Bare knuckle down.
Platform: PC (version played with Xbox One controller), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch.
Genre: 2D brawler made in 2020, by beat-em-up fans and for beat-em-up fans.
Final Fight. Double Dragon. These are the iconic names you here when you bring up late 80s and early 90s beat-em-ups. While they’re fun and all, they don’t hold a candle to the oozing style and block-rocking beats that is the Streets of Rage/Bare Knuckle series.
Made by Sega back in 1991, the legendary 2D beat-em-up was ahead of its time with its graphics and pumpin’ soundtrack. Its gameplay? Not so much, though it has seen various improvements over time with part 2’s special moves and part 3’s evasion maneuvers and branching paths. Along with a pretty nifty fan game made in 2003, there isn’t much being done with the brand.
At least until this week with Streets Of Rage 4. Many people were skeptical about the fourth official entry, but they’re mostly dispelled due to the pedigree behind it. While Sega gave its blessing and permission, it’s the trio of developers and producers that are behind this love letter project: artists Lizardcube, retro game publisher aficionados Dotemu, and developer Guard Crush Games. The latter group is known for its 2015 2D beat-em-up gem Streets of Fury EX, a goofy venture with a surprising amount of fighting game depth.
So, does it work? Is Streets Of Rage 4 a great mix of nostalgia and new-school beat-em-up? Yes, but not without some caveats. Let’s break it down eleven-fold.
1. The actual fighting is great!
Streets of Rage 4 is what happens when a 90s 2D beat-em-up gets a 2020 makeover from people who know the beat-em-up genre inside and out. Some aspects are preserved like the left-to-right “beat them all” objectives, the simple “defeat new syndicate that’s controlling Oak Wood City with a corrupted fist” storyline, and the brevity of the single-player mode.
Also, you still get food and money from conveniently-placed barrels and containers, and even opportunities to commit vandalism and potential murder via throwing thugs in bottomless pits. As well as even break out of a police station and inflict your own brutality.
However, the game’s new changes and updates are all for the better without wrecking the tried-and-true formula. The controls and action strike a fine balance between simple and meaty. See, this Streets of Rage 4 now gives you the option to use and chain your special attacks frequently. Pressing the Y button (either Y, forward +Y, or jump+Y) will unleash your selected character’s special move that you can cancel from your regular X button standard attacks.
The catch? You will lose a bit of life, but it’s represented by a green section of your life meter. If you hit enemies continuously with regular attacks, you can gain that life back. If you get hit, you lose it all. That’s a really great way to allow players to risk it all for the sake of invincibility frames for specials and dogpiling a group of enemies continuously.
You can also use an ultimate big-radius AoE Star Move that can deal mega damage to every thug around your vicinity. This move is pretty powerful, you can only pull it off if you have a star available; you can collect these in the game just like your standard money and health-replenishing collectables.
You’ll need all the help you can get because the enemies can get tough and rowdy. Even your fodder like Galsia and Donovan can be dangerous with certain weapons in their hands. Noteworthy foes include the headbutting biker girls, the taser-wielding police who have fast high-priority grabs (unless you knock their tasers out), and the cyborgs that can levitate ground weapons and fling them at you. The last slew of boss fights with the Y twins is also worth bringing up.
Streets of Rage 4’s gameplay engine allows you to pull off cancels and combos when enemies are about to fall. Catching them mid-air lets you extend your combo meter further, meaning huge points for your score (which we’ll get to later).
Getting enemies to the edge of the screen means you can juggle them in the air further. Honestly, it’s really fun to lure mobs of Galsias and Donovans into the corner and then juggling them for more points.
2. Every character feels and plays different
If you thought the variety of playstyles in Streets of Rage 2 and Streets of Rage 3 is nifty, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with Streets of Rage 4’s offerings. You have four default characters to pick from (and a few more unlockable pugilists), each with their own attacks, strengths, and weaknesses.
Veteran Axel Stone is balanced and comes with his trademark Grand Upper, crowd control “Flame Punch”, and some decent attack stats. Newcomer Cherry Hunter is fast and can cover more ground chasing most enemies, but she’s not that strong and has pathetic reach compared to the rest of the cast. Still, she’s the only one in the main cast who can run.
While bionic-armed Floyd is super-slow, he can dish out the most damage, can grab anyone from a mid-ranged distance with his special, and grab-and-walk like Sengoku 3’s Kongoh. Whether it’s Blaze and her combo potential or Adam Hunter’s hard-hitting style & far reach with certain long weapons (and his quick dashes), you’re bound to find a favourite to clear the game with. Multiple times. And with a friend or three.
There’s a huge gap between 1994 and 2020 when it comes to Streets of Rage games. Guard Crush Games basically have a lot of references and inspiration from a boatload of beat-em-ups, especially from stellar examples like Sengoku 3. Streets of Rage 4 clearly took nods and the best ideas from these retro titles and incorporated them anew, making for a fresh and enjoyable experience. The game’s fighting and roster is proof of this.
3. You can switch to different characters after each stage
The old-school trope of sticking to your selected character from start to finish has been laid to rest; now you can switch from Axel to Blaze (or anyone else) at the beginning of the next stage. You won’t be able to get certain achievements by doing this though.
4. The scoring system has a purpose
In Streets of Rage 4, you start off with a few lives by default (3 lives in Normal difficulty). As you rack up points by collecting money in barrels and food items when your health is full, you can earn extra lives when you reach certain score milestones. When you’re out of lives, you have to start from the beginning of the stage.
Again, the developers take an outmoded concept and flipped it anew so that it makes certain commodities like lives a lot more valuable.
5. The game’s difficulty changes exponentially
While Normal mode has its slew of challenges, real beat-em-up aficionados will want to experience the game in the harder difficulty settings. These will not only increase the enemy count and movement/attacking speed, but will also determine how many lives you start off with and how much life you will need to “cashback” if you use specials.
The highest difficulty, Mania, will make you a bit more cautious with specials as you’ll lose more than usual. In case Normal is a pushover for you, the harder difficulties will make you want to bring more friends along to help ease the chaos. Or not make you a prime target at the very least.
6. They mapped the grab command to a separate button.
Ever had that issue where you want to beat up someone in front of you but end up grabbing an item or power-up instead? Well, the developers solved that problem in Streets of Rage 4: just map that command to a separate button. Now you can continue your combo and pummeling without fear of interruption from your end.
Though this comes with a unique problem: whenever I’m holding onto a weapon and I want to pick up either a gold bar or a food item, I end up throwing it away instead. The pixel spot for picking it up is so precise that I usually just forgo whatever I’m holding.
Barring that, I do wonder why it took so long for other similar throwbacks to do this. It also helps that you can catch weapons mid-air if you time your button press right.
7. Four-player co-op & two-player online
Speaking of multiplayer, the game gets chaotic and hectic when you have a few extra pals with you playing on the couch. The enemy count gets a bit higher to accommodate the number of players, and it’s seamless to set up. There’s no drop-in and drop-out function in offline though, but since each stage is pretty short, it’s not a huge issue.
8. A messload of unlockables, upping its replayability
Once you finish the game’s Story Mode, which should take you about 3 hours or so if you’re pretty decent at beat-em-ups, you will unlock Stage Select mode, Boss Rush mode, and Arcade mode. These are all self-explanatory if you’ve played at least a couple of 2D action games.
Stage Select lets you go to any of the game’s 12 stages to boost your stage ranking, or just replay a cool segment or boss fight. Boss Rush gives you all of its bosses for you to fight in an arena with just one life. Arcade mode keeps things old-school; you start off with a set amount of lives and can only stick to one character. If you run out of lives, that’s it.
You can also unlock legacy characters like SoR 2’s Skate and SoR 3’s Dr. Zan in their glorious sprite-tastic form of ye ol’ 90s Megadrive era. And yes, playing as SoR 1 incarnations of Adam, Axel, and Blaze will let you call the legendary cop car as a star move. Getting these cool bonuses is just a matter of replaying the game and getting a good ranking out of it.
Coupled with some gallery options and even some profiles on the game’s playable cast and enemies, and you’ve got yourself a nifty reason to aim for that A ranking in the tough dojo stage. Did I mention that you can also switch the look of your collectables in-game? You can replace the big chicken with hamburgers or salad. It’s cosmetic, but it’s worth noting if you fancy some more detailed options in your beat-em-up.
9. Awesome sights and sounds
You probably saw this coming, but Streets of Rage 4 excels in its visuals and audio. The art style is a Lizardcube trademark, complete with detail and crafty sprite lighting. Our heroes and villains, both old and new, are given a great West-slash-East makeover that looks gorgeous both static and in motion.
From the insides of a police station’s cosy office (complete with “hush money” coming out of the commissioner’s desk when you break it) to the familiar-yet-detailed backdrops of an outdoor rave and art museum, you can see the massive detail, love, and work put in every corner of the 2D universe.
Every screenshot here is a work of art. You know the developers show a lot of love for a particular franchise when even its pixelated SoR1 characters follow the same lighting and shading properties as the hand-drawn characters.
I’ve talked a bit about the music, and after hearing the final ensemble and tracks in-game, I’d say that it’s a worthy successor. While it features new creations from series composer Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima that sounds nostalgic yet feels made for this era in gaming, the majority of the awesome work comes from Olivier Deriviere.
He knows how to pump up the tempo and add in escalating music that suits the mood of the stage pretty well. I can’t call it a total replacement to past SoR music; I’ll need more time listening to all of it to make comparisons. However, it’s a logical and appropriate evolution of the game’s background earwigs with that 90s-esque beat-em-up flair. A pretty solid offering and a possible contender for one of 2020’s better gaming soundtracks, in other words.
Now, on with the bad.
1. It’s not lengthy from the get-go
If you’re looking for an enriching story experience from your first playthrough, you’re in the wrong place. Streets of Rage 4 is built with replayability in mind, so it’s easy to see why the Story Mode takes a short time to complete.
It’s not built like an RPG like last year’s best beat-em-up River City Girls. However, if you’re expecting a longer campaign, you’ll be disappointed.
2. It’s tailor-made for fans of the genre, and only them
I get it; beat-em-ups are a relic of the past. Because of the quarter-munching nature of these games, most gamers who grew up on shooters and action-adventure fares for the past 10 years may not see the appeal.
Which is precisely why once in a while, it’s nice to see a game like Streets of Rage 4 wears its nostalgic sleeves proudly, albeit with a lot of noteworthy changes. Heck, I would complain about the reusing of certain bosses in some stages, but that’s just the developer’s way of paying tribute to the tag-team fights the series throws at you. Still, if you aren’t into the genre, this won’t change your mind at all. It’ll look nice to play for a few minutes, but you won’t appreciate what it offers replayability-wise.
Long story short, dock 30 points from the final score below if you fall in the non-fan camp; it’s a US$25 indie curiosity at best. To the rest of us, this is the true sequel to the Streets of Rage/Bare Knuckle series that’s a long time coming.
- Great soundtrack & stylized art.
- Fun beat-em-up action with tight controls.
- Lots of diverse characters to use and unlock.
- Pays homage to its source material really well.
- Non-beat-em-up fans will not appreciate its short length & replayability.
FINAL SCORE: 90/100
*Review copy provided by Dotemu.