Mayhem Brawler Review: The Streets are Only Sort of Annoyed
The first time you see Hero Concept's Mayhem Brawler, you might think it's a fan game for Streets of Rage 4. Frankly, that's not an unfair assumption. There's a lot about its presentation and gameplay that makes it come off like it wouldn't exist if SoR4 hadn't done so well.
That's fine, really. There's always been a small but consistent thread of '90s nostalgia running through indie game development — The Takeover, Fight'N Rage, River City Girls, etc. — and Streets of Rage 4 was always going to hit that scene like a bomb. Mayhem Brawler has, at the very least, chosen its role models correctly.
Mayhem Brawler Review: The Streets are Only Sort of Annoyed
That does make it a hard sell, though. While Mayhem Brawler isn't a one-to-one match to SoR4, it's nowhere near as polished. It's bogged down by a number of petty annoyances, and it's not up to SoR4's high standards, even if I had more fun than I expected running through it with a couple of buddies.
Mayhem Brawler is worth a look if you've played a bunch of other beat'em ups lately and you need just one more to fill that punchy niche in your heart, but there are a lot of other games I'd recommend before cracking into this one.
In Mayhem City, magic, monsters, and superhumans are all an accepted part of everyday life. When there's a problem, it's handled by Stronghold, a team of empowered police officers that seem to keep the peace through the use of incredible violence.
Its members are Trouble, a bearded dope with claws and a history of excessive force; Dolphin, who is what happens when a pro wrestler and a shark love each other very much; and the social-media-savvy and telekinetic Star.
A disturbance at the docks results in Trouble, Dolphin, and Star busting a smuggling operation, which then leads them to a plot where an unknown force has stolen a deceased superhuman's body with plans to turn her powers into a bomb.
It's an urban fantasy/superhero mashup told through the lens of American comics, with between-level cutscenes shown as hand-drawn, interactive still panels. The conceit is that you're playing through several issues of a comic called Mayhem, with plot branches presented as a choice between two upcoming pieces of cover art.
The gimmick is cool for an arcade game, and the levels are short enough that it gives Mayhem Brawler a fair amount of replay value as you explore all of its stages. The art design also goes out of its way to give every character and environment a lot of individual personality.
It doesn't quite all work, and part of it is just down to international confusion, I think. Mayhem Brawler is clearly supposed to be set somewhere in the United States, but Hero Concept is headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey, and clearly did not have an American do a localization pass on the script.
Some of the jokes are surprisingly funny, like Star's angry Twitter followers (she's trying so hard to be a good role model but her fans are not having it), but others end up as total non-sequitur or don't make any sense at all.
The rest of the problems are due to a truly peculiar storytelling choice. All three of the playable characters are experienced super-cops, who constantly refer to past events, old enemies, and supernatural politics like they know the audience has the Lonely Planet guide to Mayhem City open in their lap. You can generally put things together from context, but much of the story ends up feeling like you started a trilogy with its second book.
It plays out like what the American comics community sometimes calls "continuity porn," where it's pitched towards long-time readers and impenetrable to anyone else. And while that's a fairly good way to convey how it felt to read superhero comics in the '90s, it's just strange in a standalone video game.
You Have the Right to Remain Extremely Punchable
The actual gameplay of Mayhem Brawler should be instantly familiar if you've played any '90s, or '90s-styled, beat'em up. You've got a standard attack that leads into a combo string, a rushing attack, and a slap that grabs onto an enemy by moving into them.
Like Streets of Rage 4, every character has a special attack, which gives you a healthy number of invincibility frames on activation. But unlike the aforementioned title, this is governed by a meter under your health bar. That meter refills rapidly if you take damage, and can also be regenerated with pickups like coffee.
The special attack can be used to break enemy grabs and combo strings, and also serves as a weird sort of a comeback mechanic. If you're getting your head handed to you, you probably also have a full special attack meter, which gives you a little extra breathing room right when you need it most.
Slightly irritating is that as you move into the mid-game, every other enemy seems to have a grab and/or "vortex" combo string. On your first run through Mayhem Brawler, you'll get grabbed much more often than you've got meter to break it with, which gives the game the same deliberately unfair feeling as old arcade games.
You can also block, but I haven't found it particularly useful in a casual run. The attacks you'd most want to use it against don't seem to be blockable, and the rest of the time you'd be better off doing the old arcade beat-'em-up dodge and weave.
The enemies do have a lot of personality, which is a highlight. Hero Concept's gone out of its way to vary up its formula, so instead of being rushed by six clones of one guy, or palette swaps with different names, many of the rank-and-file enemies have distinct differences in their design.
You'll meet and beat up all sorts of lycanthropes, vampires, Blade-wannabe "half-bloods," spirits, genies, hired gunmen, and small-time wizards in streetwear. Among other things.
Armed enemies only drop their weapons once they're knocked out, but in exchange, the weapons in Mayhem Brawler are surprisingly powerful.
A baseball bat or crowbar only lasts for three or four hits, but that's enough to take out a standard enemy or shave a nice block of health off a boss. Guns are weaker per hit but inflict a status effect that causes a target to take bonus damage for a few seconds afterward.
I do like how Mayhem Brawler handles that kind of thing. Both players and enemies get icons over their heads when their statuses change, so you can tell at a glance if, for example, an attack is uninterruptible, or if an enemy has an invincible wake-up option. It's one thing I'd definitely appreciate being added to other beat'em ups, since it takes a lot of guesswork out of figuring out a strategy.
The stages are inconsistent, though, which gives Mayhem Brawler an uneven difficulty curve. The genies in particular are dramatically overtuned, with a body splash that seems to hit half the screen at once for an easy 25% damage.
It's also irritating that you're constantly dodging bullets, and that guns are consistently much less powerful in your hands than in an enemy's.
When I tried Mayhem Brawler on my own, I wasn't impressed due to all these petty annoyances. When I played with a few friends, though, I was surprised by how much the experience improved. While a few stages are still meat grinders, it's clear that the whole game was designed with co-op in mind, and solo play was an afterthought at best.
Mayhem Brawler Review — The Bottom Line
- A fun, mostly functional arcade brawler
- 3-player co-op
- 3 unique characters with their own arsenals of moves
- Better-written than you might expect
- An entertaining and short multiplayer game
- Not much fun solo
- Strange balance issues
- A few janky animations
- Some of the jokes absolutely do not land
Mayhem Brawler isn't bad. It's a perfectly serviceable spin on the arcade beat-'em-up, set in a strangely built but interesting world. It's even genuinely funny at times, although the script could use some punching up. If you want a cheap indie for your next couch co-op session, you could do a lot worse.
Hero Concept's made a good setting and a passable game. A theoretical Mayhem Brawler 2, with less irritating combat, could be killer.
Its biggest problem is, simply, that Streets of Rage 4 exists. The only people to whom I could genuinely recommend Mayhem Brawler are those who've already beaten SoR4 to death and want to move on to something else. I'm not going to serve you a hamburger when you ordered steak, and I'm not going to recommend Mayhem Brawler over SoR4.
[Note: Hero Concept provided the copy of Mayhem Brawler used for this review.]