Streets of Rogue has one hell of an elevator pitch. In fact, it had us salivating at the prospect of a game that blends immersive sims like Deus Ex with a top-down pixel-art style that borrows a few ideas from the likes of Hotline Miami. Now, after spending a couple of years adding new gameplay systems, developer Matt Dabrowski and tinyBuild have just kicked the game out of Early Access on PC (it has also just launched on PS4, Switch, and Xbox One) and so, after a lengthy period of open development, the game is finished and players can experience its enticing concoction of ideas for themselves.
We played a little on PC but spent most of our time on the Nintendo Switch version. In some ways, it's the perfect fit for gaming on the go, with a number of roguelike-features (including permadeath and procedurally-generated levels) making it ideal for quick bursts of action. That said, the UI is rather small when you're playing on the Switch's pint-sized screen, and it can be particularly hard to utilise the mini-map effectively. Of course, you'll see more if you're on a bigger screen, but playing it on the way to work (or, as in our case, while the big TV is being monopolised by someone else) is a perfectly acceptable way to experience this quirky top-down adventure.
Streets of Rogue is set in a dystopian future where a ruthless mayor is ruling over the city with an iron fist. While this might sound like something out of Robocop, the developer has tried to be funny throughout, not only with his script but also with his choice of character classes. Comedy is often down to personal taste, and we have to say a fair few jokes didn't really land for us. It's quirky at the very least, however, and we certainly wouldn't go so far as to call it cringe-worthy or anything like that.
Fighting for 'The Resistance' against this ghastly mayor more often than not means killing people, but it's around this point that the narrative becomes largely irrelevant and we're tasked with indiscriminately murdering people or hitting switches for reasons that are either non-existent or beyond our mortal comprehension. We slaughtered doctors for reasons unbeknownst to us, punched a series of buttons in quick succession for some unfathomable higher purpose, and stole a few pointless-looking items that apparently The Resistance urgently needs in order to wrestle control of the city from the mayor.
You progress through the various, increasingly-challenging levels of the city, completing various tasks along the way. Once you've done your main objectives for a level, you advance to the next floor and start again. With disparate and frankly odd mission objectives, at times it can be hard to work out exactly why you should be bothered, and while we concede that there might be story beats that we've not witnessed just yet (mostly because we keep on dying), the hours we've spent with the game so far don't seem to suggest that something really interesting is going on under the surface. In short, don't play this one if you're after a gripping narrative.
To mix things up, there are specific missions that sit alongside the main story campaign. To that end, there are a bunch of different characters to choose from, and who you pick will determine how you interact with any given level. Newcomers may well gravitate towards 'the soldier' due to their handiness with weapons, but after a while, we started to play with 'the thief' because it let us sneak around the place much more capably. There are a few more starting options, such as 'the hacker', but there are several more that can be unlocked by doing certain tasks within a level. One example was 'the gorilla', who we released from captivity during one run, and later - once unlocked and under our control - we discovered that this class has a natural aversion to scientists. Another unlockable class, 'the cannibal', was unlocked by killing 20 people during one level - an act that felt strangely horrible and that we were glad to see the back of.
Each class starts with different items, and more can be found around the world, either in chests or prised from the fingers of fallen enemies. Gameplay variance comes from the clever use of the tools at your disposal, but the missions themselves felt a little underwhelming and the levels that you're constantly moving through don't feel very rich or engaging, although there's a fair amount of reactivity from the NPCs that exist in them. It's all a bit throwaway, and instead of exploring a deep world and meeting interesting people, more often than not you're entering a building, killing some people, and then moving onto the next objective, pushing forwards until your death.
Speaking of death, the reaper regularly visits these streets, and he usually appears when one of two things has happened. The first is obvious: people will fight back if you attack them or their friends, and if you're not careful they'll come at you in numbers and beat/shoot you until you're pushing up digital daisies (you can run away - eventually they'll get bored and head back home). The combat itself is solid but not particularly remarkable. You can use both ranged and melee weapons, with your character's stats helping to determine your effectiveness in battle, but things can get chaotic at times at which point tactical combat goes out the window and it's very much a free-for-all. To mix things up in the long term, that are a bunch of game modifiers that you can activate before each new run and these can have a big impact on things like the combat, and we'd definitely recommend you explore those options if you want to spice it up a little.
The second most common cause of death, however, was more frustrating. Maybe it's because we were playing on the Switch and we missed some subtle visual clues hidden away in the level, or maybe it's just too harsh for its own good, but on a couple of occasions, we felt like we were sucker-punched by environmental traps that came out of nowhere and punished us with instadeath. Some incidents, such as stepping through laser beams and getting blown up, we concede are totally down to our ineptitude, but trapdoors opening seemingly out of nowhere felt like a low blow and we didn't enjoy the odd cheap death that we were subjected to here.
While those frustrations certainly annoyed us, they weren't game-breaking and each time we died for reasons seemingly beyond our control, we were quick to jump back into the game, either to better master a class we'd been playing with or to try a new one out and experience things in a different way. That said, despite a range of character classes and mission types, the game isn't quite as deep as its systems suggest it should be, the characterful opening dissipates somewhat, and audio-visual style, while certainly adequate, starts to feel a little bit repetitive.
Still, there are more than enough positives to recommend Streets of Rogue to people who like these kinds of games, and there's plenty of one-more-try appeal. Our main disappointment, when it's all said and done, is that our hopes went through the roof when we first heard the game's crowd-pleasing premise, and the final product didn't quite live up our lofty, perhaps unrealistic expectations. However, if you like the idea of dystopian fisticuffs with cannibals, slave traders, and genetically-modified gorillas and you can forgive the odd cheap death, these Streets of Rogue are worth exploring.
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