Review: No Straight Roads

There was a time in the late 90s and early 2000s where the character-based 3D platformer ruled the world. Mario 64 showed us how to do it right and plenty of other developers got into the genre, adding their own twist. Stealth action, weird weapons or just being kicked-to-the-face hard (looking at you, Maximo), there were plenty of flavors in the realm to keep players supplied with something fresh but still familiar. It’s similar to open world titles of the modern era. Eventually, the enthusiasm for the mold died out. While there have been some attempts to resurrect the style, they tend to be more niche offerings specifically designed to call back on the titles of yore, playing on nostalgia. Developer Metronomik decided to take a different route, adding a fresh take on the 3D platformer with No Straight Roads. The idea is a sound one, incorporating rhythm-based timing into attacks. The problem is that this music-based hop-and-bop feels more like a garage band’s demo EP instead of a fully fleshed-out LP.

The game puts the players in the role of Mayday and Zuke, the two members of rock duo Bunk Bed Junction. In a city powered by music, they are intent on contributing to the grid, earning fame and glory while rocking out. Their audition isn’t met with adulation, though, and they are summarily kicked to the curb by Tatiana, the head of the NSR music label and the ruler of Vinyl City. Seeing the results of their try out, and the power they were able to produce, the rockers go on a quest to right this wrong, taking over the city one district at a time by hijacking the concerts of NSR artists and earning fans along the way.

This is not a terribly unique set up, but it does work for what the game wants to be. As a Saturday morning cartoon styled, predictable romp, the plot is fine if a bit dull. The biggest issue is that there’s so much of it. During the relatively short playtime, it seemed like there was more story sequences than actual action or gameplay. I never do this, but during the “talking head” parts where the plot was expository instead of sequence based, I would check email, harvest some cards on Steam and clean up clutter. The plot is so simple that full attention wasn’t required to follow along. That isn’t to say that it was completely boring. There’s fun to be had in the whiplash of Mayday’s voice acting. Sometimes she sounds like a typical American, but other times it sounds like she’s channeling Die Antwoord’s Yolandi only to morph into a person with a functional, but somewhat strained grasp of the English language. Basically, her voice actress needed a few more takes.

Then there are the levels leading up to the boss fights. Bland and annoying, these are straightforward stages that require rudimentary dodging and attack skills. The only aggravating portions of these (mercifully short) areas is that the platforming can be off. Some of the camera angles are weird and the timing of jumps is erratic. It’s not difficult, but failed jumps are invariably the fault of a weird controller feel along with a platform whooshing away like a vicious, but not clever, prankster pulling the chair out from behind a sitting person. The levels are just something to endure, neither great nor terrible, like throwaway tracks on an album with a few great hits.

Those hits do come, though, in the form of the boss fights. These are the star of the show and where the rhythm/platformer concept reaps dividends. Facing off against an eclectic group of larger than life (in personality and size) villains, the player must piece together the multiple tricks and gimmicks for each encounter. Probing and experimenting to learn the patterns and best course of action, mastering the parry system that incorporates the beat of the music, and besting the foe is a fun process with each climatic battle. Yes, each fight can be brute forced and won by slapping continue, but the idea is to put together a flawless run. Once one version of the boss can be beat easily, then a different version can be challenged at the player’s leisure, starting with Hard. More variances open up after the story is completed, including a Perfect Parry mode, requiring rhythm be on point and driving home the blend of genres in a fun way.

The music during these fights is also well done. In the handful of tracks, we get a blend of genres like house, classical piano and even a robot-fronted boy band. The way the music blends from the bosses’ style to the protagonists’ rock is a neat trick, even if the illusion can be explained with simple scripting. The tunes sound good and fit the overall tone that the game is trying to achieve.

Between the levels and bosses, there are a few side activities. The band’s fans act like experience points, which can be used to unlock perks like the double jump or the ability to hold more ammo. Beating bosses earns the experience, obviously, but there’s also powering up things like street lights in the hub world using pickups found scattered all over. Just a protip: the player does not need to snag all of the pickups. I was able to power up everything in the game (got the trophy for it) and had around 800 of the units left over. This is knowing that I left some of the pick ups out there, unclaimed, so a completionist will have even more stored up with nothing to spend it on.

There’s also some bugs with which to contend. Sometimes, that can be meant literally. During a sequence when the duo are riding an elevator, their textures glitches out, making it appear that their skin was covered with a swarm of little crawlies. Or it could have been a side effect of the rock and roll lifestyle. During a simple rock dodging section in a helicopter, pausing the game meant that controls were relinquished upon resuming play.¬† Fortunately, this section can be completed by doing nothing based on my play through. These add up to just the level of annoyance, but it also shows that the title could have used more time in the studio before hitting the airwaves.

Closing Comments:

For such a short game with so many issues, it seems crazy to recommend¬†No Straight Roads. The story is overly drawn out, almost feeling like it was intended for a longer game, the levels are to be endured and the underlying systems meant to bring depth are just kind of there, staring at you, begging you to yell “Freebird” so it can go on a long tirade about jerks in the audience. Even the climax of the game felt tacked on. The boss fights, however, show flashes of well-designed brilliance. The game is designed to encourage experimentation to get the most of these parts, and then pushes the player into more elaborate variations that add to the challenge and fun. These parts make No Straight Roads an easy buy when it’s on sale, but it’s too bad that there’s more filler than killer here.