Streets of Rage 4 full review
Streets of Rage games came thick and fast in the early ‘90s - there were three in four years - but then they just stopped. It’s been 26 years since, and now Streets of Rage 4 is finally here to end the drought.
This new sequel combines the classic side-scrolling gameplay of the originals with lush new comic book art and animations. It’s out from 30 April on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch for £22.49/$24.99. Check out more upcoming games to find out what else is due out before lockdown ends.
If you’re reading this then you’ll probably have played a Streets of Rage or two before, but I’ll be upfront with you: I haven’t. Streets of Rage 4 is my introduction to the series, so take this only as a perspective on the game from someone entirely new to it, with no nostalgia to carry me through the rough spots.
Set 10 years after the last game, Streets of Rage 4 kicks things off with a choice of four playable characters: old staples Axel and Blaze, and two newbies: the guitar-wielding Cherry and the metal-armed Floyd.
You’re thrown into the plot pretty quickly: you’ve got to fight through the streets (of rage) to take down the Y Syndicate, a new crime organisation led by the twin children of the original bad ‘un Mr. X.
Clearing the streets
Combat is simple. You get a standard base attack, which can be comboed together with a back attack, jumps, throws, and specials. Specials consume health when you use them, but you can claw this back by successively hitting enemies with regular attacks afterwards, rewarding aggressive play.
Health pickups are littered around in the form of apples and freshly roasted chickens (usually found in bins, barrels, or boxes...it’s best not to ask), while stars let you fire off screen-filling super attacks and various melee weapons are dotted around levels for good measure.
It all comes together pretty well, but aside from building up bigger combos there’s not a whole lot of depth to the action. That suits the arcade aesthetic, but by modern standards Streets of Rage 4 feels shallow, and there’s just not enough to the core combat to reward hours and hours of play.
The campaign may start on the streets (again, of rage) but across the game you’ll fight through sewers, a train, the police station, a plane and more, all lovingly rendered in a vivid, cartoon-y style. Level design plays with the format a little - trapping you in set spaces like a lift or forcing you up, down, or around rather than straight from left to right - but for the most part the stages step back to let the characters take centre stage.
And they’re great! Beautiful animations almost distract from the game itself, with every bounce, punch, or hair flick rendered with real charm and character, aided by designs that make the most of the chance to break free of the limitations of old sprite art, without betraying the original aesthetic.
Enemies are just as charming, especially the characterful bosses, though these bring with them their frustrations too. Some land just right, with that beautiful medley of dodges and strikes as you memorise attack patterns that make brawlers work so well. Others, with unblockable moves or poor attack cues, turn into battles of attrition as you burn through life after life simply trying to whittle their health down.
There are four playable characters from the get-go, but more to unlock as the game progresses, including 16-bit versions of some of the characters from the first three games. That’s enough to give this the biggest roster of any Streets of Rage yet.
One frustration is that only one of these unlocks is tied to a story beat, with the rest connected to high scores, meaning that it’s all too easy to run through the campaign in its entirety without really expanding the roster much at all, prompting you to slog through levels again with the same old characters for a while before you get many new ones.
It helps that you can always play with someone else. You can play online co-op with one other player, but couch co-op now goes up to four players at once (if you can get four people together in the same room right now). There’s also a competitive battle mode, but PvE is really where this series’ strengths lie.
In addition to retro characters you can also unlock tunes from the older soundtracks - a welcome option since the new tunes aren’t all that inspiring, with a fairly generic mix of dance tunes that carry you through levels well enough but won’t linger in the head for long.
Even as someone with no history on the streets (of rage) it’s clear that this is a labour of love, so I suspect franchise fans will find enough here to make it worth the purchase, whether that’s revisiting old favourites, mix and matching characters from across the years, or simply getting the chance to dive onto the streets (of rage) with four players for the first time.
The series is showing its age though, and while the look of the game has been updated to suit the times, gameplay feels a little too rooted in its ‘90s heyday. That means Streets of Rage 4 feels simplistic and shallow by modern standards, and aside from unlocks I’m not sure how much replay value there is here.