This review is available in both written and video format. Both versions have the same ‘script’, so if you’re able to watch the video I’d recommend doing that, since you can see the game in action without worrying about missing anything I’ve written. Here’s the video:
Dotemu / Lizardcube
PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC (PS4 version reviewed)
Streets of Rage 2 is one of my top 5 favourite games of all time. To my mind, it’s a virtually flawless game: one that would feel just as immensely satisfying during my thousandth playthrough as it did during the first.
Because of this, you’d think I would have been thrilled when it was announced that Streets of Rage 4 was finally on the way. On the contrary: having watched some of the trailers, I was worried that this may not be the Streets of Rage I knew and loved, and that in the 26(!) years that have passed since the last game, it looked like something special may have been lost.
When I was offered review code for the game a fortnight ago I reluctantly accepted, ready to have my heart broken. Instead, for the past two weeks my heart has been singing from the rooftops. Although it’ll never replace my true love, there’s no denying that Streets of Rage 4 is glorious.
The plot is as unnecessary as it’s always been. It’s set about a decade after the events of Streets of Rage 3, and sees crime once again plaguing the city. It isn’t just the criminals who’re up to no good this time, though: the police are at it too, and wait until you find out the batshit reason why. No spoilers, don’t worry.
This time it isn’t the notorious Mr X who’s in charge, either: he’s still dead, you see. Instead, his children Mr Y and Ms Y have taken over the family business, so it’s up to grizzled veterans Axel and Blaze along with a handful of new characters to put an end to these new crimelord upstarts.
One of the things that made Streets of Rage 2 so memorable was that its four playable characters weren’t just clones of each other: each one felt different to control. Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t just take that concept, it dramatically improves on it to the extent that some of these characters play like nothing the series has ever seen before.
As the pair most familiar to long-time fans, it’s unsurprising that playing as Axel and Blaze – the only two to appear in all four games – feels most like you’re playing a Streets of Rage game. Their movesets are similar to the ones they had in Streets of Rage 2, so anyone with a love for the old titles should be able to choose either of them and get into the swing of things right away.
There are some differences between the two, naturally: Axel is a little more powerful and Blaze is faster, plus when Blaze does her trademark monkey flip judo throw she now rolls out of it, letting you continue to attack others in one seamless motion.
Another familiar face who’s unlocked after the first few stages is Adam, the third fighter in the original Streets of Rage. He also controls like an old-school character, although his style is a little looser and he also has a useful dodge move when you double-tap left or right, which makes it a lot easier to avoid certain attacks (especially some of the bosses’ more powerful ones).
It’s the two new characters who really mix things up, though. Floyd is an interesting cross between the enormous Max from Streets of Rage 2 and the weird scientist Zan in Streets of Rage 3, in that he’s a massive bastard with cybernetic arms. He moves incredibly slowly but his attacks are devastatingly powerful, and when you grab an opponent you can walk around with them.
This means if you’re quick enough you can actually grab two opponents and bash their heads together. I’m not sure if it’ll ever get old, but it definitely hasn’t yet. Alternatively, if you just decide to stick with one enemy, Floyd’s throw is easily the best in the game, flinging folk right across the screen. Line up a throw against a group of baddies and they’ll turn into human skittles. As in the ten-pin kind, not the sweets.
Finally, there’s Cherry, who’s an absolutely ridiculous character. On paper she’s the new Skate, in that she’s far quicker than everyone else and her moves are exceptionally weak, but in reality she’s the flair character who experts are going to end up using as their main choice, because in the right hands she’s an absolute whirlwind of over-the-top moves.
Cherry players will be able to build combos far higher than other characters, partly because her moves do less damage but also because her speed means she can reach another character before the combo runs out.
“Eh? Combos? What in the hell are you on about?” I hear you ask. “Streets of Rage doesn’t have combos.” Just bear with me, I’ll get to it eventually.
The interesting thing about Floyd and, in particular, Cherry is that when you’re controlling them you feel less like you’re playing a Streets of Rage game and more like you’re playing a different beat ‘em up series altogether. A brilliant one, mind you, but a different one nonetheless.
As a Streets of Rage fan I have no issue with this: the fact that Axel and Blaze feel so reassuringly traditional means that the game can feel as much or as little like old-school Streets of Rage if you want. If you’re a stickler for the ‘90s mechanics you can stick with the names you know, and if you want to mix things up a bit and experiment with new play styles the new characters are there for that.
The stubborn types are rewarded even more once you start unlocking the retro characters. The game tracks your lifetime score and adds to it every time you beat a level. As your lifetime score crosses certain milestones you’ll unlock characters from Streets of Rage 1, 2 and 3, one at a time. For long-time fans there’s no better incentive for multiple playthroughs: you’re going to have to beat this game a number of times and build your lifetime score to a hefty total before all the retro characters are unlocked.
These characters are practically identical to their Mega Drive counterparts, to the extent that some of the new moves and tricks available here don’t apply to them. This has been remedied to an extent by tweaking their stats: the Streets of Rage 1 version of Axel has the same basic moveset he did in the original game, but get in front of a boss and hammer the attack button and you’ll do surprisingly serious damage.
I’d still rather use the new versions of Axel and Blaze, but it’s a fun little bonus to have regardless. So too are the occasional hidden retro sections, but I’ll not show them or spoil how to reach them in this review. If you want to know the details and see them in action I’ve made this separate video revealing all:
Character differences aside, the overall fighting system has been given some changes too. This was what gave me pause when I saw the early trailers but in practice it actually works really well: rather than completely ruining what made Streets of Rage special they feel more like natural evolutions.
The best way to put it is this: if the Streets of Rage series hadn’t been kneecapped two and a half decades ago and if we’d still been getting new titles every few years, with the fighting mechanics being tweaked and improved over time, Streets of Rage 4 feels like the sort of game we’d have naturally ended up with by now.
The two most notable additions are juggling and the aforementioned combo system, which work hand in hand when you think about it. The ability to juggle enemies opens up your attacking possibilities: it’s no longer a case of ‘hit them until they fall down, wait until they get up, hit them again’ as it was in previous games.
Now certain moves will pop an opponent into the air, or force them sideways and bounce them off the invisible edge of the screen, allowing you to potentially keep them in the air longer and do more damage before they eventually hit the deck. It’s nothing revolutionary in the world of gaming, but in the Streets of Rage universe it’s a notable change.
Juggling also plays a big part in the new combo system, which again isn’t anything new in the grand scheme of things but is transformative when it comes to this particular series. It’s the sort of thing you’ve seen before: keep hitting enemies without taking damage and you’ll build up a combo counter, and after each hit you have a set time to keep the combo going before it ends and you ‘bank’ your points.
This causes you to rethink your fighting strategy: instead of just battering everyone you come across without rhyme or reason, you may start thinking about how to chain fights together. Sure, you could beat that guy up like normal, but if there’s another enemy on the other side of the screen it may be worth chucking your guy over to him and finishing him off there so you can move straight onto the second one and keep the combo going.
The key thing about combos in this game is that they count up your total damage, not the total number of hits. Cherry’s speed and wealth of multi-hit attacks mean she can get combos of 50 hits or more relatively frequently, but the fact that most of these hits do minimal damage means a 50-hit Cherry combo isn’t necessarily worth more points than, say, a 30-hit combo of heavy hits from Floyd. By scoring players on their total combo damage instead of total hits, the game makes sure everyone has a fair shot at a high score.
This may not seem important: after all, your score was never really that big a deal in Streets of Rage. Once again, though, it’s something that’s become a lot more important this time around, and not just because you need to build your lifetime score to unlock the retro characters.
The main Story mode this time treats each stage like a completely separate mission. You’ll start every level with two lives and zero points, and the aim is to get as high a score as possible in order to first earn an extra life and then get a good rank in the online leaderboards. It’s no longer just a case of fighting your way through each stage: this is a game that wants you to play its levels over and over again and perfect your run.
(Incidentally, if you don’t like the idea of this there’s an Arcade mode, but it’s a lot more difficult than the original Mega Drive games. You get no continues and the score needed to get an extra life is so high you’ll only get a couple more during your entire playthrough. Arcade mode is very much a hardcore mode rather than an alternative way of playing through the game.)
There are a whole host of other tweaks that aren’t quite as revolutionary as juggling, combos or the scoring system, but are still noticeable if you’re a big Streets of Rage fan. These ones are all entirely positive too: you can now land on your feet from any hit that would otherwise knock you down (in the same way you could land from throws back in the day), meaning if you’ve got your wits about you you’ll almost never end up on your arse.
When you throw a weapon at an enemy it now bounces off them, and if you time it well you can catch it on the rebound in mid-air, allowing you to use it again right away. Doing this a few times in a row feels cool as hell. Meanwhile, there’s now a separate button for picking things up: it’s a small change but it finally puts an end to the classic Streets of Rage problem of trying to punch someone when you’re standing over an apple, accidentally collecting the apple instead then getting a punch in the face.
Probably the most important change, though, is the way the game tweaks the special move system, a mechanic that many beat ‘em ups have happily used for decades without bothering to mess with it. In most games, it’s a simple trade-off: special moves are more powerful ones that usually get you out of a jam, and the payoff is that your character loses a little bit of health as a result.
This time you don’t lose the health right away: it’s held aside. If you can land a few more hits on enemies after performing your special move, you’ll eventually gain that health back. Take damage, though, and the health is gone forever. Yet again it’s a small tweak that potentially changes the way you play the game. If you’re good enough to avoid taking hits, you can thread a few special moves into your combos, continually topping up your health along the way. It’s brilliant.
The characters are great, then, and they feel fun to play with, but what about the environments? They’re a mixed bag, but they’re mostly great. The early street stages look fantastic and nail the feel of a modern recreation of a Streets of Rage level.
Other levels like Chinatown and the Museum may not have a traditional Streets of Rage style but still look brilliant nonetheless. The same can’t be said, though, about some of the less inspired levels: the low point is the stage simply called ‘Underground’, which is basically just a sewer with puddles of green goo. Basically, when it looks its worst it simply looks uninspired, but when it looks its best it’s phenomenal.
The same can be said for the music, which traditionally is one of the most crucial components of the series. Instead of being composed entirely by Yuzo Koshiro like it has been in the past there are a bunch of different artists this time, and so the quality is more varied. There are some absolute bangers in there that are up there with some of the best tracks in the series, and there are some that didn’t grab me at all and could have been plonked into any generic action game, which is never something you should be saying about a Streets of Rage soundtrack.
There’s also a retro soundtrack option, which replaces all the music with older tracks from the Mega Drive games. It’s a fun option but some of the choices are weird, both in terms of the tracks chosen and where they’ve been placed. When you reach the first boss, the music that plays is the final boss theme from Streets of Rage 2, which is weird. Meanwhile, the theme that plays during the Stage 3 boss is a random track from one of the Master System Streets of Rage games: a bizarre choice given that not every Mega Drive track is in here.
These are relatively minor quibbles, though. The most important thing is always how fun a game is to play and in this respect Streets of Rage 4 nails it most of the time. There are some moments where it doesn’t quite nail it: the riot police enemies are extremely annoying, because their shields can be frustrating to break, especially with weaker characters. Most of the boss fights, meanwhile, seem to last forever.
The balancing is off a bit too. While it’s great having wildly diverse characters it does mean that some are far easier to control than others. For example, a number of enemies have massive attacks that either home in on you or have a wide range, meaning you need to move out of the way. Cherry and Adam can do this no problem with their run and dash moves respectively, but Axel and Blaze don’t have anything like that and Floyd moves so painfully slowly that it’s extremely difficult to avoid most big moves.
Naturally, most of this can be overcome with practice and learning how to get out of these specific situations, but the result is that some characters are more immediately entertaining to control than others.
All of this leads to the conclusion that, no, Streets of Rage 4 has not replaced Streets of Rage 2 in my top 5 games of all time. But let’s face it, it was never going to. A game like that is so embedded in the hearts of a certain generation of gamers that it isn’t just a game any more: it’s a moment in time, a representation of a certain era in gaming, a cherished memory, a childhood. There was no way in hell that a new Streets of Rage could ever hope to compete with that, no matter how good it is.
For those with no emotional ties to the series, Streets of Rage 4 is simply the greatest beat ‘em up ever made. If you have any interest in the genre whatsoever, you will never find a game more essential. It brings a level of depth and diversity to its gameplay that other beat ‘em ups could only dream of achieving, and the fact it’s built around high score chasing means its replay value is significantly higher than practically every other game like it.
If you’re like me, though, and Streets of Rage 2 is lodged so firmly in your heart that not even a Grand Upper from Axel is enough to knock it loose, you already know deep down that Streets of Rage 4 isn’t going to replace it: it simply can’t outdo a quarter of a century of love.
What it does manage, however, is almost as impressive: it takes a hugely respected series that’s been mothballed for more than 25 years and makes it feel like it absolutely belongs in the modern era, while at the same time taking precise care not to piss on the shoulders it stands on.
Both on paper and in practice, Streets of Rage 4 is the best game in the series. There will be people – myself included – who will maintain that Streets of Rage 2 remains the greatest of all time. If you have no connection to that game, here’s my advice: just let us continue to believe that. Buy Streets of Rage 4, enjoy the greatest beat ‘em up ever made, and let us old dicks cling to our memories.
To my fellow Streets of Rage devotees, my advice is this: don’t be suspicious. I know you saw the same trailers as me, and I know some of you thought “this isn’t the Streets of Rage I know and love”. The truth is that this new game is so flexible in its approach to the genre that it can both be nothing like Streets of Rage and everything like it at the same time.
We’ll always have Streets of Rage 2. But now we have Streets of Rage 4 as well, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Buy it. Love it. Appreciate the fact it exists. Hell, even boot up Streets of Rage 2 every now and then just to remind yourself why it’s still the champ if you must. But the most important thing – and the best news I can possibly deliver to you – is this:
Streets of Rage is back.
Streets of Rage 4 launches on 30 April on PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC as a digital-only release. If you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, the Xbox One and PC versions will be available at launch as part of your subscription. Alternatively, you can pre-order a physical edition of the PS4 and Switch versions from Limited Run Games.
In order that I could write this review, I received a review code from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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