Streets of Rage 4 | Principal Platforms: PC (Version tested), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | Developer: DotEmu, Lizardcube, Guard Crush Games | Publisher: DotEmu | Genre: Beat ’em up | Year: 2020

Whilst its boring soundtrack and occasionally contentious design choices hurt it, Streets of Rage 4 has just enough old-school swagger to uphold its franchise's bare-knuckle legacy.
Streets of Rage 4 Key Art

Streets of Rage 4

With our real world now firmly locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of a new scrolling beat ’em up bearing one of the most famous names in the entire genre will be a real treat for today’s frustrated gamer. After all, Streets of Rage 4 lets us once again take to the streets! And what awaits us but another crime-stricken city swarming with punks in need of a good battering? Well, that’s mostly it really.

If all you’re expecting of Streets of Rage 4 is a straightforward nostalgic romp with references galore, then chances are you’ll walk away satisfied. Although Sega has not been directly involved with the project, DotEmu & co. have crafted something evocative of the Mega Drive classics whilst still adding their own nuance to the basics. For the most part, the blend is swell.

This is a mechanically solid brawler with a brand new combo system that will see players juggling enemies to big damage and even bigger points. The rank-based scoring system is heavily influenced by these combos; forcing skilled players to bob and weave in between scores of punks, trying their damnedest not to get hit, whilst also maintaining a long chain of punches, kicks and suplexes. There is an entertaining risk/reward element to how this loop plays out, but if you don’t care about getting your S-ranks, there’s still plenty of casual fun to be had too.

The streets are controlled by two insidious heirs to the crime lord’s syndicate, but longtime fans needn’t worry because our core cast of heroes (Adam, Axel, Blaze) join forces with two colourful newcomers, Cherry (a spunky guitar-wielding teen) and Floyd (a cyborg bruiser), to take back the city and look good while doing it. That latter feat is made extra easy because of the game’s incredible visual design. Every character sprite, projectile and special move looks fantastic, and the hand-drawn stage backgrounds likewise benefit from the same level of detail. Whatever else you can say about the game, you can’t deny that it’s a real looker.

Elsewhere the presentation is similarly strong. The level select and online 2-player mode are welcome modernisations to the overall package, and they’re joined by a local multiplayer mode supporting up to four simultaneous players. I completed a 3-player session using Steam’s new Remote Play feature that streams local multiplayer sessions over the network. I’m happy to report Steam’s tech worked quite well, though managing a game like this is pure chaos when you have so many sprites visible at once.

Streets of Rage was always a series that worked best when it was shared though. It’s also the reason why the achievements list — that features many grindy challenges exclusive to solo play — is so annoying. The progression system that unlocks extra characters is similarly uninteresting, and the additional game modes that include a boss rush and PvP are the sort of thing that most players will try once and then forget about.

These concerns are secondary to what really matters: the moment-by-moment action on the titular streets. This is where Streets of Rage 4 will delight some fans and annoy others. The gameplay regresses to the slower combat stylings of Streets of Rage II where the majority of characters can’t run or dodge. It would be more beginner friendly if it wasn’t for the enemies who have a vastly improved wake-up game and who will often power through your attacks with their ‘hyper armour’ that makes them briefly immune to staggering.

Greater emphasis is placed on anticipating counterattacks and looking for openings. Standing over the prone body of a punk in hopes of punching them when they stand back up is a commonly punished tactic. If you’re an old hand at this series, it will take you some time to break that mental conditioning. I saw a comment from one player who likened the action here to a turn-based affair, which is a fairly accurate way of thinking about the newly methodical ebb and flow of combat.

Also troubling for beginners is the fact that special moves reserve health upon every use, even if they fail to connect. This reserved health can be replenished — Bloodborne style — by landing follow-up hits on enemies or objects. If you get smacked before your reserved health gets topped up, however, you lose it for good. Defensive specials can no longer break you out of enemy combos, and offensive specials can also be interrupted by enemies who possess higher priority attacks. Special moves therefore present a significant risk for any player not yet accustomed to the exact attack patterns of the enemy roster, which can feel needlessly restrictive.

Streets of Rage 4 Gameplay Screenshot

Streets of Rage 4 is a gorgeous game with many expressive character designs. The lack of bonus costumes for the playable cast seems like a missed opportunity though.

Now, it’s probably fair to say that I’ve played the various Streets of Rage games hundreds of times. And yet, even I spent my first two plays of Streets of Rage 4 feeling frustrated. The best advice for those in a similar situation is to remember the old line, “forget everything you know”. Old exploits and routines that worked so well in previous games can’t be used as reliably here, so you need to get out of those bad habits quickly if you hope to enjoy the game longterm.

It’s not all bad news on the accessibility front though. The new super moves are a visually spectacular way of clearing screens in a hurry, and each level is generous with health pickups meaning there are far fewer stretches where survival seems hopeless. And in another curious twist, I’m actually of the opinion that the boss battles get easier the closer you get to the end.

Perhaps that speaks to a slight disappointment with the boss battles in general. None of them feel too cheap or annoying to fight, which is great, but some of them have overly familiar designs or concepts we’ve already seen in other games. A nice exception to this is Estel; a charismatic boss who is destined to become a popular new character for the series. I’m surprised the developers didn’t make more of Estel considering her intriguing “frenemy” status, but then Streets of Rage 4 isn’t one for storytelling.

It might seem an odd thread to tug on, but I wanted to see more of a story here. The boringly-named antagonists look like anime heartthrobs rather than hardened criminals, and their associated motives and cutscenes feature dialogue befitting a particularly lackluster fan fiction. For all of its faults, the storytelling aspects are something that Streets of Rage 3 did pretty well with, so to see another regression in this new material is a bit disappointing.

The game also goes a pinch too long. There are 12 stages in total (up from 8). This means a complete session for inexperienced players clocks in at roughly 2 hours, which is quite exhausting for a game of this style. The level select feature eases things a bit, but the Arcade mode that asks players to beat the game without checkpoints is where the stakes get more exciting.

The developers have taken some inspiration from BomberGames’ sublime Streets of Rage Remake here and there, and rightly so. But if only they’d pinched the idea of branching stage routes. That could have been a very welcome way of shortening things and improving variety.

Streets of Rage 4 Gameplay Screenshot

You’ll encounter many familiar foes on the punk-infested streets. A good chunk of the newer additions, e.g. the crooked cops who carry tasers, have seriously annoying attacks with minuscule dodge windows. It adds to the feeling that Streets of Rage 4 is a game primarily aimed at enthusiasts.

And whilst we’re talking comparisons, let’s touch on the game’s soundtrack. Music has always been a major part of the Streets of Rage experience and DotEmu & co. have gone all in on this by hiring an impressive ensemble of talent to compose the tunes in question. The music is energetic and occasionally reminiscent of past glories (series veterans Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima return to work a few tracks), but it can also sound a little — dare I even say it — boring.

This is a subjective topic and I readily admit that the bar was unfairly high to begin with, but one thing worth highlighting is how the music behaves differently in Streets of Rage 4. Each stage has its own theme that’s broken into segments. The music changes as players advance through a stage, starting off slow before ramping up in tempo. At higher difficulties, the stage sections last longer and the music often gets stuck in a very repetitive loop. So even though this new electronic music suits Streets of Rage’s natural fondness for contemporary dance numbers, it can sometimes come across as a bit flat during play. I still look forward to purchasing the soundtrack separately and giving it a more intimate listen, so maybe my impression on this issue will change.

In any case, something I will concede to is the main soundtrack being infinitely better than the dreaded retro soundtrack that can be enabled in the options menu. Almost none of the included tunes here suit the stage that they’re attached to and there are several 8-bit versions used that sound absurdly out of place in this modern context.

I wouldn’t say Streets of Rage 4 is a slave to nostalgia necessarily, but it does indulge in excesses like these enough times to cause irritation. The worst instance is the unlockable retro characters who retain their highly pixelated appearance and limited move sets — a far cry from the well-crafted revamps of those same characters found in Streets of Rage Remake. And here was me thinking that Estel might have been a hidden fighter. No such luck!

With all of this taken into account, there’s a sense that the developers shackled themselves just a little too closely to their Nineties template. Streets of Rage 4 is certainly a faithful sequel overall. It looks like a knockout and is still capable of providing a good time, it’s just exciting to think of how much better things could get from here.