Bare Knuckle Perfection – Streets of Rage 4 Review
Platforms: PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Release Date: April 30, 2020
Developer: Dotemu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games
Sometimes a franchise is so beloved that it can even raise itself back from the dead. Such is the case with the Streets of Rage series. The original three games released in 1991, 1992, and 1994 respectively and lit the console world on fire. Taking everything Capcom’s Final Fight did and increasing the complexity and player control by a factor of ten, Sega had a bonafide hit on their hands. Sadly, like most of Sega’s IPs that aren’t Sonic or Yakuza, the franchise laid dormant for 26 years. An entire generation was born and raised between the time Streets of Rage 3 released and now. But the fans always had a special place in their heart for the forgotten franchise. Well after almost three decades the series has made its triumphant return delivering not just the best entry in the franchise, but the best side-scrolling brawler ever made.
Taking place 10 years after Streets of Rage 3, Blaze learns of a new corrupt crime syndicate with a stranglehold over Wood Oak City. Calling back in Axel Stone and Adam Hunter, who hasn’t been seen since the original Streets of Rage, they have a new mission to take back the streets. Joining them are newcomers Cherry Hunter, the daughter of Adam, and Floyd Iraiya, a big bruiser with cyborg arms courtesy of Streets of Rage 3’s Dr. Zan. Streets of Rage 4 does not mess with the formula too much. Developers Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games went to excruciating lengths to replicate the gameplay and feel of the originals. Even going so far as to play both games side by side to see how well they matched up.
The gameplay is straight forward and easy to understand but difficult to master. Players have a standard attack, a special attack that can be used on offense or defense, a throw, and a jump. Star Power moves are super powerful moves that can wipe out an entire screen’s worth of enemies if used properly. They can also be used with special star items that can be found throughout a level but you always start a level with at least one. Special moves consume a small amount of life so players must be careful how they use them. You can recover this health by attacking enemies with normal moves and throws. Characters still move on a 2D plane like the original games and a boss awaits you at the end of each level.
When just starting out it can take you a while to make through the game’s 12 levels but the game, in true arcade fashion, is meant to be played repeatedly to improve your combos and score. It took me about 4 hours to beat Story Mode the first time, but after playing through with Axel, Cherry, Adam, and Floyd I was going through a session in under an hour. The game can be played with two players online, or four players in local couch co-op. Enemies can be bounced off walls and between characters for multiple players to rack up insane combos and damage. There is a reason so many fighting game players love brawlers like Streets of Rage. It encourages self-improvement and repetition to increase effectiveness, and therefore, enjoyment. There are also dozens of easter eggs and references throughout the game that long time fans will enjoy. There are even a few secrets to be had, including retro boss fights that can be unlocked through special means. Take a taser to a “Bare Knuckle” arcade cabinet in the levels where you can find them to see what I mean…
The graphics, while they generated some controversy upon initial reveal, are absolutely gorgeous. The level of visual detail is insane. Light and shadow bounce off the environment and all on-screen characters in a beautiful way. Walking past neon signs and seeing the light bounce off your character as you pass under it is amazing. The character models, including the enemies and bosses, all move and animate beautifully. The gameplay and visuals meld together perfectly. This is evident when you start unlocking more characters through the game’s lifetime score system. Over time players can get points for completing levels and playing online and this will unlock retro versions of every character from Streets of Rage. Yes, every character. I don’t mean the old characters in the new style, I mean 16-bit characters are walking around and interacting with this game made in 2020. It really highlights how well the gameplay holds true to the original because these retro characters blend in and interact with the enemies and environments in Streets of Rage 4 perfectly.
One of the most beloved aspects of Streets of Rage is its music. Streets of Rage 2 has arguably one of the best soundtracks in all of gaming. Streets of Rage 4 does not disappoint in this aspect either. The soundtrack for this game is an absolute banger, with each track delivering a specific mood and feeling respective of where it appears in the game. The character select screen theme “They’re Back” perfectly exemplifies this as it mixes retro-themed tunes with a modern electronic beat. It is the perfect blend of past and present. The soundtrack is composed by Olivier Deriviere, with additional compositions from series veterans like Yuzo Koshiro, and newcomers Das Mörtal, and Groundislava. With so many different artists contributing the sound could easily become muddled and confused but Deriviere is able to bring all these distinct sounds together in a way that feels cohesive and complete. The sound effects are also incredible. In a brawler, if a hit doesn’t feel right, then the rest of the game will suffer. After all, all you’re doing is hitting things. But the sound design does a fantastic job of making sure each hit feels crunchy and satisfying.
You can also play against other players in a 1 on 1 fighting game style Versus Mode, and that is incredibly fun, if not very short since damage output is so high. Every character is fun to play and can deal massive damage. Most characters have touch of death combos for each boss. You are rated at the end of each mission akin to a game like Devil May Cry and that kind of thing is a drug for arcade perfectionists. The game also makes no apologies for what it is. Not every character has a roll or evasive option, there is no block button, and while you can save your game, any other modern conveniences are nowhere to be found. Adding a block button to Streets of Rage would be borderline blasphemy and it would no longer be Streets of Rage. Streets of Rage 4 is a love letter to the series and the genre as a whole. While not having 4 player online co-op or animated cutscenes in the story does hurt a bit, every single other aspect of the games is packed to the brim with creativity, talent, and love. This is the essential Streets of Rage experience and is the quintessential brawler. Such minor complaints are crushed under the weight of the almost mythical level this game achieves.
I usually try not to praise a game so highly in my reviews, but Streets of Rage 4 is an exception. It manages the rare feat of delivering EXACTLY on what it is supposed to be and does the even rarer, almost impossible feat, or paying respect to what came before it, and improving on it. The team at Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games did something few franchises have ever achieved, especially after an almost 30-year dry spell. Resurrection.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.