Streets of Rage 4 Review: Innovation Rather Than Imitation
I was expecting a lot less than I got with Streets of Rage 4.
It’s been 26 years and almost five full console generations since the last Streets of Rage game, and like most of Sega’s original IP these days, it seemed like SoR was going to stay in the dustbin. I figured the best we’d ever get was some half-hearted nostalgia cash-in, like how Konami tried to farm out most of its B-tier series to small indie studios back in the Xbox 360/PS3 days.
When I first heard of it, that’s exactly what Streets of Rage 4 sounded like. Sega wasn’t developing it; instead, they were letting a trio of French and Canadian developers – Lizardcube, Guard Crush, and Dotemu – do it for them. I played the sixth stage on the PAX West show floor last year, and while the gameplay felt like it was there, I still wasn’t sure what to expect from the full version.
As it turns out, Streets of Rage 4 is the best kind of revival. It absolutely revels in the franchise’s roots, but the designers have put a lot of thought into what does and does not work in the old arcade beat-‘em-up formula.
My biggest criticism of attempted genre revivals from the last few years, like Fight’N Rage and The Takeover, is that they tend to go so hard on replicating the Authentic Arcade Experience that they also include the drawbacks. Streets of Rage 4 actually tries to shift the model forward, by changing up how the combat system works.
I do have to ding it a bit for not explaining that system as well as it could, though. I get the feeling you’re going to see a lot of salt online about SoR4, and it’s mostly going to be down to its lack of an effective tutorial.
Streets of Rage 4 Review: Innovation Rather Than Imitation
It’s been 10 years since Axel and Blaze’s last city-wide vigilante spree. Their nemesis, Mr. X, is gone for good, but his twin children, who answer to Mr. and Ms. Y, have risen to take his place.
Axel and Blaze set out to track the Y twins down. They’re joined by Floyd, a cybernetically-enhanced brawler who is blatantly Jax Briggs from Mortal Kombat (although Jax never had the Proton Cannon, so that's something); Cherry, a guitar-wielding musician who’s the daughter of Adam Hunter from the original Streets of Rage; and Adam, who rejoins the playable roster after you clear a few chapters in Story Mode.
It’s an excuse plot, of course. The entire thing is a lengthy series of reasons why you have to beat the living hell out of several hundred assorted gangbangers, bent cops, bikers, and the occasional inexplicable cyberninja.
The city of Streets of Rage is still a decaying hellhole, where it’s 10 years after SoR3 but is inexplicably still 1992, somehow. Every stray door, manhole, alleyway, and rooftop is occupied by a dozen homicidal nerds who dress like backup dancers in the Funky Bunch. You can tell the level designers had a lot of fun depicting this kind of ‘80s-movie urban squalor.
The first stage of Streets of Rage 4 has training wheels on, so you can get used to the mechanics. It’s a lot fairer than a lot of throwback brawlers like this, with health pickups regularly showing up as you progress through each level. Your characters have a familiar assortment of basic attacks, including throws, slams, trusty jump kicks, and screen-clearing specials that the game calls “Star Moves.”
The big innovation, however, is the addition of an extra attack, which is mapped to the “special” button. When you press it by itself, it’s a defensive move, which clears some space and gives you i-frames. Press it while you’re pushing forward, and it’s instead an offensive move, which varies widely by character.
Blaze does a double palm strike that knocks enemies flying, Floyd grabs an enemy from a fair distance away, Cherry slams an enemy with her guitar, and Axel… well, Axel grew up and went the rest of the way towards being a scruffy-bearded Ken Masters, so he Dragon Punches guys.
Seriously. Axel’s “Star Move” super in SoR4 is the Shinryuken. (And Adam's is the Power Geyser.) It’s pretty blatant. The point behind the special button, though, is to give you invincibility frames on demand.
There are a lot of attacks in Streets of Rage 4, even from standard enemies, that are difficult or impossible to simply dodge on reaction. Instead, you’re supposed to watch for the wind-up and muscle through it with a special move. If you’ve figured this out, the game suddenly opens right up; if not, you get stopped dead by the riot cops in Stage 2.
SoR4 actively punishes you for button-mashing. The special attacks cost a bit of life every time you use them, but the loss is temporary; you can replenish the lost life a bit at a time with every hit you land afterward. If you get hit before you’ve regained it, though, you take normal damage and lose the temporary health on top of it.
With Axel and Floyd in particular, both of whom have very spammable special attacks, it’s a risk vs. reward scenario; you can gamble an entire health bar on your next combo, but if you take a stray hit afterward, you’re dead.
It’s easy to overlook. There’s a quick and dirty tutorial in the main menu, labeled “Fighting Tips” and designed like it's an arcade cabinet moveslist, but it isn’t deliberately highlighted like most of SoR4’s other mechanics. It took me a couple of tries before I realized what I was “supposed” to be doing, and once I did, the game started to feel much fairer.
In retrospect, Streets of Rage 4 feels like a long response to the criticism that arcade-style brawlers like this are mostly about button-mashing. The game is set up specifically to punish you for being on autopilot, as many enemies have invincibility frames or fast-moving attacks of their own. If you know their patterns and can armor through them with your special, though, you turn the tide at once.
I like how it feels. I’ve played a lot of games lately that played like they were more interested in honoring their franchise’s history than actually doing their own thing – here I side-eye Doom Eternal – and I was really expecting that from Streets of Rage 4.
There is some nostalgia bait here, like being able to unlock Axel, Blaze, and Adam’s original pixel art from the first game as what are basically new playable characters. There’s just as much of the game, though, that feels like an extended love letter to fighting games and brawlers as a whole, ranging from Final Fight to Double Dragon to King of Fighters and beyond.
You can play it a few times in a row and spot what looks like a different shout-out or Easter egg every time, and while I’m not sure how much of it I’m imagining – like how the karate mini-bosses look a lot like KOF13-era Takuma Sakazaki – it’s clearly all coming out of how much the designers love the genre as a whole.
The soundtrack’s further proof of that. Yeah, Dotemu and friends got Yuzo Koshiro back as a composer, because you couldn’t call it Streets of Rage at all without him, but he came alongside a supergroup of Japanese chiptune composers.
Hideki Naganuma (Jet Set Radio), Yoko Shimomura (Final Fight, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy 15) and Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden, The Messenger) have all contributed to Streets of Rage 4’s soundtrack, and all of them are tapping straight into the weird dirty trance and electrofunk that got the SoR series at least some of its fan following.
The game does start wearing out its welcome by its end. Once it starts introducing mechanics like a wrecking ball that you can kick into enemies, it's running out of steam, and it all ends in a final boss that's too obnoxious by half. Still, 10 good stages out of 12 isn't bad.
Streets of Rage 4 Review — The Bottom Line
- The soundtrack. That’s it
- Once you get a handle on defensive moves, you start to feel like a badass
- I beat a guy with another guy and it was fun
- The European-comics art style is genuinely cool and tasteful
- Crucial defensive moves could be explained a lot better in play
- The last stage is kinda awful…
- …mostly because of the last boss
I was pleasantly surprised by Streets of Rage 4 once I figured it out. It plays a bit of a trick on you if you’re a fan of this sort of game, where you fall into your old patterns almost immediately, but the game is built to smack you down if you do. Instead, it’s got a simple combat system with some real depth to it, and which only gets more fun as you add players in co-op.
Maybe as long as the Lizardcube/Dotemu/Guard Crush crew is at it, they can rescue a few more Sega franchises from the ash heap. I wouldn’t mind seeing what they could do with, say, Eternal Champions.
[Note: A copy of Streets of Rage 4 was provided by Dotemu for the purpose of this review.]