Streets of Rage 4 review: the new champion of beat ’em ups

Streets of Rage 4 is an interesting game to be released in this, the year of our Lord 2020.

Side-scrolling beat ‘em ups rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s, but with a few exceptions, the genre had pretty much died off by the time the twenty-first century rolled around. That’s a real shame, because there’s something cathartic about playing a vigilante who systematically tackles an entire gang street by street and screen by screen. I concede that the overwhelming waves of enemies and often unfair odds against our hero are clearly rooted in a design ethos that’s meant to keep you pumping coins into an arcade machine. But nevertheless, punching flunkies in the face is always a good time.

Streets of Rage 4 adheres to many of the aged beat ’em up tropes that people find endearing – like taking on a whole city single handed and eating chicken from trashcans. But at the same time, it manages to remove the elements that most folk would find frustrating and archaic. In fact, Streets of Rage 4 doesn’t just show that beat ’em ups can still work in the twenty-first century – it shows they can be utterly brilliant.

The fighting feels comfortably similar to the earlier Streets of Rage games – you have your main attack, a jump button and a special move that’ll drain some of your health. But where the game shines is by adding minor details that keep you invested in the combat far beyond arbitrarily jamming buttons and spamming quarters like in the old days. There aren’t any continues here, so keeping your lives stocked up is paramount. Like most classic games, you earn more lives as your score goes up, but the game does this clever thing where it’ll let you know that you are a certain amount away from collecting a new life. Furthermore, you can keep chaining your attacks to build up a combo meter that not only helps you on your way to a 1up, but will revitalize your health. That last bit is important, because this in turn made me want to use my specials more often, knowing that I could recoup the cost of doing it. It meant that far from being a simple button masher, this game actively encourages strategy. Not too shabby!

You also have a nice spread of characters to choose from, each feeling different and well-rounded enough to all be useful. There are zippy, quick combo characters like Blaze and Cherry, a slow and lumbering beast in Floyd (my personal favorite!) and some more grounded options like Adam and Axel. The game encourages you to learn each character by letting you swap protagonists between levels, as well as giving you a bit of a boost to your bonus bar when doing so. Speaking of which, as you play (and replay) the game, you’ll fill what basically amounts to an experience meter that doles out some really nifty things for your diligence. As you go, you’ll unlock older versions of characters, as well as classic roster picks from previous games. They look exactly as they did on the Mega Drive, right down to the pixel, which makes for a fetching dichotomy to the beautifully hand-drawn backgrounds. Furthermore, they play exactly the same as in the old games, without the added tweaks and benefits of their modern incarnations, which is not only neat but also ratchets up the challenge.

What really seals this whole package nicely is the aforementioned artwork. Streets of Rage 4 feels like you’re playing a living comic book. Each dilapidated stage is brimming with hand-drawn details and new obstacles that give the game a little bit of life, with constant changes to keep the game interesting. Brawlers sometimes fall into a dull rhythm of monotony, but that is far from the case here. Everybody is lovingly animated and a marvel to look at – although of course standing around to drink in the beautiful graphics is ill-advised in the middle of a fistfight. The sound design is marvelous as well, with catchy and upbeat tunes to brawl to and crunchy sound effects that really sell the meaty combat.

When Streets of Rage 4 was first announced, I was a bit on the fence about it, figuring it to be a nice love letter to beat ‘em ups but not actually moving the needle in any way. Boy, was I glad to be wrong! I don’t think I’ve ever played a beat ’em up that has kept me coming back as much as this one. Between the unlockables and co-op modes (with up to four players, another nice addition), I keep finding myself drawn in for just one more go, which turns into just one more run through the whole thing. But the thing is, the kinetic combat is so gratifying that I would have done so even without the dangling carrot of things to unlock. Streets of Rage 4 is not only a worthy sequel, it signals the start of the next generation for beat ’em ups.

Streets of Rage 4 was developed by Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games, and is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Streets of Rage 4 was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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