No Straight Roads Preview: Rock vs. The Evils of Techno Music
I played a short sample of No Straight Roads last year at E3. It wasn't much more than a vertical slice back then, consisting of a single boss fight, but it had a lot going for it just on the basis of raw style. It's a crazy cartoon of a beat-'em-up, where every frame looks like a high-concept music video.
No Straight Roads is a passion project from Wan Hazmer, a Malaysian game designer who previously worked at Square Enix as lead designer on Final Fantasy 15. Inspired by Psychonauts and Jet Grind Radio, he had the bare bones of the game half sketched out before he left SE in 2017 and put together an international, distributed team under the name Metronomik to make it happen.
In Vinyl City, music is both big business and clean energy, courtesy of the NSR corporation. Musicians compete to prove they have what it takes to power up the city. You play as Mayday and Zeke, the two members of Bunk Bed Junction, the last rock band in Vinyl.
One night, Mayday and Zeke show up for an audition at NSR's Lights Out program, but they get unceremoniously kicked out the door for being rock musicians. EDM, they're told, is the only music worth talking about.
On their way home, though, Mayday and Zeke find out that their performance, despite the genre, was more than powerful enough to keep the lights on. They're subsequently caught in a blackout, which cuts power to every part of the city besides the NSR buildings, leaving ordinary people in the dark despite the surfeit of power.
On top of that, when the lead judge Tatiana makes a public announcement specifically to talk trash about rock music, Mayday decides the time has come for a revolution. EDM must fall before the power of rock.
Hazmer told me at E3 that No Straight Roads was made by designing its soundtrack first, then building the game up around it. On paper, it's a straightforward, colorful brawler, where you can play it co-op with a buddy or single-player with Mayday and Zeke as a tag-team, but the music and animation are carrying the show.
You fight with Zeke's drumsticks or Mayday's guitar, doing simple chain combos, and you can collect notes from the environment to use a ranged attack. Mayday is the power hitter, delivering more raw damage per hit, but Zeke delivers quick combo strings that are easier to cancel into a dodge.
The trick is that almost everything in NSR works a little-to-a-lot better if you can do it to the soundtrack's beat, whether it's dodging an enemy's shockwaves, parrying a projectile back at its user, or dodging a boss's fusillade. You can get by without paying too much attention to the beat, which is what I have to do, as I am substantially rhythm-challenged, but the game does feel a lot better when you're moving and fighting along with the music.
It's difficult to convey, in fact, how well the game works when it hits its stride. In bigger fights, where Mayday and Zeke are up against another musician, the game turns to a round of dueling soundtracks. The better you're doing, the harder Bunk Bed Junction's rock themes overpower your opponent's EDM-fueled beats, and back again.
Between that and the constantly evolving visuals, this was one of my big picks coming out of E3 last year. The gameplay's okay, but the presentation is what gets and keeps your attention.
Besides, not every game makes you crazy musical rock rebels trying to overthrow the tyrannical dominance of electronic dance music. Sometimes, I appreciate a game just for the sake of the sentences it allows me to construct.
No Straight Roads is due out on August 25 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC via the Epic Games Store. Stay tuned for more coverage, including our review, as the launch date approaches.