26 years. That’s how long it’s been since the last mainline entry in this series. Much has changed since 1994, for starters, Sega no longer has a console line (keep the Dream alive) and the world has largely left the genre of side-scrolling beat em’ up behind. While there have certainly been entries, some of which are exquisite, a lot have either brought too much from other genres or fallen flat. So how does Dotemu’s, Lizardcube, and Guardcrush Game’s entry hold up? Let me tell you with our review of Streets of Rage 4.
First up the visuals, to put it simply this game is beautiful. The trailers do not do this game justice when you actually see it in glorious motion before you. Something that happened quite often while playing is I’d find myself just sitting there idle after all the enemies had been dispatched to look at the level and enjoy the dynamic lighting reflecting off my character or giving me a glow. The lighting, by the way, is fantastic! It’s subtle one moment then blinding the next. Riding a moving a train your feet glow from the light coming up from the carriages, yet in a neon-lit city, your figure darkens as shadows dance around you in the chaos.
The levels themselves are a joy to look at, a consistent theme and tone are kept throughout the game with a few surprises here and there to break it up. While a connoisseur of beat em’ ups might point out that many of these locations are standard fare for the genre I’d point out that while that is technically true, they’ve never looked this striking. Worn down cities, familiar-looking streets, sewers, the interior of a high rise tower building, and of course the obligatory elevator level. While it could be easy to write these off as tropes of the genre, each brings something new to the table. Environmental hazards are not new to the franchise but this incarnation ramps up how much you’ll have to deal with on-screen. Steam pipes spew out deadly gas, pools of toxic sludge make certain areas impassible, wrecking balls on construction sites are a constant danger during a fight and breakable windows that suddenly reveal drops to your doom, in the madness of the sea of enemies you will sometimes find yourself in, these hazards can be your savior or your quick death.
It’s not just the level itself that can give you environmental hazards either, several of the new enemies are projectile throwers more so than bare-knuckle brawlers and they love nothing more than to sit out of range lobbing firebombs, acid flasks or even the good old fashioned grenade at you. I’ll be honest, there were times when I was questioning if this was Streets of Rage or Final Fight I was playing.
So with that, let’s get into the combat, shall we? It is after all the core of the game and the main thing that is going to keep you coming back for more. Is this a worthy successor to the 90s originals? Yes, but if like me you have those games burned into your DNA you might need an adjustment period before you agree. The game follows the same principles as it’s predecessors, one attack button, one special button this time with 3 special moves, a back attack, a strong attack, a star attack, and jump attacks. Star attacks are big damage-dealing attacks that you ideally want to use on bosses or when you’re facing a horde of enemies. Each character’s star move is as unique as their own special moves so learning the strengths of each character is vital to success.
The biggest change that I had to get used too though is the special attack, first introduced in Streets of Rage 2 these attacks were your “breakout” moves when enemies had you surrounded and were pummeling on you. Have two Galsias punching you from both sides? A dragon punch can fix that. In SOR4 though, once an enemy starts attacking you, you can’t stop it. Have two Galsias punching you from both sides? Tough. Instead, you have to be aware at all times of the danger you’re in and preemptively use your defensive special the moment before they attack (or time your back attack). After a while, you get the hang of it and it feeds nicely into the new combo point system.
In SOR4 the more you hit enemies and continue to do so without being hit yourself the higher your combo builds, provided it’s within the time limit to keep the chain going. This leads to a more aggressive approach with your combat and doubles nicely with the change to special moves, they cost life to use but so long as you don’t take a blow the life it cost will return to you as you perform attacks. Screen edges also work differently in 2020, instead of enemies flying out of view they will bounce off of the edge of the screen and come back to you for some cheeky aerial juggling. Be warned though, this same technique can (and will) be done to you in kind.
Enemy variety is key in games like this, you don’t want to constantly fight the same enemies but you also don’t want every level to feel like a different game. SOR4 get’s that balance just right and packs in plenty of familiar enemies from previous games (including returning bosses) but also introduces just as many new foes to conquer. The new enemies often bring new mechanics to have to deal with, shielded enemies can’t be knocked over till you break the shield, taser wielding enemies can stun-lock you into oblivion, counter stance martial artists punish you for daring to attack them head-on and so much more. There is a lot to take in here and the fact that a lot of the older enemies are mixed in nicely with new additions will keep even the most experienced player on their toes.
Galsias still run at you with knives, and it’s still one of the most irritating attacks in the series.
Bosses in this game are no joke. Almost all of them feature different mechanics but they don’t go too crazy. Some have an area of effect attacks that linger meaning that if you let them they can seriously hamper your ability to move around the battlefield and dodge their attacks. The majority also have super armor (a trait shared with a lot of regular enemies too) meaning that when bosses flash white you can hit them but they won’t react to the hit and thus if they are winding up an attack they will still hit you unless you time it with a move of your own that has invincibility frames. Most bosses also have an extra trick up there sleeves that they will start using once their health bar gets low enough, this can range from a flurry of attacks to entirely new attack patterns or even a new form.
I was a little disappointed though to find that a couple of stages repeat bosses, while this is certainly done in the original games too this is 2020 and there an awful lot of classic bosses that don’t make a return to SOR4 but have concept art indicating that they were once on the cards. I’d have rather of seen one of them brought into SOR4 than a palette-swapped boss with a twin. That said though the new bosses certainly give you a run for your money and I also love the fact that a tradition from SOR2 has carried over here. It’s no secret now that boss Zamza was a tribute to Street Fighter 2’s Blanka. Having very similar attacks and stances. A similar tribute to another fighting game series has been pulled off here with one of the new bosses, but I won’t spoil who it is here.
Points Mean Prizes!
At the end of each level, your points are totaled up and then put into an overall lifetime score. This is also another departure from the original games as in story mode, the points screen allows you to change characters if you so wish and also resets your lives. Instead of having 2 continues with a few lives per continue, this game always starts you off with 2 lives (or less) for the stage and it’s up to you to earn more by getting high scores in the stage itself. This is why maintaining a good combo is vital to your success, especially on higher difficulties.
The overall score I just mentioned is also how you unlock the retro characters in the game, which upon completion gives you a whopping 17 characters to play with. I also have to say that playing as these characters feel completely different from any of the normal SOR4 characters, who in their own right feel different from each other. Axel and Blaze are once again the balanced pair, Cherry is Skates replacement as the quick fighter (the only one of the main cast who can run), Floyd is the strong but slow guy and Adam is somewhere in between them all, his dash gives him a huge leg up on the other characters (except Cherry) but isn’t as strong or fast as the specialists. The retro characters play exactly how you remember them but the SOR2 and SOR3 crews have been given star moves to put them on par with the SOR4 cast.
In the original 2 games, there wasn’t much in the way of narrative delivery outside of the opening and ending. In SOR3 though the story became a bigger part of the game and before every stage, you were greeted by a cutscene. SOR4 employs the same idea and tells a great new addition to SOR lore. It fits right in with the ideas from previous games and with the game being set 10 years after the events of the third game, it gives a great setup and continues reason for these guys to jump back into action.
The Symphony of Chaos
Finally, there is the point that will naturally be the most divisive, the soundtrack, and the audio in general. It’s no secret that for many, the original games OST is a big part of the appeal, and the legendary composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima return to bless SOR4 with there tunes once again. This time though the soundtrack is lead by Olivier Deriviere and I must say I think he’s done a fantastic job.
At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of the famous boss music being nowhere to be seen but after experiencing all the different themes for each boss (often created by guests artists) I can safely say that this new approach certainly delivers a lot of ear-catching music. While there is an option to use the retro soundtrack I found I preferred using the new OST. For starters, the music is mixed in perfectly with the flow of combat and more than once I was convinced that the music was shifting pace to match the energy of the fight or sync up with the beats of the barrage I was blasting enemies with. Whereas the retro soundtrack had some very strange choices, I associate it too much with the original games and on one stage especially I couldn’t understand why they put the SOR2 boss theme Never Return Alive as a stage theme and then when we fought the boss Wave 131 started playing. There are also some tracks that, frankly don’t sound right. Some of the retro tracks are clearly the same tunes we heard back in 1992 but others sound like a tribute act that’s playing them with all the wrong instruments, the tune is right and I can hear what it’s supposed to be but I knew instantly this wasn’t the original.
The sound effects for the game itself are ok in general but I found myself disappointed with most of the weapon hit effects, the pipe, in particular, did not have that same bone-crunching crack that everyone remembers. I’m also sad to report that even when using the retro characters who come with there own hit sound effects straight from the past, that the weapon sound effects do not change. Punches yes, weapons no.
All in all, I had a fantastic time playing Streets of Rage 4, I will certainly be playing more of it with friends. It’s the perfect blend of nostalgia with modern improvements. The occasional niggle does occur but after repeated playthroughs, I’ve come to the conclusion that they were mostly down to me and that with more exposure to the art style a lot of issues I was having I no longer experience. If you first try it and think you’re really struggling just lower the difficulty or take the option to have more lives after your death, there is nothing wrong with learning the ins and outs before moving up to crazy difficulty the game can offer you later.