Tonight We Riot is not a game that has any interest in being subtle about its themes, setting itself up as an unapologetic, cathartic polemic that charts the progress of the overthrow of a capitalist regime by a worker-led revolution.
The game takes the tensions that underlie contemporary capitalism as its focus – low wages, precarious work, a corporate-owned media, and so on – then adds a touch of the absurd to that familiar context.
That’s not to say that it intends to be flippant with its critique of capital, but that it’s comfortable being silly and finds plenty of space to have some fun with giant mechs and radioactive monsters.
The game makes some smart moves when it comes to tying the way it frames its fundamental conflict into its mechanics. It’s an old-school, side-scrolling beat-’em-up in the vein of a Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. The twist is that rather than controlling a single character, you are marshalling a crowd.
As you move through the levels, you liberate workplaces to add to your numbers. Start lobbing bricks and they will do the same. Chuck a Molotov cocktail and your comrades will join you to create a barrage of fiery vengeance.
If the lead character you are controlling dies, another member of the group will take their place, until no one is left. Ensuring that this fight against a brutal profit-driven regime is a collective one, requiring solidarity and strength in numbers over individual heroics, both differentiates the game from other titles in the genre and resonates with its politics.
When you’ve gathered a big crowd and you’re unleashing hell on lines of repressive police, Tonight We Riot can gather a satisfying, chaotic energy. That feeling is, however, too rare. Far more common is the feeling that the obstacles added to make each stage gradually more difficult – from troublesome holes in a rickety pier to barrels of toxic waste – are frustrating and finicky interventions that can barely disguise the shallowness of a combat system that is unable to be stretched far enough to take you to interesting places.
This sense that the game is struggling to provide an illusion of depth came to a fore for me when, struggling in a level towards the end of the game, I simply tried running past all the enemies that had been giving me such problems and found myself at the end of the level, a dissatisfied shrug and a mild sense of relief taking the place of the accomplished elation you would hope to get from overcoming a tricky challenge.
I might sympathise with the game’s politics, see potential in some of its ideas, and enjoy its pixel art style, but I can’t pretend that I was left enamoured with what is, when you strip all of this back: a pretty average beat-’em-up.
I really appreciate that Tonight We Riot puts its money where its mouth is in regards to its politics. The game is made by a worker-run co-op, embodying the socialist principles the game espouses in its very development.
An unspectacular, side-scrolling crowd brawler with a socialist ethos.
Format: PC (tested) / Mac / Linux / Switch
Developer: Pixel Pushers, Union 512
Publisher: Means Interactive
Release: Out now