Rock But No Roll
Music and rhythm games have been with us since the early 70’s. Of course, since then the genre has taken on many forms – with PaRappa The Rapper bringing the colourful button pressing we’ve come to know as the staple of these sort of games. No Straight Roads is not another rhythm game like that. Instead – for better or worse – this feels like an attempt to try and reinvent the genre like PaRappa did and head in a brand new direction.
The result is something that feels both overly complicated and overly simplistic. No Straight Roads tries to juggle multiple elements but never in a way that really allows everything to blend together seamlessly. The end-product is something that has some definite high points but is held back by an awful lot of baggage and far too many lows.
The biggest change to the formula this time around is the profound lack of rhythm-based elements. Instead, all of the game plays out in a third-person perspective with two prospective musicians, Mayday and Zuke. These two reside in the colourful Vinyl City which is ruled with an iron fist by the dictatorial NSR. With a heady cocktail of EDM (electronic dance music) keeping the lights on, our plucky duo set out to bring rock back for the masses.
Things inevitably don’t go to plan and after a disastrous audition, the duo decide to band together and save the City from the tyrannical grip of EDM. What ensues is a series of boss battles, stitched together with basic navigation and collectible elements, as you rock out and save the city.
Aesthetically the game looks great and developers Metronomik have done an excellent job keeping things visually pleasing. There’s a neon glow clinging to everything like someone opened up a pack of glow-sticks and went to town. The character models stand out and the in-game cut-scenes use a combination of hand-drawn and CGI elements to good effect.
The sound is also pretty good – as one would expect from a game like this – and each boss is given a distinct musical genre to play with. Personally, the drum and bass track playing during the Miyu fight is the one that really stands out here. It’s one of the few big-room tunes that feels like it wouldn’t be amiss during a peak set in a club. The rest all fall into the realm of enjoyable but forgettable warm-up material.
Where the game really comes unstuck though is the gameplay. There’s a myriad of different ideas here that borrow elements from a number of different games. There’s glimmers of Persona 5’s world, Rock Band’s UI and fan-base building system, while RPG elements seep in (of course they do) to allow leveling up of skills.
Most of the game wobbles precariously between being an outright rhythm game and a third person brawler. The result is something that doesn’t pull off either of these genres particularly well. Rhythm enthusiasts will long for more button-pressing and enjoying the music while adventure fans will be itching for more depth to the combat and world.
While the basic gameplay loop works and stitches all the activities together, everything feels very hollow and unrewarding.
The main bulk of the game sees you exploring Vinyl City, collecting different cans of drinks to help re-energize vital parts of the landscape that have been shut down. Bringing these mini Qwasa sections back online bags you more fans and, in the case of drink machines, extra stickers too.
These stickers essentially act as temporary buffs which you can attach to your chosen instruments to give you an edge in battle. Everything from movement speed to extra health shows up here and can be attached in your main hub – the sewer.
The Sewer is your one-stop shop to everything the game has to offer. There’s an “Underground Gig” which is the game’s version of upgrading skills, a workshop for modifying your weapons (with those stickers mentioned earlier) and even an arcade with a throwaway side-scrolling game.
After being briefed on your next target, you’ll be running through Vinyl City and making it to your designated area. Once there, you can jump down and engage in that section’s boss fight. These are broken up into two sections – the first of which sees you attacking mindless drones and breaking through security gates. The second half is a more conventional brawl, which are easily one of the big highlights of the game.
These bosses are varied, make good use of the music and allow you to really test your skills. The static camera is a bit of a problem at times though, which does make those later fights tougher than they should be. However, there’s no Game Over in the conventional sense – instead you just take a penalty to your final score if you pass out.
At the end of each fight you’re given a score and accumulate fans depending on your level of competency in defeating that chosen opponent. All the systems work well together but the combat is frustratingly basic – relying on simple one-button strikes and a dodge roll. You can switch between the characters with L1 but there is a time delay to doing this which feels sluggish and an odd design decision.
There’s also several special moves which range from boomerang attacks to bigger combos combining both characters together. It’s all pretty basic stuff and this simplicity ultimately hurts the title’s longevity.
A lot of these segments are incredibly repetitive and it’s only accentuated by No Straight Roads’ bizarre decision of forcing you to walk through completed sections of Vinyl City repeatedly after every fight. That’s before even mentioning the skill trees and the tacked-on arcade games that feel like distractions to pad out an otherwise intriguing idea that hasn’t been fleshed out that well.
And the ideas are actually quite good. The story is involving enough to keep you glued to the end of this 4-6 hour title and the idea of freshening up a stale genre is certainly a welcome one.
Unfortunately this also comes with a wealth of problems – including a fair few technical issues and hiccups. The frame-rate drops at the most inopportune times which isn’t exactly helpful for a rhythm game. Some of the sound is a bit jarring and there’s a particular problem with delayed responses to damage that see a hit failing to register until a second or two later.
On top of that, the game just doesn’t have enough substance or game-time to justify the steep £30+ asking price. While this does come with a digital soundtrack and a slew of other goodies, the game feels more like a £20 indie at best.
No Straight Roads proves there are no straight roads in the rhythm genre. In its bid to achieve originality the game both over-complicates and over-simplifies itself. The end-result is a composition of beautiful melodies that turn into a cacophonic mess when brought together.
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