It’s been a great set of years for beat-‘em-up games. 2020 gave us the impeccable Streets of Rage 4 with some stellar DLC coming after in 2021. Then, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge killed it in 2022 with its own DLC on the way. In 2023, Secret Base and Modus Games took their crack at the genre with Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. It’s not just another punching, kicking, and grapple combo adventure with Billy and Jimmy Lee. They brought back a ton of nostalgic features and worked it into a new rogue-lite approach to the franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed Double Dragon Gaiden for the most part, though I will say it doesn’t hit all the marks that left me high on the previous years’ stellar brawlers.
The city’s in danger, punch someone about it
Anyone who knows the Double Dragon franchise knows the drill. Gangs are messing up the city. You’re going to take martial artist brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee and mess them up in a series of side-scrolling levels in which they throw all their goons at you for the beating. Notably, Billy’s romantic fling Marian joins the playable roster this time and uses an altogether different style of fighting from Jimmy and Billy, utilizing guns and gadgets to dish out damage. Also, this game introduces Uncle Matin, who acts as the heavy hitter and grappler of the group. He also has a shield that can block enemy attacks when he uses some of his own attacks. Adding to the fun is that even if you play solo, you can play as two characters, tagging out your active character when you want to extend combos or save your weary fighter from a KO. In two-player, both characters can be on the screen with tag partners in reserve. There's no online co-op at this time, though.
The game is sort of divided Mega Man-style with the bases of four gangs serving as the levels and their leaders serving as your final targets in each area. Interestingly, this game is built with an escalating difficulty factor. You can face any of the gangs you want at any time, but each time you clear an area and defeat a boss, the other bosses and their areas gain some difficulty. Where a Level 1 gang will just feature one section to fight through and then the boss battle, a Level 2 gang will have two sections for you to battle through, as well as a sub-boss and elite foes scattered throughout. By the time you get to a Level 4 gang, it will be bristling with strong foes, sub-bosses, and a powered-up version of the main gang leader.
The escalation of difficulty in Double Dragon Gaiden is pretty intense and both one of my favorite and least favorite things about the game. Some of the bosses are just absurdly hard at later difficulty stages. I could take out Duke or Anubis, but I learned quickly that Lady Okada is not who I want to fight on Level 4 because she gets armor, dodges your attacks, and flings tornados and sword waves that will make mince meat out of most player characters. Something about her moves and minions just kept me feeling stunlocked and unable to stage a comeback against her where I didn’t have that problem with others.
I also think that some of the characters you can play as are overtuned versus others. Marian’s use of guns means that she can attack from a distance and you can use that to cheese a lot of otherwise hard fights. I used her almost exclusively to defeat the last boss of the game because otherwise they’re just dang near impossible to get close enough to hit without taking massive damage in return. It doesn’t help that this game has some of the longest loading screens I’ve ever seen on a modern brawler. Starting the game, picking your characters, picking a mission, and actually playing a stage all have loading screens between them and I counted some longer than 20 seconds, which was weird considering this doesn’t look like a game that pushes hardware limits.
The same, yet refreshingly different
One of the other more interesting structural elements of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is how much content it refreshes, while offering that content in a new and interesting way. The escalating difficulty and levels aren’t just functional. They’re also a tapestry of cool and classic Double Dragon vibes. The music features an incredible array of remixed tracks from throughout the series, one of which I was shocked to hear was the Level 1 Casino theme from Super Double Dragon - one of my all-time faves. Moreover, once you get to Level 2, you start running into sub-bosses, some of which are the most iconic characters in Double Dragon lore. Abobo is here, as is Linda, Burnov, and Chin. What’s more, you can play as them if you earn the money to get Tokens.
Tokens are a huge part of the rogue-lite progression in Double Dragon Gaiden. Throughout a run of the game, you gain money from crushing hittable props in the stage and defeating enemies with special moves. That money can be used to purchase one of three randomized upgrades for your characters at the end of a section. You can power up special moves, increase your regular combo damage or move speed, or give yourself stat buffs when your health is low or your special meter is full, just to name a few. You can also keep that cash for yourself and pile it up. Why? Because when you end the game, it turns your cash into Tokens.
It seems to me that the reason Double Dragon Gaiden gets so hard is to get you to cash out and get your Tokens. If you die, you have to spend your cash to revive, and if you run out of cash, you have to start using Tokens to revive yourself and continue on default settings. Obviously if you want to unlock content like playing as Abobo, you don’t want to lose Tokens, so if you feel good about how far you got, you can kill your run and cash out early. In that way, Double Dragon Gaiden has an interesting risk vs. reward thing going. I just wish some of the late content wasn’t so insanely hard even on normal.
I will also mention, however, that you can adjust the difficulty in Double Dragon Gaiden. There are a lot of options to make the game as hard or easy as you like, including permadeath on KO, infinite continues, and a wide array of sliders that affect player health, enemy stats and aggression, and power-up cost. There’s an interesting catch here because making the game easy increases the amount of money it takes to pay out a Token on cashout whereas making the game harder means your cash will amount to more Tokens. I like the idea of going hard to the paint if I want to power through unlocks and then turning down the heat if I just want to enjoy myself.
Double Dragon Gaiden isn’t the best brawler I’ve played in the last few years. I wouldn’t even entirely say it’s the best Double Dragon game, but it’s up there. The characters, their attacks and animations, and the sheer nostalgia of returning characters and music with cool new style are massive highlights of this game. I also like the risk vs. reward and rogue-lite systems to a certain extent. However, I am not fond of the game going from manageable to kicking my butt all over the screen at certain ridiculous difficulty spikes. I also don’t like that some characters just aren’t built for the difficult parts and others are or that the loading screens are absurdly long. Thankfully, those who aren’t interested in getting shellacked can rely on those difficulty sliders to make things more fun. All of that aside, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons gives the series yet another fresh coat of paint and I’m glad to see the Lee boys back in action.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch digital copy supplied by the publisher. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons comes out on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC on July 27, 2023.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
- Tag system is great for trying characters
- Wide variety of unlockables
- Interesting rogue-lite system
- Risk vs. reward on Tokens is neat
- Playable characters are fun to explore
- Fantastic music remixing a lot of classic themes
- Large amount of difficulty options
- Ridiculously long load times
- Absurd difficulty spikes in some levels
- Some characters feel unbalanced
- No native online co-op
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons review: Rogue-lite rushdown
This looks fun!
A bunch of the enemies look geriatric, haha. Seems fun though.
I don't need to buy a new game with BG3 a loomin'. But it is a beatemup, so I gotta.
You need a chaser for that massive BG3 shot.