The closest thing to Jet Set Radio and PaRappa the Rapper is a new indie rhythm action game that may be the most upbeat game of the year.
You could argue that in recent years, games have become more similar to each other, even identikit. That isn’t an allegation that could be levelled at No Straight Roads, though. Created by an indie developer called Metronomik, based in Malaysia, it resurrects the almost forgotten rhythm action genre and in the process evokes the much-missed likes of Jet Set Radio and PaRappa The Rapper.
No Straight Roads follows the fortunes of Mayday and Zuke, guitarist and drummer respectively, who have formed a rock band call Bunk Bed Junction and are seeking fame and stardom in Vinyl City. However, there’s a problem: Vinyl City is in thrall to the titular megacorp NSR, which has been converting all music in the city into power, developing an energy monopoly in the process and all but outlawing anything but the cheesiest EDM (Electronic Dance Music). So it’s up to the pair to fight back in the name of rock, and return control of the power supply to the ordinary citizens.
The way in which their quest plays out is highly memorable – both in terms of the story, visuals, and gameplay. No Straight Roads is a visual feast, with a gloriously individual, ultra-colourful cartoon style look that nods as much towards the likes of Tank Girl as to anime. And its storyline is terrifically bonkers: Mayday and Zuke start the game auditioning for a talent show, but are, naturally, stitched up by the EDM-obsessed judges, each of whom plays gigs in a different district of the city.
So the pair take them down one by one, essentially in a series of multi-stage boss battles. No Straight Roads’ gameplay inclines more towards action than rhythm: the bosses launch their attacks in time to the music, so you must use your ears as well as eyes to avoid incoming assaults – health-preservation is at least as important as getting your attacks right.
Mayday and Zuke each have a melee attack and an auto-targeted shot: the latter can only be loosed off when objects they have meleed yield ammo for collection. An element of platforming creeps in, too: robots will launch percussion attacks that you must jump to avoid, for example.
No Straight Roads isn’t just a series of boss battles strung together, though, there’s a role-playing like element of character-building which allows you to take advantage of temporary buffs like increased health or melee power via stickers. You can also equip an increasing variety of special moves to the triggers (generally one offensive and one health-regenerating), as well as unlock new abilities.
You find those, along with various collectibles and an ever-growing cast of helpfully supportive characters, as you explore Vinyl City – every time you defeat a boss, you open up a new district. NSR’s rapaciousness means that the large swathes of the city in which ordinary people live are starved of power, and as you collect a commodity called Qwasa you can power up areas of each district, earning rewards as you go.
There are also mini-bosses to defeat who are outside of the NSR hierarchy and present you with their own distinctive collections of mini-games. Exploring Vinyl City’s nooks and crannies is surprisingly fun and rewarding, and as you progress you unlock, for example, a double jump and the ability to climb ladders, which in turn opens up new areas.
Gameplay-wise, No Straight Roads doesn’t do anything radically different to what we’ve seen before, yet its off-beat conventions, plus the way it combines moves, leaves it feeling commendably fresh and original. Its music is excellent, as should be the case for a music-based game; many of its tracks will lodge in your brain as earworms. To an extent, it undermines its own premise, since the EDM used during boss battles is way more listenable and melodic than its mind-numbing real-life equivalent.
At times, No Straight Roads betrays its indie origins with the odd detail which looks or feels a bit ragged around the edges – in one boss battle, for example, there is an element of platforming which feels incongruously clunky, and both difficulty levels and checkpointing can be somewhat erratic.
If you die during a boss battle, you get one chance to resume from where you left off, or else you must start from the beginning, which can be annoying. Every boss battle performance of yours is graded, in time-honoured style, and if you resurrect after dying you’ll have to swallow a reduced grade. But you can replay the boss battles, with extra twists if you want, at any time.
Despite the cheesy band name adopted by Mayday and Zuke, No Straight Roads manages to avoid descending into complete tweeness – thanks in part to some nicely observed parodies of real-life famous people such as notorious talent-show Svengalis and rappers with egos the size of a planet. The occasional hint of Malaysian slang also often draws a smile.
No Straight Roads is very much a feel-good game, designed to put a smile on your face rather than induce too much deep thought. But it achieves that aim in admirably distinctive fashion.
Unless you’re old enough, or sufficiently retro-curious, to have played the likes of Jet Set Radio or PaRappa The Rapper its gameplay will feel utterly unlike anything you’ve played before. If you’re looking for fun escapism that will put a smile on your face – and we could all do with some of that at the moment – No Straight Roads certainly fits the bill.
No Straight Roads review summary
In Short: A wonderfully cheerful rhythm action game that channels the best of Jet Set Radio and Parappa the Rapper but still maintains its own distinctive style.
Pros: Fresh-feeling rhythm action gameplay, mad storyline, and superb visual style. Frequently amusing, with some clever role-playing style elements.
Cons: Difficulty levels can jump around and inadequate checkpointing. Occasional, minor visual glitches.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Sold Out
Release Date: 25th August 2020
Age Rating: 12
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