It’s been 26 years since Streets of Rage 3 released. With the series considered by many to be one of the best beat ’em ups, there are lofty expectations for developers DotEmu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games’ newest installment to the series, Streets of Rage 4. Luckily for fans new and old, Streets of Rage 4 is a fantastic return to the franchise offering gorgeous visuals with modern gameplay sensibilities.
Taking place ten years after the death of the series main villain Mr. X, a new crime wave has hit Wood Oak City. The leaders of this gang are thought to be none other than Mr. X’s children, Mr. and Ms. Y. Blaze and Axel return, along with a few new characters to try and reclaim the streets and restore peace to the city. It’s a brief and straightforward scenario, but it’s as good of an excuse as any to get you back on the streets and punching again.
Beat ’em up standards like melee weapons, health regaining street food, and hoards of enemies attempting to overwhelm you are all here. Along with your standard attack, you also have a powerful special move that takes off a portion of your health. You can regain this health as long as you inflict damage against opponents. However, if you are hit during this period, your health won’t restore. Even attempting to use specials strategically can feel like a bit of a gamble, but this makes for more exciting and rewarding gameplay than specials in past games.
In addition to these attacks, you also have limited star moves, which deal massive damage and typically have a wide hit range. Any weapon can be thrown, but a cool new feature is the “mid-air grab”. When throwing a weapon at an opponent, you have the chance to catch it again as it ricochets off them. It’s an incredibly satisfying move and one that makes you look super skilled when you pull it off.
New characters like the speedy but weak guitar-wielding Cherry and the slow but strong Cybernetic Floyd are a blast to control and provides some gameplay variety apart from the more balanced Blaze and Axel. Different stages are made easier with certain characters and more of a challenge for others, encouraging you to experiment with the roster. Thankfully, you can select a different character at the beginning of each stage, giving you a chance to mix up your play style.
Missing this time around are the duck and roll maneuvers and run for all base characters aside from Cherry. I’m sure it would have messed with the difficulty balance, but I did at times find myself wishing my character would pick up the pace a bit. Still, it’s not a big issue when unlockable characters maintain these features.
The gameplay is mostly unchanged from previous installments but feels drastically smoother and more precise. A big part of this may be due to the beautiful visuals. All characters are hand-drawn with vivid 2D animation making subtle tells of an opponent’s incoming attack more discernible. Character design and the game’s overall aesthetic is awe-inspiring.
Backgrounds rarely, if ever, repeat and are comprised of detailed environmental illustrations throughout the entire journey. Cutscenes are broken into comic-like panels and fit nicely between stages. It all comes together for a very cohesive art direction and one that is a complete joy to look at.
Accompanying these visuals is an energetic electronic soundtrack. The series is known for its iconic tunes, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Instead of one constant theme throughout a stage, it will morph seamlessly to fit the scenario and your progression. This can make particular in-game moments feel intensely cinematic as the animation and soundtrack created an excellent experience.
Typical beat ’em ups aren’t known for their length. Streets of Rage 4 does last a bit longer than the typical game in the genre at 12 levels, but the overall story mode may take around two hours to complete. It was about the length I expected, but I would have been happy to have a couple of additional levels.
As an incentive for some replay value, you earn points the more you play. The more points you achieve, the more unlockables you get. Nearly all characters sprites from Streets of Rage 1 through 3 are unlockable and maintain their same gameplay from their according game. It creates a very different experience and is pretty entertaining to see the pixelated sprites among the highly defined world. “Extras” can also be unlocked, giving you high definition concept design and layouts for the game.
Unlike the previous games, story mode saves your progress after each level. If you happen to die, you can simply try again. You even have the option of requesting additional lives or assists but at the cost of points that you may receive for completing the level. This is on top of several different difficult settings you can choose from.
For those that want a classic challenge, “Arcade” gives you a set amount of lives with no continues or saves. “Boss Rush” is another masochistic challenge where you combat each boss from the game with only one life. It would have been nice to get a few more difficulty options in this mode as I never made it past the second boss. “Stage select” is also available after you complete stages in “Story” mode, allowing you to compete in online leaderboards.
Most Beat ’em ups are enhanced by their multiplayer gameplay, and Streets of Rage 4 gives you several options. Four players can play locally, and two players can connect online. “Battle Mode” is also available, which allows you to fight against each other and create team battles.
It’s clear that a lot of love went into making Streets of Rage 4. The developers have taken this classic series and added just enough to make it there own while also building off of what makes this series so great. The length of the adventure may be an issue for some, but there are more than enough reasons to return to the streets for another round. From the detailed animation to the inclusion of almost every previous Streets of Rage character and playstyle, there is something for every bare-knuckle brawler out there.
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