Review: No Straight Roads

28 Aug 2020

So, do you like music? I think most would say yes, right? But then you get down to what kind of music. Do you like electronic? No? Well, this isn’t the game for you. Review over.

Just kidding, of course! What we have for you today isn’t exactly what many of you would expect from a music-focused title. No Straight Roads, contrary to what I thought before playing, is not a rhythm/music game, but rather a third-person action game with a music theme. In it, you’re on a mission to bring back rock music to the masses of Vinyl City, which has been taken over, quite literally, by electronic dance music (EDM). Sounds good? Let’s dive in to this literal world of music, shall we?

No Straight Roads was developed by Metronomik and published by Sold Out Ltd. for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC on the Epic Games Store ($39.99). The PC version was played for this review.

Bringing Back Rock

You play as guitarist Mayday and drummer Zuke, denizens of famed Vinyl City, who form a rock band called Bunk Bed Junction and audition for a music talent show Lights On!, sponsored by EDM music empire “NSR”. They complete the audition process (essentially the game’s tutorial) flawlessly, but get soundly rejected by the head judge, who insists to them that rock is in the past and EDM is the new world order, which literally powers the city.

Mayday and Zuke discover in this process that NSR is essentially a literal empire who is taking control of the city and hoarding the city’s energy for themselves, leaving most of the people in the dark and constantly subjecting them to EDM. They soon discover their first rock music fans, however, and begin a quest to make rock #1 in the city by challenging the city’s EDM music overlords to liberate the city’s various districts from their control.

The story is a pretty straightforward David-challenges-Goliath type of deal, which is perhaps a little ironic given the game’s title. But it’s fun, upbeat, and filled with a great brand of humor that actually left me smiling, unlike a few other games I’ve played recently that were trying to be funny but failed.

Zuke and Mayday are solid protagonists who have their differences but remain an inseperable duo, and the character development is there. The antagonists don’t have as much depth; once you deal with each of them you don’t really hear from them again. All told though, the story is hardly perfect but thoroughly enjoyable and makes you want to follow it, rather than skip all the cutscenes.

War of Music

As noted earlier, No Straight Roads is a third-person action game. While music is core to the story, the gameplay is not quite what you’d expect. The music does affect the combat – enemies move and/or attack to the beat of the background music, and you wield instruments as weapons – but it isn’t chained to it. You can move around and attack freely. Timing your jumps and attacks with the music is usually beneficial but not explicitly required.

The game’s structure consists of a central hub, Vinyl City, which contains Bunk Bed Junction’s hideout, the various NPCs you’ll interact with, etc. As you play through the game, the hub links to the various NSR overlords’ hideouts, with an action stage to play through followed by a boss battle.

Along the way you’ll pick up energy, which allows you to restore power to objects around the city and help win over fans with your actions and not just your music. You’ll also find other collectibles, such as stickers, which provide temporary buffs in a level, and all sorts of things to unlock and interact with. The game itself, along with the hub, is pretty linear, but when you complete each stage, you unlock additional tracks to play the level to, which adds variety and replayability.

The combat itself is pretty simple and controls very well. Mayday is the “heavy hitter” and attacks with slower, bigger hits that can leave you vulnerable, so you need good timing to take out the enemies without taking damage. This is important because as you progress, the number of enemies you face at a time increases, and getting hit once often means taking multiple hits after.

Zuke, on the other hand, is all about rapid combos and finishing moves, and is a bit easier to play, although not as strong. Both have various special moves you learn as you play, as well as special combo moves called “showstoppers” that use both characters together. Both characters also have a ranged attack which you must collect ammo (music notes) for.

There’s the option of multiplayer (Local co-op) as well. If you’re playing alone, you control one character while the other follows, and can swap between them freely while the other follows. If you have a friend, each of you chooses to control Zuke or Mayday.

Although the combat is fun, there’s not a lot of variety in the enemies in the action scenes. You’ll see the same NSR security bots and turrets through much of the game, and while they come in new flavors as you go, the game seems to ramp the difficulty more with sheer numbers than unique threats. The action stages themselves are all linear without much exploration and, unlike Vinyl City, they use a fixed camera, which works okay but occasionally gets in the way.

It works out a lot better, however, in the boss fights, which are all very elaborate and unique, and demand a particular perspective to keep the boss and their attacks in view. Odd as this may sound, they do remind me a little bit of Final Fantasy XIV in that the boss attacks are mostly telegraphed, but No Straight Road‘s style of doing this is unique, with a mix of ground indicators, visual effects, and also music cues. The beats and patterns of the music during the boss fights are key to avoiding many attacks, and it all fits together really well.

The result of this is that the action stages are fun enough but lack depth, yet are capped up by fun and lengthy boss fights that challenge you not just to beat them (which is challenging, but not excessively so), but to do so with finesse and perfection. The better your performance, the more fans (essentially EXP) you get, which allows you to unlock more skills and passive effects. As noted before, you can replay these fights after beating them with different music, and you can try to better your grade to win more fans.

Should you happen to get a game over in a level, you have the option to restart the level (or boss fight), or continue from where you were defeated, but this will cap the potential grade you can achieve. This is a good design that allows the game to offer you a reasonable challenge, while allowing you the ability to keep going if you want to focus on the story.

Rockin’ Out

What would a music themed game be without great music? No Straight Roads definitely delivers here, with a lot of excellent music – mainly EDM and rock, of course – and is totally worth playing for this by itself. I dare to say the game is an artistic masterpiece, and you’re sure to find at least some, if not all, of the music to be a blast.

Every area and boss has its own theme, and the boss fights’ music scores shift as you progress through the phases of the battle. The game also features some solid English voice acting, and Zuke and Mayday have great personality and can make you laugh and smile.

The graphics are also up there, though perhaps not up to quiiiiite the same standard. Each district of the city has its own distinct style, and it all looks great. The art style almost feels like a hybrid between western and Japanese animation and is quite detailed, but on PC, is fairly low spec and definitely doesn’t require the highest end gaming rig. My PC, built with the first generation of AMD Ryzen CPUs when they were new, has absolutely no trouble with this game, running it silky smooth.

That said, this game proves you don’t necessarily have to cater to the bleeding edge to create a great experience. The whole experience is also very polished, and I felt few, if any, bugs or glitches affecting the experience.

Ending Riffs

For once, the conclusion is going to be short and sweet, so let’s get straight to it. While the main levels of the game are not the most exciting, with gameplay that is often just good but not great, the boss battles are tons of fun, and the entire game just oozes style and substance.

I had enough fun with those, and also just rocking out to the wonderful music, that I can mostly overlook the game’s minor gameplay stumbles. No Straight Roads is an excellent experience that I encourage any lover of both music and gaming to have a look at. It’s not flawless, but it’s a darned good time.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sold Out Ltd. for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.