When Streets of Rage 4 was first announced in August 2018 the Sega community went wild but many questions were raised. How could the developers improve on a much loved series? Would our favourite characters make it back to the player roster? The music! Will it be like Streets 2 or Streets 3? Many were excited, many were nervous, some wanted to wait to see the game in action. It would be sometime later that our first taste of the game was shown in a short video.
Gone were the pixel sprites of the Mega Drive classics we cherished so much. The art style was hand drawn, almost anime, and the fan base began to talk. Some dismissed the new art direction out of hand and felt let down by the developer trio of Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games and Dotemu. There were others who accepted the new direction and started to pray the gameplay of the originals was kept in tack. All we could do is wait for the release.
The announcement had confirmed that Sega were officially supporting the project and a modified version of the Streets of Fury engine would be used. Sega legend Yozu Kishiro joined the project after playing a demo at a game show in Tokyo. He and a few other guest composers provided the boss soundtracks for the upcoming release. But the debate raged about the art direction as more videos popped up here and there. The revelation, earlier this year, that sprite versions of the characters could be unlocked felt like the final announcement to seal the deal. The fan base, for the most part, was excited.
Now that Streets of Rage 4 has finally landed it is time to take a step back, take in what it has to offer and attempt to provide you readers with an unbiased review. This is very hard for someone that cites Streets of Rage as one of their reasons for getting into video games. It is a series that defines me as it does many other Sega fans. Some of my fondest gaming memories sit squarely at the feet of this cherished game series. Before diving into the details the headline to take away is that Streets of Rage 4 is an accomplished title. It aims to please the hardcore Sega fans while offering something for new players to enjoy. This fine balance was always the challenge for the developers but they have achieved it.
Streets of Rage 4 is set ten years after the events of Streets 3. Mr X and his Syndicate are long gone and the city has lived in peace. However, his children, the Y twins, have started a new crime wave with the intent of brainwashing the entire city. It is up to Axel Stone, Blaze Fielding and their new friends to once again take on the Streets of Rage! Streets of Rage 4 is not going to win any awards for story telling and nor does it need to. Anyone that has played the originals will know the story takes a firm backseat to the action.
During the story mode the usual video game cliches form the backdrop through comic style cutscenes. But apart from the quality anime inspired artwork there is little for you to take note of. There are bad guys, you must beat them up or die trying. Although, it is great to see some of the old characters returning throughout but revealing anymore would spoil the plot. For those interested in the series’ cannon, the story fits well with the original trilogy without any glaring errors or leaps of imagination.
After finishing the story mode you gain access to a level select that allows you to play any level again. However, to choose a different difficulty you will need to first beat the story mode on the harder settings. An ultra hardcore arcade mode gives you only one credit to beat the entire game and provides a real robust challenge. The inclusion of a boss rush mode is a great touch and the battle mode makes a return. You and three other players can battle it out to decide who is king of the streets. There certainly is a lot to get your teeth into with several different ways to play.
The final mode is the much needed multiplayer. This game is more fun sharing the experience with others as anyone who has played this kind of game will know. You can play Streets of Rage 4 with four players mixing them between online and in house. The ability to play over the interwebs is a great inclusion although the servers did seem to have a few niggles at first. These will most likely be ironed out but did not have any real impact on the gameplay. The biggest issue seems to be around people dropping out of games that cause you to go exit the stage entirely.
While it is clear that you will have lots to finish and can enjoy this with your mates, how does it actually play? I was tentative watching the opening scenes and a little prayer to the video game gods for it to be good did pass my lips. It is fine, Streets of Rage 4 feels just like a Streets game should. Fun combat that is easy on the eyes with lots of ways to kill your foes. The combos, throws and leaping kicks are all present. The special moves have returned as have the weapons. You can breath a sigh of relief.
Anyone familiar with scrolling beat-em ups will feel right at home with Streets of rage 4. You jump and move combining both with the attacks. Each character has several special moves that deplete your health gauge. However, a novel feature is that you can regain the health by quickly attacking again. Fail to do this and the health is gone for good though. Spread throughout the levels are stars that can be picked up. These special items allow you to unleash a devastating power move that deals a huge dose of damage.
Each character has their own set of moves and they all play differently requiring a change of tactics. Series classics Axel, the standard tough guy, and Blaze, the feisty brunette, will be most familiar. They play just like they always have. Everything is in place with a few new moves added. The other two characters, Cherry and Floyd, are based on Skate and Max from Streets 2. The character balance is excellent and none of them feel overpowered or too fast. You will want to play the game through as all of them but you can switch to a different character after each story stage.
The biggest difference from the previous entries is the new combo system. To achieve a high score you must string hits, throws and specials together. Your combo ends if you are struck by an enemy or you go too long between attacks. Mastering this system is vital as extra lives are only awarded for high scores. The game does not give you any information about the combo system but those willing to experiment will notice you can juggle enemies. Bouncing them off walls or each other to keep combos going will keep the high score junkies happy. There is a purposeful depth to the fighting mechanics that only starts to unlock with practice.
The controls are tight and you feel as though your every command is represented. There is no real need to button bash but the game does a good job of keeping up with attacks when the screen is filled with foes. The only issue we found was needing to slow down the inputs of the combo finishers but this was more a learning curve than a problem. Each hit feels solid and there is real enjoyment drop kicking and launching enemies. The feel of Streets of Rage 4’s controls is spot on. The developers could not have done anything more to recreate that authentic Streets experience without risking losing the soul of the game. The one snag I noticed was having to find a sweet spot to pick items up, I throw my weapon many times instead of picking up cash or food.
Those of us that have enjoyed this series when it was first released have been treated to something special. Streets of Rage 4 delivers on the gameplay front with vibrant levels, cool enemies and tough bosses. The obvious love the developers have for the series has thankfully shone through and your nostalgia gland will be squeezed. However, to say it is a miss-mash of the previous games with new elements would be doing it a disservice. It takes everything from the originals and adds its own ideas to create a fresh experience. It may not have the classic gameplay of earlier entries but blends its new features seemingly while keeping the heart of the series intact.
While the gameplay is top notch the presentation of the game will divide the fans. The new cel-shaded, anime-esque, art is an acquired taste. It could be that staunch fans will simply be unable to accept it but it is animated well and is bold. The graphics are sharp and stand out if a little garish in places. The backgrounds are jaw dropping but some of the environments lean heavy on Streets 3’s look. Some will argue that the more gritty feel of the first two games would have made a better choice of style. It was always going to be an uphill battle but there is a balance between retaining the old look while freshening it up enough to appeal to new gamers.
Those of us who have been around the block must appreciate that Streets of Rage 4 is its own game and not a remake or modified fan port. The art style is certainly different but somewhere in there is Streets of Rage. Look close enough at the details and it has all the tell tale signs. Run down back streets, disused toilet blocks and battles on a bridge as well as an elevator. The addition of a few, unlockable, pixel sprites from the original games is a great touch and adds another dollop of nostalgia. There are plenty of Easter Eggs to look out for during the levels and many of the old enemies make a return. There are a few secrets hidden away that will give older gamers some real wow moments as well.
One thing that has to be done right when making a new Streets of Rage game is the soundtrack. It is widely considered that Yozu Kishiro’s soundtrack for the second instalment of the series is one of gaming’s finest. Critics and fans alike will point to Streets of Rage 2 as setting a benchmark in just how good music can be in a video game. It is catchy, pumping and compliments the fierce action perfectly. The fact he has lent a hand to the development team for Streets of Rage 4 is a master stroke. It was so important he had some input and the results are good. Not amazing but good.
The new soundtrack holds up well with a good mix of pumping base and tension building as you progress. It is smooth with a modern production style and may lack some of the urgency from Streets 2’s soundtrack. It will not please some fans but trying to strike a balance to create a killer soundtrack was always going to be difficult. The saving grace is a remixed soundtrack of the original games is unlocked early on. This mash up of tracks from the Mega Drive and Master System titles has been remixed and sounds as glorious as it ever did. If you want to hit the nostalgia juices simply turning this on brings everything flooding back.
The developers have gone the extra mile in including both soundtracks with the added guidance of Kishiro. The only issue we had with the new soundtrack was the balance between speeds. Sometimes it feels slow in places but again this is down to the fact we already have an expectation. Trying to not compare it to games from 25 years ago that we love is hard but we must judge it on its own merit. Perhaps enabling a mix of both the old and new in tandem would have worked but we should not grumble.
It is worth trying the new music before deciding on which you prefer. It may take time for the new tracks to sink in and only time will tell if Streets of Rage 4 will be remembered for its music. The grunts and hit effects are spot on though, the effects have that Streets feel as do the sporadic voices bellowed out for some of the moves. I felt right at home, the classic whacks and pounds have returned and i found myself leaning into the combos as they grew. Keeping the sound effects true to the originals could be seen as playing it safe but actually allows cautious fans to slip in gently.
Streets of Rage 4 has provided exactly what Sega fans needed. A robust beat-em up with fresh ideas without straying too far from a winning formula. There are enough modes to keep you coming back for a long time and with the additional multiplayer you can relive the action with friends online or at home. The developers have achieved what at first appeared an impossible task. Trying to strike a balance between the old and new in an attempt to please everyone.
It may not be a series high, Streets 2 still holds that mantle for me. But for a modern game, in a sea of other action games this stands out. Fun, fast and just the right amount of difficulty. It will not please everyone but with time it will hopefully be seen as classic. Streets of Rage 4 will appeal to high score junkies, those seeking depth in the gameplay and anyone looking for a quick blast. We can only hope that with this, Sonic Mania and the Panzer Dragoon remake Sega continue to allow third parties to develop titles for our most beloved games.