Streets of Rage 4 PC Review
Let’s establish some context, first of all, for this review of a game in which you ostensibly do the exact same thing, doling out roughly the same attacks over the course of 11 chapters. Many of those punches and kicks being directed at thugs identical to the ones you encounter in the opening moments.
If you can show the appeal of your game with a trailer, I’m probably never going to love it. If it’s about context rather than tactile interaction – an interplay between the feedback on screen and the sensation in my arms and the chemical reaction in my brain, there’s likely a hard limit to the impact the game will have on me. Granted, a story can be engaging, a video game’s narrative can leverage interactivity to make a point. That will make a strong impression, it will make me want to talk about the game and admire it intellectually, but cut off from all pretenses of surface level artistic merit, a game either creates a low hum of joyful stimulation in my brain, or it simply… doesn’t. “If I was stranded on an island”, as it were.
For brawlers, or “side-scrolling beat ‘em ups”, that simple truth is paramount. They are single-minded endeavours and little more than an excercise in repetition. Perhaps I can’t say anything approaching universal truth here, but for my money, Streets of Rage was always the most satisfying series of brawlers for precisely the reasons stated above. The way sound, visuals and snappy controls came together made its repetition endlessly satisfying.
Twentysix years later, Sega have given the reigns – Sonic Mania style – to people who probably understand Streets of Rage better than they do, and tasked them with reviving the series. In this case a double-team effort by Lizardcube and Guard Crush. They’ve made some safe choices, but also some bold ones – not least of all taking on the challenge of creating a sprite based brawler that doesn’t lean on nostalgic, chunky, 16 bit looking pixels. No matter how seemingly cookie cutter the task is of making in many ways “the same game again”, there is a lot that could go wrong here. At least, there are plenty of opportunities to simply disagree with what the developers have done here.
Apparent right away, when you hit the titular Streets as one of four immediately selectable characters, is that the game is absolutely gorgeous. The sprite work is dense and detailed, new and returning enemy types are wonderfully realised, and the locales you travel through ooze atmosphere. Cleverly used modern graphical flourishes allow for characters to be lit by light sources in the environment, and for “realtime” reflections across shiny floors and puddles of water. Even smoke plumes coming out of manhole covers are lit by neon signs and lamp posts in the background. It gives otherwise flat sprites just enough volume to seat the game believably in the cartoony grit of its pseudo 90s world. It’s simply stunning to look at.
All of it also sounds great, with crunchy old school sound effects and a totally banging sound track. Wisely avoiding direct comparisons to Yuzo Koshiro’s legendary tracks from the classic games, this carves its own path, but still feels like spiritual kin. It heightens the frenetic energy of the game’s combat by matching and underscoring its groove and its pace perfectly.
Said pace is actually noticeably faster than the old games, while remaining a hundred percent faithful to the feel of the originals. Frames of animation can be matched up perfectly to the OG moves, and enemy behavior, the way you “push and pull” the AI around by repositioning yourself, feels lifted directly from the predecessors. Characters don’t inherit all of their base characteristics from the previous game, however, but rather split some of them up between themselves as distinct traits. Only one of four characters at the outset is able to run by double tapping forward, for instance – otherwise a base ability shared by all characters in Streets of Rage 3. Alex is now a clear bruiser, landing heavy hits and using his basic and beginner friendly moves to do big damage, whereas newcomer Cherry is a more intense and frantic character, with a lot of mobility options and almost King of Fighters-esque multi-hit attacks. It diversifies their attack patterns, which helps separate the characters on screen during gameplay, which can get rather chaotic at times.
But Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t require a one-size-fits-all proposition, because you don’t have to commit to just the one character for the duration. You have the option of selecting a different character between every stage, to experiment and change things up.
Enemies now bounce off the edge of the screen if they’re sent flying towards it, allowing for follow-up combos and air juggles. In these types of games in the past, knocking enemies off screen used to result in having to wait around for them to get up and walk back into view before you could keep punching them. In this, that kind of downtime is kept to a minimum. The special attacks are now treated a bit differently as well. Activated on a bespoke button and different depending on whether you’re standing still, jumping or pressing towards an enemy, special attacks can be woven into gameplay at any point, but drain a certain amount of your health. If you follow up with other attacks on enemies before taking damage, however, you can gain it back. It incentivises moving toward the action even when you risk losing health, burrowing deeper in as opposed to running away from where, essentially, the game is.
That’s the design philosophy that feels echoed throughout, with every decision made to keep and always quickly return focus on where the game is. Whether it be enemies bouncing back toward you, catching thrown weapons in mid air after they hit opponents, or creating opportunities to get back health for keeping up the offensive instead of punishing your use of certain attacks.
With the speed increase and lower damage characters in the mix, Streets of Rage 4’s combat can feel a little disposable at times. Especially when compared to the previous games, which felt more deliberate, there is sometimes a sense that you’re doing a lot to accomplish little here. This puts it in contrast to offshoots of the brawler genre, of which Tecmo-Koei’s “Warriors” games are arguably king these days, which remedy this feeling with level spanning, primary and secondary objectives, making for a more dynamic overarching experience. This game is singular in its goal, and as soon as you’re not fighting to stay alive, it will immediately feel less satisfying to play.
The fix? Urgency. Crank up the difficulty when your rampage starts feeling a little too leisurely. When you’re using everything you know to just barely fight off enemies, the game gets its groove back. Though simple, it doesn’t devolve into a frustrating cluster-fudge like you’d expect – it withstands the added pressure beautifully and springs alive in a new way.
When credits roll, there are plenty of difficulty settings to tackle and newly unlocked characters to explore. The Battle mode, pitting players against on another in arenas based on the game’s various backdrops, is surprisingly fun it its simplicity. It could honestly be expanded further, with more control over customising your matches, turning NPCs on and off, et cetera. Of course, it does ultimately feel like fun distraction until you’re raring to hit the streets again – and you will want to get back into it, because by the time you’ve played through it, it will have its hooks into you. You shouldn’t expect to just carry on with your life without returning for some more hypnotic, methodical punching of random thugs, and Streets of Rage 4 has enough little things to unlock and see to justify repeat playthroughs to your friends and family, thinly veiling your crippling addiction.
Or maybe you won’t be addicted at all. Maybe you’ll play through a level and absolutely nothing about it registers as fun or satisfying. Even with some modern thinking applied, this is brawlers the way they were done at the dawn of time. That is the allure of this proposition in the first place, and there is no attempt to make it seem more profound or less repetitive than it is. That’s the cruel reality of games like this one and of any review thereof. They may be absolutely meaningless, because your mileage depends entirely on whether you’re receptive to that sensation in your arms I was yapping about earlier – the way you respond, or don’t, to the feedback on screen.
I can say one thing for sure: This is the best side scrolling beat em up around. I sound reserved in this review because I told myself in a stern voice not to spend its entirety just raving about the game. It adds up lessons learnt from its three predecessors, from the exploits of their classic contenders, and from 2D one-on-one fighting games, and then deploys that accumulated knowledge to make a game that is still unmistakably Streets of Rage. It looks great, sounds great and plays great, and its appeal is so direct and immediate that whether you have hours to waste or just five minutes, it’ll send happy signals to your brain within seconds and last the duration.
At eleven chapters it’s the perfect length, and yet I can’t help but feel that I’d keep playing for as long as it kept throwing me new chapters. Then again, “New Game” is right there. The same thugs will happily line right back up, likely with the added confidence of a higher difficulty setting, and I’ll be just as happy to keep punching them.