The first question that popped into my head while playing 2022’s Saints Row is, who is this for? It feels like Saints Row fans weren’t exactly clamoring for a game of this nature (a reboot, rather than new series entry or remake), and during my time with it, there were moments where I felt I was playing something closer to a watered down Grand Theft Auto than Saints Row.
It’s not that the game is inherently bad. In fact, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the new Saints Row. However, this isn’t the most “Saints Row” of Saints Row games. It’s a Saints Row game as much as Mitsubishi’s Eclipse Cross is an Eclipse. Niche as I know that comparison is, it’s honestly the perfect visual metaphor for what 2022’s Saints Row feels like compared to previous Saints Row titles. Less edgy, and lacking much of the spice and flavor of its predecessors.
Welcome to Santo Ileso
The gameplay of Saints Row is the biggest draw, and is actually quite enjoyable. While there were a number of things that soured me on Saints Row, the gameplay certainly wasn’t one of them. I had a lot of fun playing through various missions and causing all sorts of mayhem. None of the missions feel overly long, and this creates a nice gameplay loop of “just one more” which is added to by the fact that each mission is starkly different.
In one, you might be robbing a train. In another, you’re stealing an item back from a rival gang’s yacht before snatching up a jet ski to speed off with your loot. No matter what, you can always look forward to elements of surprise with Saints Row’s myriad of missions. You can also look forward to some of that signature Saints Row over-the-top flair with big, bombastic battles where you do things like shoot waves of foes with a minigun in a museum full of precious antiquities, or intimidate a guy into giving you the deed to a church by taking him on a terrifying joy ride in his own car.
Speaking of which, driving around Saint Ileso is also a blast, especially given the fact that you can steal and customize just about any vehicle you see. I’ve stolen motorcycles, I’ve stolen big box trucks, I’ve stolen a police car, I’ve even stolen a garbage truck. Unfortunately, there is one vehicle that can’t be stolen, and that’s the large buses you see puttering around town.
I tried, multiple times, to swipe one of these buses and each time I was swiftly rejected. I was able to pull the driver out of the bus in these instances and get in there for half a second, but then I’d immediately be glitched back out. That said, of the glitches I encountered in Saints Row, the bus one is the least intrusive.
At one point during the middle of a mission, the game froze with the controller still vibrating from the gun I’d been firing moments earlier. I waited it out for a few minutes, but the game refused to cooperate. To make matters worse it also wouldn’t let me return Home on my Xbox so I was left with no other choice than to forcibly shut the whole thing down and boot it back up again. When I jumped back into the game after that, I had to restart the mission from the very beginning.
Restarting missions isn’t uncommon in 2022’s Saints Row as you can be penalized for things like going outside the game area. And this happens a lot. Causing me quite a bit of frustration, the game area warning is also extremely brief at 5-10 seconds. At one point, I dodged into an adjacent room that was outside the game area, then got blocked in by an enemy. I tried to quickly take the enemy out, but this proved to be a mistake as the game slapped me on the wrist with a mission restart.
Personally, I wish the game area warning was a bit longer, perhaps around 30 seconds rather than 10. I also wish the bugs and glitches in the game weren’t so pervasive because it can make the process of progressing a real challenge. In one mission, I had to take out the police, but the police were stuck on a nearby bridge out of range. I couldn’t go over to the bridge due to it being outside the mission area, so I was forced to restart. In another mission, my NPC companion who was supposed to be guiding me out of a burning building got stuck and refused to move, running the clock down to yet another mission restart. I could go on and on, but then the entire review would just be me listing the assorted bugs I encountered.
Back to the positive, the soundtrack for the game is phenomenal. In particular, I loved listening to the various radio stations, especially Nuclear Blast which features tracks from the likes of Slayer. Adding to the experience even more, the game offers some surprisingly detailed vehicle customization that, like the game’s character customization, will hold your attention for quite some time as you work to tune your favorite vehicles to the exact look and style that you want.
In terms of character customization, this is even more impressive than the vehicle customization in my opinion. I spent quite a bit of time creating, and then later going back throughout my time with the game, and adjusting my custom character. Not only can you make your character look just like you, you can even tweak things like nipple size and “pouch” size.
As you’d expect from Saint’s Row, there are a wealth of weapons that you’re given access to during campaign missions, and that you’re able to unlock. You can also customize your weapons which, while not as detailed as vehicle customization, is nevertheless fun to play around with. Additionally, there are unlockable perks and skills to further help tune your character to your playstyle.
Not only will all of the assorted customization options keep you busy, there’s a surprising amount to do in Saints Row outside of the main campaign missions as well including side missions, finding and photographing items for your home base, establishing and managing criminal ventures, wingsuit challenges, dumpster diving, and much, much more.
The Rent is Too Damn High
Unlike the gameplay, which I enjoyed, the story fell short for me. The game centers around a young group of friends who live together because “rent is expensive” and eventually team up to create and manage the Saints after things go sour with their rival factions (Idols, Los Panteros), and your character getting fired from a job at Marshall Industries.
The story as it progresses seems like it’s targeting a Millennial and Gen Z crowd by frequently bringing up issues that both generations have been calling attention to such as the aforementioned cost of living, the evils of big corporations, and things like not having health insurance.
For example, one character gets shot in the stomach and instead of taking him to the hospital, they take him back home, pour alcohol on the wound, and call it good. Not because going to the hospital is too risky, but simply because it's deemed too expensive. You'd think they could just go and not pay, or steal funds from one of the rival factions. Nitpicking on that, but the point is that it and other parts of the story feel weirdly written.
It's as if the game is ticking off items on a checklist of things to add to try and connect with the developers' idea of what that one specific, younger demographic might relate to. A corporate "how do you do, fellow kids?" if you will.
For me, the “modern” Saints Row themes and topics presented in the story don’t always land as being cheeky, funny, or entertaining. At times, they feel forced and almost a bit patronizing. Furthermore, several of the main characters (with the exception of Neenah and your character) suffer noticeable tonal imbalances. They’re portrayed as being the soft cinnamon roll type which doesn’t exactly fit, not only the series’ history and past characters, but the idea of them being part of a criminal empire in general.
There are a lot of pawns on the figurative chessboard as well that make following the story a bit difficult at times. You go from battling Los Panteros, to the Idols, to Marshall Industries, and bounce between these conflicts somewhat erratically at times. Not to mention, there are some uncomfortable moments where you’re expected to kill large waves of enemies that are often disproportionately composed of POC.
Not just Los Panteros, but even the Idols and members of Marshall Industries, as well as targets in the Wanted app, often seem to skew towards POC in a negative way. I’m obviously not the right person to speak on that topic, but I wanted to bring it up briefly because, aside from the moments where it made me feel uncomfortable in contrast to the games I normally play (and this includes the GTA series and other, similar, "edgy" type shooters), it also doesn’t fit the tone of a more progressive story, which the game seems to be going for, but misses the mark on by quite a lot.
Not to mention the fact that in the past, Saints Row has never been considered or designed to be progressive or inclusive. If anything, the series has often rooted itself at the complete opposite end of that spectrum, and has received a fair amount of criticism for it over the years as well. It circles back to me wondering who 2022’s Saints Row is for, because there are many elements including the previously mentioned soft cinnamon roll best buddies gang of Saints that won’t appeal to past fans in the slightest and may even be deemed obnoxious and pandering. Meanwhile, there are plenty of things for the audience the game is seemingly targeting, progressive Millennials and Gen Z, to pick apart as being problematic. And honestly? I feel like both sets of potential players are right.
Sweet & Sour
Overall, Saints Row was very hit and miss for me. The gameplay is a definite hit, with a large, explorable map packed full of stuff to do and plenty of action-packed moments full of delicious chaos to whet your Saints Row whistle. However, the story falls flat, and there are enough bugs to impact your experience in a negative way. If 2022’s Saints Row had been an open-world game with fewer pawns on the board when it comes to enemy factions, a bit more time to bake in the development oven to iron out the assorted bugs and issues, and a story that doesn’t end up feeling forced and confused in regards to who it’s for, it would have ended up being far more likeable and worth recommending.
This review is based on a digital Xbox Series X|S code provided by the publisher. Saints Row releases on August 23 and will be available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Google Stadia, PC (Epic Games Store).
Saints Row (2022)
- Impressive customization for characters, vehicles, and weapons
- Addicting gameplay with lots to do
- Phenomenal soundtrack
- Varied missions and activities
- Action-packed chaos in spades
- Story and tone miss the mark
- Cringeworthy dialogue
- Bugs and glitches, including game crashes
Morgan Shaver posted a new article, Saints Row (2022) review: Identity crisis