’t alert you, they usually have a physical tell as well. However, these moves close the distance so fast, for those without the dodge or run it feels lopsided once again. This is nothing really new to the series. You’ve always had characters who could slide, punch and jump kick you out of your attacks, but it gets me extra salty here. Perhaps I feel that since it’s 20 years later, the developers could have worked on a way for the player to avoid this. I wish they went further down the fighting game road and incorporated break moves into your list. Enemies can break your combos, so why can’t you break their attacks just like you can recover from being thrown (Up + Jump when you are about to hit the ground)? Perhaps add additional levels of personality to the characters by having characters like Floyd not be able to be knocked down just like you can’t knock down Max. That would help to counter his slow movement. Things like this would add another level to mastering the game and create more outs for the “slower” characters that can’t dodge or run.
Finally, the cast of characters is great, but there are clearly some left out. I know we have the pixel versions of Max and Shiva, but why not their hand drawn counterparts? Estel is a beautiful and strong character with her own moveset that coincides to our players, but she’s not available? Roo (Victy) makes a cameo, alas he is not available either. No doubt, the upcoming DLC will feature these characters, but at what cost? All said, these are all small gripes in the big picture. As it is, the game is truly solid. Everything about it is top notch and feels right. Being a new release in a new era, I wish they would have pushed it a little further in some areas, but I’m glad we have at least have a Streets of Rage game that is on the same level of the earlier games. I hope the developers build on the success of this game and we see more Streets of Rage games developed in the future because this is one is long overdue but hits the spot just right!