If you're going to make a sequel to a beloved franchise from the '90s, you have to remind people why they loved it in the first place while also bringing it into the modern age. We've seen that balance attempted in many remakes and sequels with mixed results, to say the least. Thankfully Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games have found the ever so elusive perfect mixture for Streets of Rage 4, a new chapter in a beloved franchise that rose to prominence on the Sega Genesis but has faded from the spotlight in years past. Now the franchise is back and truly better than ever, and while it's not perfect, fans of the series are going to have a ball cleaning up the streets of Oak City in this absolutely gorgeous game.
Streets of Rage was very much a product of its time, a classic beat 'em up published by SEGA in the 1990s. The game had players taking control of characters like Axel and Blaze as they punched and kicked their way through various levels in the city, all done in the at the time premiere sprite-based graphical style. Streets of Rage 4 picks up right where those games left off gameplay-wise, adapting the same side-scrolling beat 'em up mechanics, and, truth be told, they are just as fun as they were back then.
These sorts of games don't work if the controls aren't crisp, as you need to know exactly how far your punch goes in front of or behind you when encountering a vast group of enemies. You need to rely on the fact that your jump is going to launch and land exactly where you expect, and you can't have delays in those kicks and punches either. All of these are thankfully the case in Streets of Rage 4, and it feeds into the quick "back in the fight" nature of the genre. You're never cursing at the screen because the game failed you, but instead cataloging everything you did wrong as you hop back into the level for one more go-round, as the quick load times only help heighten this effect.
Streets of Rage 4 hews close to its old-school roots, but that goes both ways. The gameplay has been streamlined and tweaked a bit, but ultimately it's the same move-forward-and-punch-style game it was before. That's going to be extremely fun, don't get me wrong, but for those who are used to more complexity in their combat systems, there just isn't that extra meat on the bone that you're used to. There really shouldn't be, either, as that's not what Streets of Rage it's worth noting for those unaware of the series.
The health-degrading special moves do spice up the combat, however, as do the myriad of weapons and each character's special attack, so it's not all just mindless punching and kicking. You'll need to tackle the various enemies with different strategies, who range from annoying hands in their pockets flying kick specialists to rotund fire-breathers and Kung fu masters who constantly deflect, and having a few of each on the screen at the same time will demand you pay attention. In fact, that was one of the more pleasant surprises from the game, as that required quick thinking and strategy did end up necessitating a few replays but very rarely did those replays devolve into frustration.
The game also gives you several levels of assistance to replay a stage, which will bring down your score but is a great option for those who are stuck on one particular section and just want to get through the story mode. That story mode, by the way, is absolutely gorgeous, and the hand-drawn graphics go a long way in immersing you into a world that you recognize from the past games but with a new and modern flair. It really feels like a cartoon brought to life as the characters make their way through each stage, and the combat animations and character designs are just as impressive.
Even without much in the way of dialogue or story, each character's design and animations give them a unique personality and feel, and you'll want to give each one a go as you make your way through the stages. These stages are greatly enhanced by the stellar sound design as well, which provides a thumping soundtrack and punches and kicks that sound every bit as painful as they look.
There are characters that make certain levels a breeze, but you can be successful with any of them, and there are a plethora of characters from past games that are waiting for you to unlock, though it will take some work to get them all.
This leads us to the main issue with Streets of Rage 4, and that's the actual amount of content. The core story mode is extremely enjoyable, and it keeps the pace up as you make your way through Oak City. Once you finish that, though, there isn't a whole lot more to do in the game, other than replay the story mode for a higher score (which unlocks characters). Sure, you can tackle the Boss Rush mode, but that is only going to tide you over for so long, and there's no new content there, just a collection of the past bosses and some of them are quite annoying to fight (especially one, in particular). Having local co-op and online co-op is wonderful, though, but you'll be going through the same content.
This might be a bigger issue if Streets of Rage 4 was a more expensive game, but at just $24.99, it is well priced for the content it delivers, though we could've used just a little bit more. What is there is extremely polished, addictive, and, above all else, incredibly fun. Streets of Rage 4 captures the nostalgic vibes of its glory days with a beautiful coat of paint and just enough modern flourishes to hook a brand-new audience, who we think will fall in love with a classic series if they give it a chance.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Streets of Rage 4 is available now on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC. A PlayStation 4 review code was provided for the purpose of this review.