Streets of Rogue was developed by Matt Dabrowski and published by Tiny Build games. It was released on Steam, Switch and PS4 on 12th July 2019, having been in Steam early access since 2017. As is typical for a game which has been slow-cooking for so long, SOR is packed full of content and things to discover.
You could be forgiven for thinking SOR is attempting to capitalise on the nostalgia for Sega’s 90s beat-em-up Streets of Rage. In fact, you should be forgiven because it almost certainly is attempting to capitalise on the nostalgia for Sega’s 90s beat-em-up Streets of Rage, much like the unrelated Streets of Red: Devil’s Dare Deluxe. SOR is not a side-scrolling beat-em-up, however, and instead chooses to follow in the footsteps of titles such as the original Grand Theft Auto, Hotline Miami and Retro City Rampage with super-fun top-down carnage being the order of the day.
Your goal is to progress through various urban environments and depose the corrupt mayor, while carrying out various missions to assist the potentially equally corrupt resistance.
Streets of Rogue is, as you may have guessed from the name, a rogue-lite, and permadeath, significant difficulty and randomised layouts are all present and correct. Gameplay revolves around completing objectives on procedurally-generated levels across a number of stages, which evoke the environments of classic beat-em-ups such as Final Fight and Streets of Rage with slums, industrial factories and parks all being present. These objectives might involve retrieving a certain object from a locked room, eliminating an NPC or escorting a rescued captive to the entrance or exit of a level. For every objective, there is an accompanying gaggle of hostile NPCs who will try to stop you in your tracks.
You will come across the plenty of melee weapons and firearms to smash the opposition to smithereens, but you can also take more creative approaches to avoiding an early grave using a wide range of consumables and environmental features. See a vent outside a building you need to clear? Insert a pack of cigarettes and the fumes will send the occupants running out of the building, allowing you to sneak in without being spotted. Notice a window close to the item you need to grab? You could use a consumable window cutter to remove it entirely (if you have one) or simply smash it and traverse the broken glass with an accompanying HP cost and a fair bit of noise. If you prefer to take a more direct approach without getting your hands dirty you can even pay NPCs to accompany you and direct them to do the fighting for you, although they typically go down quick and hard when bullets and fists are flying.
Streets of Rogue uses twin-stick shooter mechanics, with movement being handled by the left stick and attacks being directed by the right stick and triggered by the ZR button. Combat is often a case of managing your opponents and choosing when to strike while using the environment to your advantage. Melee weapons can send enemies flying, so if you’re crafty you might able to knock an unsuspecting thug into a trap or smash them through a nearby wall. Guns offer range but require precise aim, while also running out of ammo pretty quickly, which can leave you in a bind if you’re in an enclosed space.
After a few failed runs you might find you’re asking yourself questions when approaching a group of soon-to-be-hostile NPCs: “Is this situation dangerous enough to require me to use my remaining shotgun rounds or will they be better used elsewhere? Do I need to gather more weapons and health before continuing or could I muddle through and use the experience to level up, thereby replenishing my health? Could I trick that n’er-do-well into attacking a passing mobster by ducking out of the way just in time then let them sort out their differences while I sneak past?” Under-estimating a situation can end a hitherto successful run prematurely so it’s important to explore each level for collectables and friendly NPCs then carefully consider your approach.
The Rogue-lite nature of Streets of Rogue might turn some people off, but for me, it succeeds where many other rogue-lites fail in that it allows the player to customise the difficulty and change up the gameplay experience. You can enable continues, turn off guns, remove cops and loads more besides via an NPC in the hub world. Alternatively, if you’re finding the game too easy you can choose options to ramp up the difficulty. Before tampering with these options I suggest you play the game as intended to ensure you don’t miss out on any of the deliberate design choices, but the majority of them do not prevent you from progressing in the game or even unlocking new content.
Each stage offers fresh hazards and mechanics. Not watching your step in the Industrial stage could send you careening into whirring buzz-saws and skin-melting flame-throwers, whereas carelessly sauntering past a quivering bush in the Park stage might provoke an attack from a concealed cannibal. Furthermore, the levels within each stage often introduce new elements too, with level 2 of the Slums stage introducing the complications of roaming law enforcement, who will gun you down at the sight of the slightest infraction. Even this can be used to your advantage, as the police will punish those who commit crimes against you too and deter would-be muggers in later stages.
In addition to the myriad gameplay options there is a large cast of playable characters, with many more being unlocked through achieving certain feats during a run. Each character changes up the experience significantly with their own special abilities and loadouts. The gorilla has super strength but cannot handle guns or talk to NPCs (without a translator), the vampire can recover health by sucking blood, which also serves as a very effective method of attack, but cannot heal using first aid kits and food like other characters. My personal favourite is the doctor, who cannot use lethal weapons and is armed only with a chloroform-soaked rag and a tranquiliser gun. The differences between the characters keep the gameplay fresh, and every archetype has their own side quest which introduces even more variety. For example, the gorilla is tasked with freeing his fellow apes from captivity, after which they become allies who will fight alongside him. The vampire must search each level to find his super-powered nemesis, the werewolf, following which an intense battle will commence. It’s worth giving each character a try to see whether or not they suit your gameplay style, and if you are able to complete a stage with five characters you can start from the following stage on your next playthrough, meaning there’s plenty of incentive for experimentation.
The currency which transfers between playthroughs comes in the form of chicken nuggets, which are handed out as rewards for completing missions and can be used to unlock new level-up bonuses or to purchase single-use items to improve your chances on your next run. You will rarely leave a run empty-handed, unlike with more punishing rogue-likes such as the excellent Enter The Gungeon where perma-currency is awarded only upon killing super-tough bosses, and even then can only be used to introduce the chance of a possibly under-powered weapon appearing in a chest in a future run, or to make the game even harder for yourself.
Another fun mechanic (which, again, can be removed if you so desire) is the disasters, which are randomised hazards which occur on the final level of each stage. You might start a level to find there is a bounty on your head rendering all NPCs potentially treacherous, there might be environment-obliterating bombs dropping over the city, or you might even find yourself in the midst of a police curfew, meaning moving between buildings (which is unavoidable) risks your being shot on sight. These disaster levels take the place of traditional boss encounters, and they make the culmination of each stage feel tense and exciting.
Streets of Rogue features four-player co-op. Teaming up with a friend in local co-op can be a lot of fun (at least in TV mode), although expect the ensuing chaos to cause an accompanying increase in difficulty in more claustrophobic environments, where it is harder to tell your characters apart in the midst of all-out warfare. You might find a run ending suddenly after flailing around hitting one another while completely missing two enemies with guns who did not have similar problems aiming at you. Each player has their own health bar and there aren’t any additional collectables to go around, although if one player dies the others can revive them in exchange for halving their current HP or coughing up some gold, which is the transient currency on SOR. Moving apart from one another causes the screen to split, allowing players to tackle objectives independently.
Visually Streets of Rogue bears similarities to The Escapists, with the brutal violence being tempered by the Lego-like proportions of the characters and the cutesy pixel art sprite-work. Environments are nicely detailed if a little dark at times, and each new stage feels distinct from the previous one. Graphical performance is generally fine, though significant explosions can cause slow-down (a couple of seconds of which feel intentional), as does the screen-splitting mechanic when playing co-op.
The music is funk-inflected electro with more than a passing similarity to that of Streets of Rage. The soundtrack fits the frenetic gameplay perfectly and escalates nicely during the disaster levels. The sound effects are meaty and put weight behind every baseball bat swing and shotgun blast.
Streets of Rogue isn’t cheap, being a little under £20, but with a wide range of playable characters and collectables, each run-through feels different and rewarding enough to pull you in for one more go. Unlocking new characters and traits can give a sense of achievement even following a failed run and there is sufficient challenge so that veteran players won’t whip through the plot in their first attempt. Once I got through the slightly-too-meta tutorial I didn’t stop having fun until I had to break off to write this review.
Streets of Rogue is a fantastic title with loads of replay value, and crucially it lets players decide how they want to play without penalising them, which might make it a good rogue-lite entry point for the uninitiated. It may perform slightly better on other platforms but it is perfectly suited to the on-the-go experience the Switch provides. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a chloroform rag-wielding doctor (I’m referring to the game, no need to send help).
Disclaimer: This game was provided for review by Tiny Build Games.
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