By Leah McDonald / September 30th, 2020
|Title||No Straight Roads|
|Publisher||Sold Out Ltd.|
|Release Date||Aug. 25, 2020|
|Genre||Music, rhythm, adventure|
|Platform||Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch|
Revolutions are messy, complicated, herculean undertakings that rarely go the way anyone expects. They twist and turn, often outside of anyone’s control and can, on occasion, end up right back where they started, only this time as the establishment to be rebelled against. Revolution has (pun absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent intended) no straight roads and no guaranteed outcome. It’s a lesson our rock-star wannabe heroes Mayday and Zuke learn in their own quest to overthrow titular capitalist/corporatist/authoritarian (honestly, take your pick) bad guys No Straight Roads.
Vinyl City is run on the power of music – literally. The source of the city’s power is Qwasa, which is generated through the ever-present music that reverberates throughout every street and alley. At one time, Vinyl City was a place where any musician of any stripe could play their tunes and earn accolades, but in recent years, the nefarious power company No Straight Roads has signed only EDM artists. Coinciding with this choice are a spate of blackouts affecting life in the city. And when our heroes Mayday and Zuke compete in NSR’s tournament to find their newest star to help power the city, they intend on bringing back rock music. Unfortunately, NSR and its leader, Tatiana, have no interest in rock and roll, and the art form is outlawed outright. So what are our rockers to do? Rebel, of course.
No Straight Roads (the game, not the company) is pretty straightforward in its plot. Playing as May and Zuke, you traverse an absolutely gorgeous landscape dripping in vibrant colors, striking visual design, and absolute bopping tracks. The game is split into two distinct segments: Traversal through Vinyl City, in which you can jump and roll around and talk to a handful of NPCs while collecting mini-Qwasas to help restore power to various parts of the city; and combat sequences, in which May and Zuke fight NSR robots to reach the company’s EDM artists and hijack their concerts. Enemies attack rhythmically, and you have to dodge their attacks and dish out your own while keeping track of that rhythm. It’s an interesting rhythm brawler hybrid. May is a slower melee attacker who smashes enemies with her guitar, while Zuke uses his drum sticks to beat up his foes in shorter, but less punchy, bursts. You can also attack items on the playfield to gather projectile notes that you can shoot at enemies in the air or at a distance, and a handful of items can also be charged up to either help attack or give you a stat boost of some sort. Swapping between May and Zuke is encouraged, especially if you’re chasing an S rank, since Zuke’s attacks boost your combo meter but May is your heavy hitter.
I might as well take this time to talk about how much I love May. Hell, I don’t think there’s a single character in this game I don’t like. Brash, loud, and super into music, May brings incredible energy to a game that’s brimming with it. Zuke is more laid back and mellow, and the two play off each other fantastically. Tatiana is the cool, almost amused big bad watching from the shadows, and each of the EDM artists is their own flavor of quirky. I wouldn’t say any of the characters have depth, but they have personality out the wazoo, and a couple of the EDM artists – specifically Yinu and Eve – touch on some of the more toxic aspects of music production and creativity that I found really impressive.
No Straight Roads deals with a lot of concepts. There’s the obvious rebellion angle, but it also touches on themes of control, entitlement, and the limits of creativity. NSR controls the radio waves, and therefore controls Vinyl City, but each of its EDM artists is controlled by someone or something, as well. Yinu, for instance, is presented as a typical child prodigy whose love of music at a young age was warped by an overprotective mother into an unhealthy obsession. Eve is controlled by uncertainty and confusion. She can’t find her place in the world, and can’t connect with others in a way that brings her any meaning or happiness. She searches for that meaning in her art, but she desperately wants another human to understand her. Zuke, as well, has some skeletons in his closet, and those manifest in one of the most creative and fun boss battles in the game. People come to music and the creative arts for so many different reasons, and No Straight Roads‘ insistence on including as many as it can was a pleasant surprise.
Not that the game is heavy. Like its neon-coated streets, NSR oozes fun. For every dark corner the game flirts with, it also has you going toe-to-toe against a digital idol run by four kids with too much technical prowess, and a mechanized boy band controlled by a war veteran who can’t stop pontificating on his service. The first boss you fight, DJ Subatomic Supernova, is a blowhard former astronomy professor who thinks he’s above everyone else and turned to music to tell as many people of his superiority as possible. It’s an absolutely fantastic Rogues Gallery for May and Zuke and I love them all.
No music-adjacent game would be complete without its tunes, and No Straight Roads does not disappoint. Every song in this game is a certified banger and runs the gamut from straight electronica to synth classical and auto-tuned pop. Our VTuber idol Sayu is straight bubblegum pop (with the color to match), and rapper DK West breaks the mold with some nice flow. The game features an assortment of well-known composers to bring that music to life, including Falk Au Yeong, James Landino, Andy Tunstall & Funk Fiction, as well as guest artists Masahiro “Godspeed” Aoki, Az Samad, Clyde Rabatel and the Video Game Orchestra. Tracks are distinct and fit their EDM artist impressively well. My personal faves are DK West’s rap sequences and Yinu’s piano synthwave, but there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
And because it’s me, I need to gush about the aesthetic styling a bit. No Straight Roads is a visual cornucopia of delight. While the majority of the game takes place in 3D with incredibly memorable character designs, it also features 2D animated segments and expressive character portraits that give the game a unique sense of style. Each EDM artist oversees a section of Vinyl City, and each of those sections have distinct, striking art direction. Sayu’s district is chock full of billboards and video panes that display her cuteness; Yinu’s district is quiet and subdued, with tree-lined roads and soft lights along the paths; TenTen’s district is all neon nightlife and towering buildings. Even the boss fights have memorable environments, from the run-up sequences to the actual arenas. DJ Subatomic, for instance, uses literal planets against you while you fight on a star chart, and Eve weaponizes an art gallery to stop you. It’s impeccable art design and I cannot get enough of it. The performances are also great. Mayday and Zuke are the standouts, of course, but all of the actors bring their A-game to enliven these quirky, fun characters.
No Straight Roads isn’t without its issues, though. While I enjoyed traversal for the most part, jumping was decidedly janky, and I’d often find myself slipping off ledges or floating over my intended landing space. This was a minor annoyance in the safe traversal sections, but in the run-up areas of the boss fights, this got me killed more than once. The run-up areas also overstay their welcome. Thematically they make sense – NSR would have security in place to protect its artists – but they feel like padding in an otherwise brisk game. Breaking through six to ten security locks just becomes tedious. If the game knocked those down to three or four, it’d still get the point across without feeling like it’s wasting my time. The game suffered from a few spurts of slowdown, especially during traversal sections. Combat, while fun, didn’t offer a lot of depth, and the lack of a lock-on feature was pretty egregious. Even with these issues, though, the game was so overwhelmingly charming and fun that I found they weren’t a deterrent.
In the roughly 15 hours I spent with No Straight Roads, I got to experience a fun ride with a lot of things to say about the music industry, fan entitlement, the ways artists deal with both the positive and negative aspects of fame and creativity, and the messiness of trying to fix a broken system. In their quest to overthrow NSR and bring back rock, Mayday and Zuke also trod on those who genuinely enjoyed the EDM they were hearing, and were on their way to instating rock as the law of the land. Would that make them better than NSR, or just as bad? How much room do we allow for differing voices? When does one voice become so overwhelmingly strong – either through popularity, force, or a combination – that it silences others? And how do artists deal with balancing their personal creative wants with appeasing those who love their creations? When do the fans dictate the creativity rather than the artist? NSR has something to say about each of these – some more coherently than others – and even if I don’t agree with its conclusions in all cases, it sure made a for a fun argument along the way.
No Straight Roads is available on the Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch for $39.99 USD.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
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