No Straight Roads Review

August 25, 2020
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch
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Outside of video games the only thing I’m nearly as nerdy about is music — ok, maybe professional wrestling, but we’ll save that for another time.  These days you’re probably more likely to find me flipping through the racks at my local record shop than you are any kind of video game store. Therefore, No Straight Roads should be right up my street. A game set in a city literally powered by music piqued my interest right away. Alas, No Straight Roads is more of a one-hit wonder than an instant classic.

Conceptually the game ticked all of my boxes. The neon-drenched metropolis of Vinyl City is somewhere I wanted to explore. Every facet of the game is based around some musical concept or another and, as on the nose as it is, it made a great first impression. Still, that concept quickly wears thin as the story begins to unfold. Playing as Mayday and Zuke, an indie rock duo known as Bunk Bed Junction, you’re tasked with overthrowing the evil NSR (No Straight Roads) corporation. NSR powers the city with music, but their disregard for anyone other than the elite of Vinyl City becomes clear after a blackout which renders many areas with no power. After a run in with NSR as part of a talent show, Bunk Bed Junction set their sights on restoring Vinyl City’s energy through the power of rock. As it turns out, NSR are more partial to EDM (electronic dance music) and your rebellion soon leads to an outright ban on rock — I bet you didn’t see that coming?

So yes, the story is a little trite and it’s packed with on the nose metaphors. However, rather than staying the course and keeping things simple, it only got more convoluted and confused as it went on. Attempts to flesh out characters with arbitrary subplots did little to help this and the fact that the motivation of our lead characters could change from scene to scene made me give up on it at around the halfway mark. On top of this there are also oddly excessive political overtones to the story that clashed with the otherwise outrageous and cartoon-like motif that was established from the beginning.

Ignore the instruments, No Straight Roads is not a rhythm game.

Despite the focus on music, it’s worth noting that No Straight Roads is not a rhythm game, although there are rhythm elements to it. The importance of that last point is tested almost immediately as the game drives you towards its first boss encounter with DJ Subatomic Supernova — a superstar DJ who runs the first of the game’s districts. This fight takes place on a giant turntable which makes for a cool visual. Unfortunately, it’s all style and very little substance as there’s very little skill required to beat him. The same goes for every other battle in the game. As you beat an NSR artist you unlock a new district and can ‘hijack’ another concert. This boils down to dispatching the same handful of enemy types around eight times before facing off against the boss. Boss encounters do evolve the combat slightly, but only within the already established constraints of simple attacks and shooting projectiles. The only real change comes in the environments and the characters themselves which, like the district they inhabit, all have a well designed look to them, but this only goes so far.

Combat required no real skill and, whilst paying attention to the rhythm of the music is encouraged, I never felt punished for ignoring it. I quickly grew tired of bashing the same four attack buttons to reach the end of a stage and I found myself employing this same strategy — if you can call it that — for almost every encounter in the game with little issue. This might be a very primitive way of playing, but the game never confronted me about this or called for me to do any different. The only real challenge to these encounters was often discovering what exactly I had to do to beat them. This usually boiled down to hitting them some more, but, with an often overwhelming amount of visual stimulus on screen and no obvious way forward, trial and error became a prevailing tactic. Battles quickly turned monotonous and whilst I would try and vary things up occasionally, there was little point in doing so. 

The same goes for trying to defend myself. There is a pretty ineffective dodge as well as a parry mechanic that can deal big damage, but with a very tight window the risk vs reward isn’t worth it. By the end of the game I had died a lot. Whether that was due to my indifference to defense, the game’s often wonky camera during battles, or the controls just not responding correctly. Thankfully the game’s very solid checkpoint system throws you back into an encounter immediately. This does affect your overall score on each stage (limiting you to a C) thus decreasing how many fans you earn, but again this seemed trivial and I never felt the need to replay stages at any time.

The only saving grace of these repetitious encounters is the game’s soundtrack. Despite the narrative pushing that EDM is the only genre that matters, each boss presents a different style of music ranging from idol-fronted J-pop, classical piano-based melodies, and straightforward pop, as well as dance music. Throughout all of the encounters these tracks are given a rock twist as the action swings in your favour, although it’s not always immediately obvious. Unfortunately, even a decent score isn’t enough to save the gameplay from feeling decidedly pedestrian.

Shake hands with the world of tomorrow in Vinyl City!

Outside of combat encounters, there is the small, ever-growing, open world of Vinyl City to explore. This may be No Straight Roads’ best feature. It looks great most of the time and really harkens back to that era of games that spawned Psychonauts, Jet Set Radio and Beyond Good and Evil. There’s been a lot of work put into differentiating each district and the array of characters that inhabit them, many of them with voiced dialogue. Even the addition of announcements from Tatiana — the big cheese of NSR — decrying your actions help add to the world the game is trying so hard to establish. Full of character but otherwise hollow, it’s another area that No Straight Roads, for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to capitalise on. 

That is the prevailing story throughout my time with this game. Whatever No Straight Roads manages to accomplish it falls down on so many other areas. The game is packed with systems that are all slotted into the world in interesting ways, whether that’s adding stickers to your instruments for additional buffs or inserting a skill tree for upgrades under the guise of Bunk Bed Junction playing underground gigs. However, none of this seemed to affect my time with the game in any significant way outside of the addition of a double jump. Everything else was either a ridiculous grind to unlock, or just seemed like it didn’t matter.

Small, but mighty. Sort of.

I also experienced plenty of clipping and other graphical hitches and was frequently distracted by the inconsistent quality of voice acting. This isn’t helped by a script that at times feels unedited and lacking in proper localisation. At one point, one of your allies begins referring to Mayday and Zuke as “Fellas” despite it being established that Mayday is female. These same issues also crop up in some of the flavour text for objects in the world. This seems trivial given the game’s more major flaws, but it’s still disappointing. I’d also be willing to be more forgiving of these things if it wasn’t for the game’s premium price tag.

Despite all of this, I was (and still am) rooting for Metronomik. It’s easy to see that the Malaysian developer had an ambitious vision for what No Straight Roads was going to be. For whatever reason, that vision has not been able to fully come to fruition. The developers’ desire to create a world that is unique and inventive has to be commended, despite the game itself ultimately failing to make good on much of the promise that it showed early on.

No Straight Roads is a game with misplaced priorities. There are a lot of good ideas here and whilst its design was fresh and inviting, a repetitive gameplay loop, a lack of proper challenge, meaningless progression and a build-up of smaller issues stop this from becoming the cult classic it so desperately wants to be.

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A classic case of style over substance, No Straight Roads aspires to be so much more than it turned out to be. It’s got all the charm of a cult classic without the gameplay to back it up.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.