I have had a chance to play Streets of Rage 4 at no less than four gaming preview events and demos since it was announced in early 2018. Before that, as a Sega Genesis player, I played through each of the originals. I’ve also been around the block through a wide library of beat’em-ups, from the well-known classics like Altered Beast, Final Fight, X-Men Arcade, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the more obscure like Battle Circuit, Metamorphic Force, and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara.
I’ve seen a lot in this genre, and I’ve tasted Streets of Rage 4 before, and yet I still came away surprised and delighted at the sheer depth of everything it offered. It’s not just a comeback of a classic series or a love letter. Streets of Rage 4 might be one of the pinnacles of the beat’em-up genre, seamlessly mixing arcade and co-op fun with absolute depth of visuals, a good soundtrack, and fantastic overall fighting design.
Life after X
If you know Streets of Rage, then you might know full well of previous boss Mr. X and his nefarious group, The Syndicate. Unfortunately for him, he’s been killed for good. However, ten years after the events of Streets of Rage 3, Wood Oak City’s criminal underworld has new management. The Y Twins, X’s children, have taken over and gathered both familiar and new faces for a fresh scheme to take over the city. Series protagonists Axel Stone and Blaze Fielding return, joined by Cherry Hunter (Adam from Streets of Rage 1’s daughter and Skate from SOR 2 and 3’s niece), Floyd Iraia (Dr. Zan from Streets of Rage 3’s apprentice), and later on, fellow original Adam Hunter himself. Together, they’re throwing down once more and brawling their way through a city of Syndicate henchman and gangland goons on their way to the Y Twins.
Right from the get-go, we have to talk about the look of Streets of Rage 4. Everything is done in a hand drawn and animated style that just looks absolutely gorgeous. And more than that, everything looks like it has age to it. Axel’s rocking the muscle gut and classic sneakers while Blaze looks more mature in her usual dress and stylish jacket. Adam is also far cooler and stoic compared to his more intense original appearances. Everyone else throughout Wood Oak City has similar thoughtful redesigns going. That's not even including new characters like Floyd and Cherry and enemies like Diva that all bring a satisfyingly punk, yet polished aesthetic to the game.
Every attack, animation, street, and facility, both dirty and clean, creates what is just a gorgeous arrangement of action and animation from top to bottom. Add a stylish soundtrack that mixes bits of classic Streets of Rage tracks and chiptune aesthetic with a delicious array of solid and thumping background beats and you’ve got a cornucopia of good visuals and sounds to make this whole experience complete.
Far more than a punch and kick
I’ve mentioned this before in my PAX South 2020 preview where I got to try Adam for the first time: Every one of Streets of Rage 4’s characters have a depth of mechanics to them that can be compared to characters in a technical fighting game. That’s the sauce in any good brawler, but as I played through Streets of Rage 4 more and more, I constantly found myself impressed by just how much each character can do. The game tells you how to do the basics. Each character has a regular combo attack, grab attacks and throws, various specials, life-draining power moves, and limited super specials.
What it doesn’t tell you is the real in-depth stuff, like how Blaze has attacks that can bounce downed enemies off the ground for excellent jungling or how Cherry can jump onto enemies’ shoulders to wail on them with quick punches before performing a headscissors leg throw. The level at which you can become acquainted with a character’s moveset and learn how to handle both one-on-one and multi-target fights rivals the grind found in full-on technical fighting games. Even most of the enemy bosses have a sort of depth to them that almost makes me think they could be programmed as player characters with a bit of extra work (I can’t help but feel that some notable and fleshed out cameos should be unlockable characters). Whatever character fits your style in Streets of Rage 4, or if you want to learn them all, there’s a ton to explore with each character of the main roster and it’s satisfying when you put a working string of attacks together for big damage against everything the game throws at you.
And that brings up one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of Streets of Rage 4: the hit counter. You’ll find that the longer you can chain attacks together against multiple enemies, the more you grow a bonus that can be cashed in for points if you stop attacking and aren’t attacked for a moment. Take a hit during your string and the combo is broken and the points are lost. Points in Streets of Rage 4 aren’t just a matter of personal pride in a high score. Getting enough earns you an extra life for survival, plus extra lives at the end of a level are turned into points for an ever accumulating counter that unlocks extra content in the game.
The challenge then becomes stringing attacks as much as you can while dodging enemies trying to break that string. It’s nerve-wracking when your counter gets high, heartbreaking when a stray enemy punch takes it from you, and glorious when you cash in a huge combo. This is the kind of play that will separate the survivors from the masters in Streets of Rage 4 and I can’t wait to see what kind of points the absolute best players can net from master combo runs with the various characters.
After the credits roll
Streets of Rage 4 is sizeable in its length, but it’s still an arcade brawler and that means the experience eventually comes to an end boss and some credits. It’s got 12 pretty thick levels that will take quite some learning to overcome with style and good flow. At my absolute best, I was about to knock out a full run in about 1 hour and 39 minutes, but someone can easily top that I’m sure. Even so, beating the game isn’t the end. First off, there’s the aforementioned goodies that can be unlocked with points. If you’ve followed Streets of Rage 4, you may know that retro characters have been included in the game.
The entire playable rosters, plus some suprises, from Streets of Rage 1, 2, and 3 can be unlocked and played in any mode by earning points, hence why keeping those lives and building up that combo counter matters so much. It’s surprisingly fun to take the pixelated cast against the gorgeous enemies and backdrops of SOR4 and see how far things have come, but some of the characters are also just hilariously viable (SOR1 Axel has reach and power that puts other modern characters to shame). Unlocking these characters is quite fun and happens as you play most of the modes in the game.
There’s other unlockables that don’t come from points too. Beating the game once unlocks Arcade Mode, in which you have five lives and no continues, Mania difficulty, which is harder than Hardest difficulty, and Boss Rush, in which you can fight all bosses in a survival gauntlet. There’s also a Battle Mode, which allows you and fellow players to duke it out versus style. Finally, There’s a collection of art, concepts, character biographies, and more that are just fun to look through once you’ve beaten the game.
Streets of Rage 4 has a lot of multiplayer options. Offline can be played with up to four players and online can be played with two, whether you’re doing co-op or versus in Battle Mode. It’s quite cool to be able to have a game like this in which we can so readily throw down with friends again, but it also brings up one of my very few gripes about Streets of Rage 4. You can’t play Battle Mode at all unless you have a second player handy. Now that might not seem like a big deal, but I kind of wish there was at least a Versus AI option to have fun with it in a solo setting. Heck, having bots fill out co-op roles in the main game would be kind of fun too if we wanted to have some back-up, but couldn’t get a friend on board at any given time. It’s slightly wistful thinking, but also a bummer that Battle Mode has to be multiplayer.
Bare Knuckle is burning brighter than ever
It was a long wait to get here where Streets of Rage 4 was finally in our hands. Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games played it so close to the chest through years of development, even as they continued to wow players left and right with the glimpses they were showing. Was it worth the wait after all this time? 1000 times over, yes. Streets of Rage 4 is a fantastic amalgam of visuals, sound, and function in a genre that doesn’t get near as much love as it used to see. Even though I thought I knew exactly what I was walking into, it still found ways to surprise and delight me constantly. Its challenge is unending and the ceiling for the best players will likely be raised for a good long time. If it’s the last beat’em-up game I play or watch others play for another five years, I can absolutely deal with that because I’ll still likely be having fun with it even then.
This review is based on a PC digital copy provided by the publisher. Streets of Rage 4 is set to release in the US for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam on April 30, 2020.
Streets of Rage 4
- Awesomely varied cast of characters & enemies
- Great soundtrack
- Deeply satisfying fighting mechanics
- Plenty of unlocks, modes, and replayability
- Online 2 & offline 4-player co-op
- A great risk/reward scoring & combo system
- Unlockable retro characters are absurd & fun
- No AI options in Battle Mode or co-op
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Streets of Rage 4 review - The best Bare Knuckle's ever been