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A Eulogy for ‘Dark Souls II’: The Strengths and Shortcomings of One of Gaming’s Most Divisive Sequels

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Dark Souls II

Calling Dark Souls one of the most compelling and influential video games of the past generation would be an unbelievable understatement. Developed by From Software and directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the original Dark Souls itself was the spiritual successor to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and served as a testament to how much a sequel can improve, polish and refine an original game’s core mechanics. Five years later, the franchise has gone on to inspire some of the most creative games in recent memory, has paved the way for the return of overtly difficult games, and has essentially created its own subgenre of challenging games with unconventional narratives. Naturally, any sequel following up what is widely considered to be one of the greatest action role-playing games of all time was going to be judged harshly.

Developed by a separate team and without the complete direction of its creator, Dark Souls II received a fairly positive reception by critics, but a surprisingly mixed reaction from the community. To this day, the game is a contentious topic among Souls fans, many of whom completely disregard its contribution to the franchise as a whole and choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. Although the sequel didn’t recreate the absolute brilliance that was the level design, atmosphere, and lore of Dark Souls, I find that it remains vastly underappreciated.

While Dark Souls II has very defined flaws, such as its problematic online system and inconsistent level design, it does its job as a sequel remarkably well. By no means does it serve as a substitution for the original game, instead, it complements and expands on the themes and systems that were already present. Although there are several lackluster aspects of Dark Souls II, its mechanical improvements, subversion of established themes and exploration of new ideas elevate it to the quality of any other game in the series and, in turn, one of the most interesting RPGs of all time.

One area that has undoubtedly improved in the sequel is its accessibility and general gameplay. As the sequel to a financially successful and critically acclaimed title, Dark Souls II has an extra degree of polish compared to its predecessors, creating subtle, yet effective changes to the series. For starters, nearly every aspect of the user interface was streamlined and simplified to be more intuitive to new players and faster to navigate for veterans. Inventory menus, character stats and upgrade trees that were incomprehensible messes of numbers and abbreviations in the original game were transformed into the easily navigated menu style that the series uses to this day.

The movement system now allowed for the players to dodge roll in eight directions, instead of four, while locked onto an enemy and jumping could be mapped to its own button. These small changes had a profound effect on how well players can maneuver during fights and explore the world. While the combat of the game has noticeably slowed down, this is really a matter of preference rather than superiority, as there are pros and cons to both the originals fast-paced and punishing duels and the sequels more methodical and tactical fights. That being said, the sequel benefits greatly from the inclusion of guard-breaking, power stance weapons and locked-on dead angles.

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Additionally, a wider variety of weapons, spells, and armor (with many being accessible from early in the game) create a larger amount of possible character combinations, making each new character fundamentally different to play. This increased build variety, the ability to respect your character’s stats and the inclusion of content exclusive to New Game+ made Dark Souls II one of the most replayable entries in the series. As much as I enjoy Bloodborne, the sheer quantity of content in this game is what keeps drawing me back to it, even if it’s not as innovative as newer games in the franchise.

As much as I love the gameplay of Dark Souls II, I know that it is completely a matter of preference and is heavily influenced by whichever game you played first. People tend to just pick a side and dedicate themselves to that game, so whether I’m trying to get somebody to join a fight club in Darkroot Garden (DS) or the Iron Keep (DSII), it’s like arguing with a brick wall. The story of Dark Souls II, on the other hand, is both interesting and beneficial to the series, regardless of which game you think plays better.

While it’s absolutely possible to appreciate the Souls games solely for their painful difficulty, meticulously designed levels or imaginative bosses, the world building and lore found in these games are second to none. The amount of information that is conveyed solely through the environment in areas such as Aldia’s Keep, The Shrine of Amana and The Forest of Fallen Giants is staggering. Although Dark Souls II was criticized for having less consistent and interesting lore when it was first released, the Scholar of the First Sin DLC added enough content to the game to put it on par with the first game.

Taken at face value, the stories of both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II boil down to “kill a bunch of monsters for their souls.” But in reality, there is much more going on than just what your character is experiencing, as each game has an extensive history behind every location you visit and every character that you meet.

The original game tells the story of how Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his race of Gods used the power of the First Flame to overthrow the immortal Dragons who ruled the world before them. Over time, the First Flame began to fade and the world started to fall apart, resulting in humans becoming cursed and turning into the zombie-like, undead hollows, which live forever but gradually go insane with each death. Gwyn sacrifices himself to delay the end of the world for a short period of time, but everything goes to hell without him and the world continues to decay.

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You play “The Chosen Undead,” a human hollow who’s destined to collect the souls of the four most important beings in the world (called “Lord Souls”) and rekindle the First Flame. At the end of the game, you can either choose to sacrifice yourself to the First Flame and delay the end of the world a little bit longer (as Gwyn did) or to allow the fire to fade and become the ruler of a world of darkness. The sequel takes place many years after the first game and focuses on your player character facing the same curse as the Chosen Undead in the first game.

Yet again you are tasked with collecting the four Lord Souls then rekindling the first flame, except now there’s a twist: your guide to the First Flame, Queen Nashandra, is actually evil and is manipulating you to bypass the barriers to the flame put in place by her King, Vendrick, when he found out she was evil. Towards the endgame, you learn that this same process of rekindling the flame as it fades has taken place countless times throughout history (called “The Cycle”) and will continue to create and destroy society as long as somebody is willing to fight the curse and sacrifice themselves to the First Flame. Finally, after defeating Nashandra, you are given the option to either accept that the curse is a part of life or walk away from the First Flame entirely, in search of a way to end the cycle for good.

The first game focuses more on building an interesting world and history around the First Flame, while the second is primarily concerned with the protagonist’s struggle against the curse and their fight to understand The Cycle. Both games’ stories work independently of each other, but when they are taken together, they become something truly special. The history of The Cycle provided in the second game retroactively adds a level of mythic importance to the events of the first game and, in turn, experiencing the Chosen Undead’s story in the first game creates a sense of nostalgia and gravitas when repeating the process in the second game. Not only does the sequel expand on the first game’s themes, it actively questions them. Although Dark Souls stands as a cornerstone of gaming, I believe it is grossly misinterpreted.

At a passing glance, Dark Souls is a historically difficult game where you are forced to overcome whatever stands in your way or continuously die trying. But this is only part of the bigger picture. While a lesser game would be content with the simple message of “Try your hardest and you can overcome anything,” Dark Souls takes an unsurprisingly grim step further, and makes the case that this arbitrary choice between a “light” or “dark” ending is just as meaningless as any other choice you’re faced with. No matter what choice you make, the outcome is the same; the game is over, and the player must restart the game or move on.

While both of these interpretations are equally valid, I think it’s remarkably telling that the harshest critic of the black and white “Prepare to Die,” slogan/mentality is the game’s own sequel. What was subtext in the first game directly becomes text in Dark Souls II. As the firekeeper in the sequel’s opening speaks of the last kingdom to rise and fall as a result of The Cycle, she states that “…one day, you will stand before its decrepit gate. Without really knowing why…,” Within the first 130 seconds of the game you are directly told how inconsequential your actions are and the game doesn’t stop there. Countless characters echo this same theme throughout the game.

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“I, too, sought fire, once. With fire, they say, a true king can harness the curse. A lie. But I knew no better…”-King Vendrick

“Many kingdoms rose and fell on this tract of earth; mine was by no means the first. Anything that has a beginning also has an end. No flame, however brilliant, does not one day splutter and fade. But then, from the ashes, the flame reignites, and a new kingdom is born, sporting a new face. It is all a curse! Heh heh heh!”-Straid of Olaphis

“Men are props on the stage of life, and no matter how tender, how exquisite… A LIE will remain A LIE!” –Aldia

While some criticize Dark Souls II for its overt bleakness, I believe it’s done purposefully, to both directly question its predecessor’s message and to interpret this “illusion of control,” in a new light. To further critique itself, the game’s structure initially mirrors the final sequence of the original game (Find the four Lord Souls, then find the King) but then goes on to subvert the player’s expectations in several ways. First, after hours of being told to seek the King, you arrive at Drangleic Castle and are introduced to the Queen.

The “dark” deceitful Nashandra herself juxtaposes the “light” and noble Vendrick and Gwyn. Even when we first meet Vendrick, he is not the proud or fierce Lord we are expecting in the vein of Gwyn. Instead, the player fights their way through the decaying Drangleic Castle, endures the Undead Crypt, and defeats Vendrick’s Royal Guard only to be greeted by a fully hollowed King, aimlessly shuffling around his burial room as an undead. This same subversion is central to the overarching story of the sequel as a whole and is paramount in understanding the game’s climax.

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Before examining the true ending, it’s important to understand Dark Souls II’s change in perspective from a world based narrative to one driven by characters. One fair criticism of this game is that it featured a far less impressive list of supporting characters than Dark Souls. Regardless of what was or was not cut from the final version of Dark Souls II, I can’t really say it provided any characters as iconic as the likes of Solaire and Artorias.

The brief interactions with the majority of NPCs are serviceably engaging but the only real standout among them is Lucatiel’s slow deterioration to a hollow. What the story lacks in scope it more than makes up for in focus, as Vendrick, Nashandra, The Emerald Herald (a mysterious firekeeper who levels you up) and most importantly the player character, are all given ample space to be fleshed out. While the item descriptions of the souls of both the King and Queen serve as small character arcs, posing questions on the nature of “light and dark,” and The Emerald Herald is meant to parallel Nashandra’s manipulation of the King, I believe the driving force of the story comes from its obsession with the main character and the question of what their true motivation is.

The opening cinematic of Dark Souls sets the stage for a story of legendary scale involving Gods, immortal Dragons, wars deciding the fate of the world, eternally cursed humans and the source of life itself. Throughout the game, you seek “Humanity,” the blackened remains of fallen humans, in order to keep the undead curse at bay and remain human. Dark Souls II doesn’t frame itself as some grand epic. There are no wars, Dragons or Gods, only the player character and the curse. Vistas of impossibly large battlefields and kingdoms basking in sunlight are replaced by disturbing, claustrophobic shots of the curse tearing away at our character’s very humanity as their memory fades before their eyes.

Your character’s only tie to reality comes in the form of “Human Effigies,” small replicas of humans that function the same as Humanity. While the sequel is often criticized for being so upfront with the importance of the curse, as opposed to allowing the environment to gradually reveal its intricacies to the player, I think the change in perspective necessitates the change in tone from the past game. Although this story is seemingly more forward than the original, it does so to intentionally misinform the player’s actions so the rug can be pulled out from under them in the endgame.

As I previously mentioned, at face value, the original Dark Souls appears to be the token, soul-crushingly difficult challenge that it has become known for. However, this is actually a very elementary interpretation of the game. As fans of the series have come to learn through each games extensive history of hidden lore, the Souls series is actually just as complex at a narrative level as it is at a gameplay level. The encompassing theme of Dark Souls is that choice itself is an illusion. Light or dark ultimately cap off the game the same way and accomplish the same thing: nothing. The game ends, the credits roll and the player is kicked into NG+ to endlessly repeat the same actions in hopes of a different result. Just as the protagonist of the first game, the player comes to realize they are simply a pawn of forces greater than themselves, the game designers.

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The sequel, on the other hand, offers a slightly more optimistic, albeit vague, conclusion. The subtext of the original game’s ending is presented openly and directly to the player after the final boss has been defeated. There is no good or bad ending, no light or dark path, no choice, the player’s only option is to ascend the throne of want, rekindle the first flame and repeat the cycle anew. That is until Scholar of the First Sin arrived. Without the addition of Aldia (The king’s brother, who was consumed by the First Flame and now exists outside of all worlds) in this DLC, the game’s ending is somewhat unsatisfactory as there were constant hints of “breaking the cycle” throughout the vanilla game. Aldia guides the main character on their path to breaking free of the curse and constantly questions the futility of this process.

From a narrative standpoint, he serves to compare the inconsequentiality of the main character’s acts to the illusion of importance experienced by the player themselves. The new ending, enabling the main character to walk away from The Cycle and the First Flame entirely, arrives at the same nihilistic conclusion as the original story, but takes an unexpected turn:

“There is no path. Beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of Dark…what could possibly await us? And yet, we seek it, insatiable…Such is our fate.” -Aldia, DLC ending

Just as Aldia states, it seems that it is human nature to desire what is intrinsically outside of our reach and to pursue it regardless. Dark Souls II does not shy away from this fact, it embraces it. Even in this ending, the player is encouraged to continue their Sisyphean journey and continue playing, the only true option available.

“For the curse of life, is the curse of want. And so, you peer… Into the fog, in hope of answers.” -Ancient Dragon

An aspiring journalist who spends too much time thinking about the games he plays

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

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‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

We’ve already covered a wide variety of the games on display at PAX South this year, from retro revivals to unorthodox romances to everything in between – and we’re not done yet! In this next roundup article, we cover three more ambitious, action-packed games: Ghostrunner, Everspace 2, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner was one of the most in-demand games at PAX, and after playing it, it’s easy to see why. This first-person action slasher, developed by One More Level and produced by 3D Realms, lets players dash through the air, run across walls, and slash through enemies at blistering speed all while exploring a dystopian cyberpunk world. It’s gorgeous, lightning fast, and feels amazing to play.

Ghostrunner begins in a broken future, where the remnants of humanity have hidden away in a single condensed tower. Naturally enough, you’re put in the role of the one rebel who dares to rise up against the forces oppressing humanity. As you begin your uprising, you’ll also encounter a grand mystery – why is humanity the way it is now? Just what happened to the rest of the world? And what’s that voice you hear in your head?

Ghostrunner

My demo didn’t offer much illumination to these mysteries, but the 3D Realms team assured me that the story plays a significant role in the main campaign. What my demo did offer, however, was a look into the fast-paced, brutal gameplay that defines the game. Combat is so dynamic in Ghostrunner. Your arsenal of moves is massive and varied – of course you can run, jump, and slash with your katana, but you can also run along walls, dash over chasms, slow down time to dodge bullets, and more.

When all the moving pieces flow together, Ghostrunner achieves a visceral, almost hypnotic flow of battle. There are a few obstacles to this feeling. The controls took a bit of getting used to on my end, but that would be because, console peasant that I am, I’m not used to playing 3D games on a keyboard instead of a controller. Also, this may be an action game, but at many times it feels more like a puzzle game. With bloodthirsty enemies scattered around each environment, you’ll often need to take a step back and methodically evaluate which abilities to use in each situation. This can take some trial and error – it might have taken me more than a few tries to clear out the final wave of enemies. But when the solution works out, it’s a beautifully exhilarating feeling, and that’s what sets Ghostrunner apart.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

PAX featured plenty of retro-styled games, but not many quite like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. This retro-style FPS is a throwback to the simpler, faster days of shooters, built entirely in the same engine as the original Quake. It was even based off the work of Quake community modders. If you’ve played any classic FPS like the original DOOM or Wolfenstein, then you should have a good idea of how Wrath plays: it’s brutal, lightning fast, and action packed.

My demo got straight to the point. After teleporting me to a distant hellscape, I was faced with a horde of demons, ranging from simple skeletons to more aggressive ogre-like enemies and flying laser monsters. Thankfully, I was also given an assortment of weapons to take these creatures down with, including a simple handgun, a powerful blade arm, and my personal favorite, a shotgun. Each one of these felt good to control, and like any good old-fashioned shooter, they gave me a great feeling of power.

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Like any good, brutal FPS in the vein of Quake, Wrath features an insane amount of mobility. Movement is extremely fast and fluid, allowing you to zip across and above stages with reckless abandon. This extra speed will be necessary, especially considering that enemies can slaughter on with reckless, overwhelming abandon.

Of course, being built in the original Quake engine, Wrath is a delightfully retro treat to behold. It features all the signature hard polygonal edges of PC shooters from that bygone era, but with the added smoothness and fluidity of modern hardware. The game feels great to play and is a unique treat to behold. Wrath is currently available on Steam Early Access, and there’s plenty of new content that can be expected throughout the year, including new levels, enemies, and even a full online multiplayer mode. Stuffed with violent retro action, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is absolutely worth watching out for.

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Everspace 2

Space is the final frontier, offering limitless exploration This’s the exact feeling that Everspace 2 captures. This sandbox open world space shooter dumps you in outer space and leaves you to figure out the rest, allowing you to fight, scavenge, and explore as you will, all with an incredible amount of freedom.

It’s a remarkably beautiful game too, boasting of extremely detailed 3D graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a full 3D AAA experience. It’s extremely ambitious, offering a wealth of customization options through parts that can be scavenged from fallen space craft or space debris. There’s alien life to discover and a wealth of locations to explore, with the full game apparently featuring more than 80 unique environments.

PAX South

These environments will always be interesting to explore thanks to a mix between handcrafted worlds and randomization. The original Everspace was a pure roguelike, and as developer Rockfish Games told me, this constantly changing design has often been fundamental to previous great space shooters. Although Rockfish opted for an intentionally designed open world for the sequel, they want to maintain some of those same roguelike elements. That’s why whenever you venture through the many galaxies of Everspace 2, the galaxies and planets will be the same, but the items you find or enemies you encounter within them may change each time.

It took me some time to get used to Everspace. It immediately offers a great amount of freedom, with the demo simply dumping me in space and only requiring that I take down some enemy units and pick up some loot. Yet once I got the hang of the controls and the environment, it became extremely fluid and natural to zip through space, upgrade different components, and experience all the free-flowing action that it has to offer. Space is the ultimate freedom, and Everspace 2 is set to represent that.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

PAX South

Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

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Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

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However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

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It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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