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Review: Treachery in Beatdown City

31 Mar 2020

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by three separate but equally important groups: the slow-moving grappler who bodyslams street punks, the quicker but weaker character who is almost always a woman, and the average character who does a little bit of everything competently. That would be Law & Order: Belt-Scrolling Brawler Unit, a show coming roughly never to television but would certainly encapsulate the aforementioned genre of video games quite well.

If you’ve been playing video games for long enough, you have almost certainly played these games and/or seen them at arcades. Characters move around, punching street punks for a mix and match of a few different reasons from a grab bag of “CRIME WAVE,” “KIDNAPPING,” “INCOMPETENT POLICE,” and “WE WANTED TO MAKE A VIDEO GAME.” You do this for a while and then the game ends. Silly, often repetitive, still generally fun, especially when the game featured licensed characters.

Treachery in Beatdown City is very deliberately structured as both an homage to these classic experiences as well as an extrapolation of the same premise. While it’s not intended to rewrite the book, it is meant to provide players with a different and more deliberate approach to the overall setup with a menu-based system that feels like a halfway point toward more RPG elements introduced to a brawler. And if that seems like it might not coalesce quite right…well, you’d be sort of right, but in this particular case it’s actually not that big of a deal.

Treachery in Beatdown City releases on March 31st on both Steam and Nintendo Switch. The Steam version was played for this review.

Final Fight in Beatdown City

At its heart, Treachery in Beatdown City is a silly game. That’s not the same as a funny game; it isn’t trying to be humorous, exactly. Rather, it is very consciously planting its tongue firmly in its cheek and inviting you to laugh along with it.

For example, the game literally starts with President Blake Orama (yes) being kidnapped by ninjas (yes) during a press conference in East Fulton, but Mayor Moneybags (yes) just makes every possible terrible decision by shutting down the police force. That means it’s up to three trained fighters to prove that they are, in fact, pugilistic enough fellows to rescue President Orama.

It doesn’t stop there, either. The game opens with Lisa, our MMA enthusiast (who serves as the game’s “average” fighter), being mistaken for a member of a gym’s custodial staff by an entitled public urinator simply because she’s Hispanic. She then proceeds to beat the snot out of him. The other two cast members are Bruce, a Jeet Kune Do/Capoeira fighter whose day job is working as a stockbroker, and Brad, a former pro wrestler who teaches adult education classes and works for community outreach now that he’s retired.

Anyone who has paid attention to pro wrestling will probably note that Brad is actually a pretty accurate picture of a former heel wrestler, ironically.

The trio then proceed to the police station while fighting their way through street hustlers, racists, oppressive cops, entitled hipsters, and…you get the idea. It’s silly. Literally everyone in the lineup is an intentional strawman of a villain, and our heroes are all absolutely justified in dealing with these minor irritations with sudden, bone-snapping violence at the first available opportunity.

At the same time, though… it’s supposed to be silly. There’s no attempt at satire here, nor does the game claim as such; its entire point to all of this is to create a scenario wherein all of these absurd personalities can bounce off of one another. There’s no subtlety or nuance because the genre it’s emulating is itself devoid of subtlety or nuance. All of this is silly and over-the-top and implausible, it never pretends otherwise, and the game doesn’t want to say anything more about the situation beyond propping up strawmen and letting you loose.

It’s not a perfect take, by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the silliness is likely to occasionally grate on people, and not all of it lands with exactly the right impact; at times it felt like the writing made the ostensible heroes be just as strident and one-dimensional as the strawmen they’re taking on, which blunted the delivery. But any time it would start to nudge at me the game would come back with another irritation of city life or just general entitlement and it swung back around to being fun again. And once you remember that, as mentioned, this is all pitched at the level of its inspirations as “silly fun,” any frustration starts lowering quickly.

Bad Dudes vs. Beatdown City

At a glance, Treachery in Beatdown City appears to be some kind of hybrid brawler and RPG. It…is not that. There’s no experience system for beating up punks (although you do gain some new moves over time) and you are, for the most part, in static setups for the game. Rather, it’s more of an RPG-like system in how it handles fights, removing the execution barrier and replacing it with more tactical considerations.

While you do have a basic strike button as you move around, it’s mostly useful for tapping enemies who are almost dead or breaking environmental objects. Most of your actual gameplay is focused around approaching enemies and opening the combo menu, allowing you to string together a sequence of moves. Each move costs FP, a resource that steadily accumulates, and one of the three action bar segments you have underneath it. So you can string together three moves for more hits.

This plays into itself because as you get combos, you get bonus FP, which enables you to use moves like various three-hit combos that take up one action bar unit, which in turns open you up for more powerful combos. String together hits, deal with incoming attacks by blocks and counters, etc.

Solid idea. Unfortunately, some of the details seem to…not work so well.

For example: Grappling. Grappling involves using a starter grapple and then a variety of direct grappling moves; Brad is entirely a grappler, while Lisa has some grapple options and Bruce has none. All well and good on paper, but every enemy has some chance of countering grapples, and the net result is that grapples are almost always going to fail on most of the enemies you’d actually want to grapple. Moreover, a lot of enemies seem to be able to hit you out of your grapple attempts even midway through, while you get one chance to counter a grapple yourself.

Counters and blocks in general are frustrating, because counters seem to be only available at almost random times, and they seem equally random in the likelihood they’ll connect; similarly, blocking only gives you a chance to maybe reduce damage. Instead of these being tactical options, it’s hitting a button and hoping everything lines up, often leading to moments that have that awful feeling of “making the right tactical choice and still losing.”

There’s also the fact that there is little way to “safely” put range between you and an enemy to let yourself rebuild; most of the time you’ll just be opening your back up and either spending lots of FP to turn around, or taking lots of extra damage. It always felt faintly frustrating, as if there was no actual clear picture of how to play the game smart and not just lucky.

While this is definitely a problem, it is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that you don’t feel as if you’re constantly flailing at the game. Mostly it felt to me like it needed more signposts and guides to how you were supposed to be playing, like there was some secret formula just not well-communicated by the game. It’s frustrating to feel like Brad can’t get his grapples to properly connect, but it’s a joy to feel like he connected, grabbed the opponent, and speared him right into the ground before blocking another enemy and preparing for the next round of attacks. And the collection of buffs and debuffs are helpful, too; this is one of the few games where damage-over-time is a legitimate threat to players and enemies.

I don’t know that this system is entirely an improvement over the input-based controls of most beat-em-ups, but I think it’s definitely a step along that path. It may not be perfect, but it does help lay out the intended technical intricacies of the design so that players can start to at least approach what the game wants them to do. Possibly falling short in the process, but the intent was still there.

Vendetta in Beatdown City

Visually, the game resembles NES games in complexity if not colors; it’s chunky pixel artwork with lots of character, somewhat stiff animations but lots of fun portraits and background designs. Everything is definitely clear enough that you can always tell exactly what is happening, buff and debuff icons have different colors and clear implications as they float overhead, and so forth. It’s a good look.

The presentation continues to shine when you extend it to the game’s music, which is all chiptunes but is also instantly recognizable and appropriate as it beeps in and out through fights, cutscenes, wandering the city, and so forth. Indeed, if you didn’t know better it’d be easy to mistake the presentation for a genuine period piece, since the tunes have that perfect combination of familiarity and sharp originality.

There are also a lot of nice visual touches throughout the game, little details to the city streets in both top-down and side-scrolling modes. It’s nothing that’ll floor you, but it’s very clear that each background is a labor of love, and it gives East Fulton at once its own unique character and a distinct feature. It also has the advantage of, well…feeling authentic in a way that a lot of the games it’s offering an homage to sometimes don’t.

One problem I did have, at least personally, was with my controller. I tested it with a few other games to make sure, but for some reason there was a notable and consistent lag between the button presses and effects on the screen. I have no idea if it’s a quirk of my particular system or something odd about the game itself. Fortunately, this isn’t a dealbreaker, as the keyboard controls are clear and this is not a game which requires the added speed of using a controller to punch things.

Double Dragon, Double Beatdown City

If it’s not clear enough from the review, outside of the visuals and music, Treachery in Beatdown City is a mixed bag. It tries to really push the envelope and extend what it can do to the outer limits of its ability and ambition. It takes a lot of big shots, and unfortunately it doesn’t land most of them flawlessly.

But you know what? That’s fine.

Here’s the thing about the side-scrolling beat-em-up formula that the game is very consciously copying: It’s such a formula that there are countless entirely forgettable games in the genre that aim for nothing more than copying some of the greatest hits and slide perfectly into a slot of “play once and then forget altogether.” Not bad, but not ambitious enough to be memorable or anything.

If Treachery in Beatdown City had just tried to be that, it would probably be a more solid game…at the cost of being memorable. As it stands, there’s some janky bits, parts that don’t work, weird decisions, and frustrating elements…and yet none of them ever made me want to stop playing. Sure, I might have felt like a given bit of story was eye-rolling in a patronizing tone, but I always wanted to see what else it had around the corner. The combat didn’t always flow well, but in the moments when it did it was magical.

And quite frankly, this is not a game I want to drag for its ambition outpacing its reach. I like this title. It tries a bunch of stuff, some of which doesn’t quite work, and it deserves admiration for all of that rather than being vilified for the fact that some of it could be better.

It’s got fun characters, great presentation, and a system that has some stumbles but is ultimately a neat idea. And let’s face it, if you’ve ever been in a city, bodyslamming people who won’t stop taking up the whole damn sidewalk feels like an appropriate response.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by NuChallenger for PC. Screenshots courtesy of NuChallenger and HurakanWorks.