Streets of Rage 4 understands the lay of the beat-‘em-up land well. Since the end of the original trilogy in the 1990s, the genre has seen competent clones, flabby mutations weighed down with RPG-style progression, and plenty more in-between.
It would seem like there’s nowhere new to go without disrupting the fine balance brought by Sega’s original three Bare Knuckles; their harmony of control and aesthetic refining the 2D scrolling brawler to its pinnacle.
What Streets of Rage 4 does, then, is recognise its predecessors thrived on the same simplicity and monotony that led to this evolutionary dead end in the genre, and it doesn’t try to reinvent or over-complicate. It capitalises on the sense of freshness accumulated through its prolonged absence, tightens and modernises, then gently prods at the boundaries to coax out some extra depth.
For a fighter coming out of retirement, Streets of Rage 4 is remarkably lean and sharp. The crisp new visual style, with bold cartoon characters in relief against pencil-sketched backdrops, adds detail without clutter. Story mode restricts events to a handful of comic book stills between each meaty stage.
Levels remain linear and tightly paced, and while there are a few more this time, this is an unabashed arcade romp designed to be finished in short order. Longevity relies on difficulty levels, performance rankings, and leader boards, or endless (online or local) co-op runs purely for the joy of the fight.
It hasn’t forgotten the old techniques either, and links them together with an even slicker flow. Stinging jabs stun opponents momentarily, lining them up for a follow-up flurry or grapple. Double forward taps engage blitz attacks to clear space in front. The fluid mechanics of grab, vault, and throw enable timely dodges or swift reversals to dismantle threats from the rear.
Sure, the ageing cast are a little slow on their feet these days. The moveset here is based on that of Streets of Rage 2, so characters can’t run (except youthful newcomer Cherry Hunter) or roll as in Streets of Rage 3. There’s still no block button either, so aggressive crowd control is a must, closing enemies down and corralling them together for efficient take-downs.
New tactical possibilities emerge as subtle extensions from the old foundations. There’s a greater supply of weapons, especially handy when thrown to keep agile foes at bay. A charged regular attack will send thugs skidding away. Launched enemies can be juggled with follow-up strikes to finish them off before they can recover. A well-timed special when you’re surrounded can turn the tables back in your favour. It all combines seamlessly, as a combo counter pushes you to maximise the pressure.
In response, your opponents swarm in greater numbers than they used to. They’re still predictably one-dimensional, and each has only a couple of different moves at their disposal. But they’re a little more cunning as they circle and jockey for position to make their move, and new additions, such as shielded riot cops and stocky martial artists, ensure you can’t simply attack head on.
Bosses and a few other key enemies then introduce special flash attacks that can’t be interrupted, and working out how to deal with these is an extra headache. As they begin to stack, these new dangers force constant tactical improvisation and add scope for performance refinement, without altering the series’ DNA.
The marriage of old and new even extends to the all-important soundtrack. As a collaborative effort, it’s more diverse than in any of the past games, but still steadfastly 1990s in flavour. Original composer Yuzo Koshiro’s opening tracks replicate the house anthems of the first game, before Olivier Derivière’s stage themes wander purposefully through jazzy synths and dirty basslines, or thumping industrial beats under screeching electro alarms.
If anything, it flags on a few boss battles, but as each piece mixes and bridges to suit the on-screen action, it’s a constant enlivening presence, augmenting the game’s assured swagger.
When Streets of Rage 4 does falter, it’s due to relatively minor irritations and imbalances. Difficulty is uneven, as certain run-of-the-mill battles can drain lives in seconds, while a few bosses are oddly feeble.
The combo system can feel mean, as a large score boost can be wiped out entirely with a single hit, and in busy fights, it’s all too easy for the odd punch to sneak through. At times, your limited defensive options feel over-exploited by sweeping invincible attacks or flying kicks that track you vertically in mid-air. And despite the tight controls, it would help if specials could instantly cancel other moves.
The only remaining question is whether, in 2020, the design could have been pushed yet further and delivered even more. The levels are full of personality and contain a few interactive environmental features, but are hardly experimental. The new characters have some different tricks, but aren’t a great departure from past favourites. Eventually, there’s no disguising the sense of repetition.
But Streets of Rage 4 succeeds because it isn’t ashamed of what it is, sticking to its roots and excelling within their limitations, tapping into the genre’s last reserves without becoming diluted. As the new leader in its field, it deserves credit as much for its skilful restraint as its unhinged violence.
As ever, your big special attacks drain health when used. But now, like Bloodborne, this health can be regained if you follow up with more damage before you get hit. It’s a minor tweak, but it ups the risk/reward stakes considerably, daring you to unleash your full power but quickly punishing carelessness.
A masterful, modern revival of a console classic.
Format: PS4 (tested) / PC / XBO / Switch
Developer: Dotemu / Lizardcube / Guard Crush
Release: Out now