Rhythm gaming is near and dear to my heart. That's why No Straight Roads immediately caught my eye from the moment I laid eyes on it. It wore its inspirations proudly on its sleeve, and as I spoke with the developers about their enthusiasm for the way music and gaming come together, the smile never left my face. The demo was enthralling and addictive. I felt its potential surging through every single part of the PlayStation 4 build I tried out at E3 2019. A game that melds traditional action-adventure gaming with rhythm-based combat and a funky, colorful art style? What's not to love?
Fast forward to 2020, a year that's already taken so much from me, and I find that it's delivered a mediocre shell of the game I had been expecting. No Straight Roads involves rhythm elements on a basic level, but those aspects and nearly everything else is a massive letdown. While there are some shining moments, they're hardly enough to prop up the others. I can't speak for other console or PC versions, but the Nintendo Switch version I played feels like it could have been left a bit longer in the oven. But enough telling. It's time to get this show on the road.
Rock and rule
Vinyl City is under attack. The enemy: EDM. Yes, electronic dance music. Okay, so, there isn't a literal war going on, but the populace living in the high-tech metropolis is under the thumb of No Straight Roads (NSR), an authoritarian EDM regime that forces its citizens to live under strict rule. It gets it energy source from an instrument known as the Qwasa, which NSR governs. Feed it music, and it provides you with electricity. Only the finest music can charge it up, and NSR believes this is only accomplished by bands that play EDM.
Enter Bunk Bed Junction, a plucky rock band made up of the zany, peppy guitarist Mayday and drummer Zuke. They've just gotten their first break, a spot on NSR's Lights Up Auditions, a program meant to find artists who can charge the Qwasa and eventually join NSR as part of the company. The pair play an explosive show, but in the end NSR CEO Tatiana decides they don't have what it takes. The reason being? They play rock music, which is constantly derided by the folks at the company. Despite charging the Qwasa completely in a short amount of time, Bunk Bed Junction are kicked out of the audition and refused entry into NSR.
This sends Mayday into a frenzy. She can't believe her beloved Vinyl City operates in such a manner or that NSR is corrupt. She convinces a begrudging Zuke that a rock revolution is in order. Being jilted by Tatiana spurs her to rebel against the institution and to bring back rock music to the city – as well as a better way to power the Qwasa. She believes in Bunk Bed Junction and their message, and in response to the NSR diss, she and Zuke are going to play rock music, amass fans, and take over the city. It's a solid plan, right?
Spin that record, baby
No Straight Roads is split up into a few segments. You tackle boss fights to conquer parts of Vinyl City, complete platforming and action levels to get to each boss, and explore the hub city to talk to folks, and find hidden items. Your goal here is to collect miniature Qwasas to help power up parts of the city that are dark due to NSR's incompetence (EDM doesn't keep the lights on that well and only the elite are able to get power).
I've not played a game that felt like Sonic Adventure's restrictive, floaty movement melded with a budget game apparently meant for the Dreamcast in, oh, five years, but that's exactly how controlling Mayday and Zuke feels. It simply isn't fun to run through Vinyl City collecting mini Kwasas, even though it earns you fans that can be used to unlock new abilities and skills. But you must do it, because there are parts of the city gated off until you earn enough to move forward.
You'll explore each district of the city, which is chartered by each member of NSR's artist roster. Your goal is to take the Platinum Disc from each artist, which makes you the new charter of a district. That gives Mayday and Zuke control to do what they want, and brings them one step closer to overthrowing NSR. It's a cool concept, but exploring the hub just feels like frustrating exploration marred by invisible walls (I can't leap over a gate two inches from my character to collect a mini Qwasa?). Luckily, you don't have to put up with this part of the game too long, as you're always on the go.
The city isn't the only place you can check out. Bunk Bed Junction has a sewer hideout where you can chat with a Pirate Radio DJ to answer questions about the band and potentially earn goodies to augment your attacks and defense, a workshop to unlock new skills across a skill tree, a place to talk strategy with your biggest fan, and a workshop to help hit your characters out with new moves. You can add one-time use Stickers to your weapons to use limited-time buffs. Mods are permanent changes that you can use to unlock new attacks and combos, some of which heal you and some of which do damage. There's plenty to keep track of, but given that most of your attacks feel the same, it's not as impressive as it could have been.
Mayday and Zuke have a long way to go if they want to take over Vinyl City. They have to defeat all of the NSR members, which includes several boss encounters over a short period of time. But those are reserved only for when you complete the lead-up to each boss fight. Some bosses have them and some don't, but I consider these areas to be the most boring, redundant parts of the entire game.
Combat is very simple. The tutorial during the NSR audition at the beginning of the game introduced robots that attack in rhythm, but it's more that you need to memorize their pattern instead of remain in tune with the music. I had envisioned a Space Channel 5-like battle where it was imperative I stayed in the groove.
You can swap between Mayday and Zuke, both of whom have similar combo attacks and abilities, but your main focus is supposed to be staying on the beat. Most of the time you just need to beat the stuffing out of a rote selection of robotic enemies. Beat them up until they explode and make sure they don't hit you as they attack with the music. It doesn't matter how or when you hit them, though. That's about all the rhythm prowess you need to worry about, save for parries, which do require you to pull off when certain attacks highlighted in purple fly by you.
You also get missiles to attack with in the form of music notes that you can pick up during certain battles. You can only use them to send hurtling toward airborne enemies with white borders around them, which feels pointless. You can't just target any enemy standing some distance away from you, so you might collect music notes and just carry them around without a target to use them on as you're peppered with projectiles from ground-based enemies a few feet away.
There are no puzzles to speak of as you make your way to each boss fight. All you do is fight your way there through waves of enemies, split up into segments broken into bite-sized chunks. You run in, clear out enemies, and then use Mayday or Zuke to play music and power up a switch to unlock the next. It's positively yawn-inducing, especially after you hit the fifth or sixth segment of the same group of enemies over and over.
Sure, you can swap between both members, but if one dies, it's game over, and you will be taken back to the beginning of the level – the very beginning. You have to really be in the mood to want to do all of that again, so I had to walk away a few times and come back due to the cheap deaths I succumbed to for a variety of reasons, mainly No Straight Roads' terrible game design.
This includes falling off of platforms because of the game's bizarre, floaty controls and awful jumping mechanics. There's no other word for the game's platforming but "God-awful." Platforms move away before your floaty jump helps you make it over to one. This reduces your health every time you miss. Good luck timing your jumps when you can't move the camera, either.
There's also the deaths that come from swapping between characters and falling into the abyss because the other character didn't have the presence of mind to automatically move out of the way. Oh, and there's usually a delay between swapping characters. Often, I'd press the button to do so and the game wouldn't respond until the second or third press. This was often the case with several attacks and combos. This works really well when you can't cancel an attack to jump, either, which is essential during encounters with robots that attack on a rhythmic basis.
You can pick up health around the levels as well as more miniature Qwasas, but there's only one path to take for each area and absolutely nothing else to do but clear the way through the enemies that want to kill you. Trust me when I say it is one of the most unimpressive arrays I've ever seen in a game that touts combos and rhythm-based combat.
The boss fights are the game's bread and butter, and one wonders if the levels ahead of each boss weren't simply added to pad the game's length. Your first encounter is one of NSR's artists' shows: DJ Subatomic Supernova. Yes, your first taste of the game following the tutorial at the Lights Out Auditions is a boss battle, which the game is mainly comprised of. You run straight over to the DJ's set, and challenge him to a fight. Good choice, because the level areas are awful.
What ensues is a large-scale battle where you must fight the DJ himself as planet-like spheres surround you and a rotating laser threatens to end your life. There are multiple phases to the boss battle, most of which involving you dodging lasers, sending music note missiles hurtling toward the DJ, and wailing on him when you get the chanceIt's a grandiose spectacle that feels surreal and exciting, and a great way to open the game. Unfortunately, this is the only boss encounter in the game that doesn't wear out its welcome or feel like a slapdash concept for an encounter that could have been much more impressive. It's the only one that feels like it was truly meant to jibe with the game's musical motifs.
The rest of the boss encounters vary in quality and execution. Some of them don't require you to have to fight through waves of enemies to reach your enemies, which is a Godsend, because it will ruin any enjoyment you have of the game if you have to play through these levels enough.
I particularly enjoyed the DK West showdown. DK West is Zuke’s brother and the boss battle is a rhythm game of sorts where you have to move two hands down a road avoiding enemies until you reach a larger-than-life version of DK. It's actually something that appears to be a spiritual representation of him, but it looks super cool. Mayday and Zuke must defeat a large, Aku-like monster while his followers sing “DK West, DK West, he’s our man, he's the best." It's pretty catchy.
The lyrics aren’t exactly good when it comes to DK West’s rap, but the “he’s our man, he’s the best” refrain will remain wedged in your mind for hours to come. I take back "aren't exactly good." They make Tekashi 6ix9ine sound like a genius.
The robotic boy band 1010 was particularly entertaining, thanks to all the harmonizing they did when getting ready to fire at me from their massive battleship: “Load and shoot!” never sounded so melodic. Imagine if BTS turned into neon robots hellbent on destroying you while you cruise through a massive city on a battleship and you’d have a good idea of what this battle is all about.
There’s no denying plenty of creativity went into No Straight Roads, which proudly wears its influence on its sleeve. I admittedly love what the team tried to do with each encounter and their musical elements. It just lacks the proper execution, which makes the game all the more disappointing. There’s an impressive amount of diversity between boss battles, though there’s only really one of them that I’d actually consider rooted in EDM.
I thought that was the entire point of NSR, promoting EDM over other genres, but apparently they’re also cool with pop, rap, classical piano music, and J-pop, because that's the kind of music NSR member play. I guess you're not really supposed to ask why rock is the only genre that's outlawed as you're playing through the earlier parts of the game.
Some of No Straight Roads' music is decently catchy. I enjoyed the J-pop that came with one of the boss battles, and of course the DK West rap, even though it wasn't well-written. That's kind of the point, to have great music in a music game. Unfortunately, I'm not sitting here wishing I could own the vinyl immediately to listen to my favorite songs, and I don't feel particularly moved to listen to the songs ever again. I feel that makes it a bit of a failure in terms of the rhythm gaming department.
The voice acting, however, is hit or miss. Mayday often has an indecipherable accent, but loses it in every other line, so I’m not sure what she’s supposed to actually sound like. I like the tone of her voice, but it's as if the team couldn't decide on how she should pronounce certain words. The same can be said for many of the other characters, where some sound amateurish at best and others deliver flawless lines.
Switching it up
The Switch version of the game has co-op multiplayer, which was serviceable, but it also had a number of issues that made me feel like I was playing an in-development PlayStation 2 game as well. Never mind the fact that you can't drop in or out for co-op play.
When characters engage in conversation with others, the camera focuses on the character’s 3D model, with 2D images of Bunk Bed Junction remaining static. It's awkward, and you can't see your character, so the top of their head is cut off the screen, which seems unnatural. The sound would drop out completely at regular intervals, whether during dialogue or music while playing both docked and handheld.
I'm no graphics snob by any means, but all throughout the game I came across muddy, seemingly unfinished textures as well as issues with anti-aliasing where a character portrait's jagged, pixelated edges would stick out like a sore thumb against a 3D background. The art style is cool and inventive, but it looks muddy and blurry on Switch sometimes, especially when exploring the Sewers. Both Mayday and Zuke were so blurry there that I thought I needed to put my glasses on. Didn't help – that's just how the game looked.
I'm really wishing I had opted to play on PlayStation 4, but I would have had to wait longer for code to review, and there is no co-op mode to play with on PS4. The Switch version got several console-specific modes, including Assist Mode, three-player co-op, touchscreen support, and single Joy-Con play. Why Metronomik opted to reward the system least capable of running the game smoothly with additional content like this is beyond me, but I wish all systems supported three-player co-op to avoid these issues.
A broken melody
It doesn't give me any pleasure to pen this review and air my grievances with the game, but I can't help but feel it's an amalgam of missed potential mixed with an ambitious designer's love for a genre and the games it spawned. I wish it had lived up to my expectations, and I can't say I understand the decisions the developers made between the vertical slice I played and the game's official debut. But I do know one thing: No Straight Roads needs to retire from touring, rest its vocal cords, and make a comeback tour when it's found itself as an artist. Right now, it can't carry a tune.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher. No Straight Roads is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
No Straight Roads
- Variety between boss encounters shows promise at times.
- Great premise and interesting character designs.
- Occasionally fun boss battles.
- Abhorrent platforming.
- Lackluster, unmemorable music.
- Hit-or-miss voice acting.
- Combat hardly feels rhythm-based.
- Rote and repetitive level design.
- Bugged audio during dialogue and music.
- Muddy textures, anti-aliasing issues, and blurriness.
- Co-op only offered on Switch without drop-in and drop-out play.
Brittany Vincent posted a new article, No Straight Roads review: Broken record