No Straight Roads starts very impressively. After making your way through the J Rock-inspired title menu, you are greeted to the story in a very cinematic opening. “The biggest change can come from the most unexpected individual” is both the opening line and a great expression of what No Straight Roads will offer later this year. It has instant appeal, working as a cool mix of anime, Psychonauts, and Crypt of the Necrodancer.
The opening cinematic shows our main characters Zuke and Mayday through the use of a TV interview before an audition. They are tasked with introducing themselves and their band, Bunk Bed Junction. It works wonderfully, wrapping you into the world by mentioning the EDM-heavy No Straight Roads and their grasp over every facet of Vinyl City. Bunk Bed Junction do not like that and want to bring back the old days of rock. Mayday is the guitarist: preppy and prepared with a fervent excitement felt through each sentence. Zuke, the drummer, is laid back to the point of barely being there, really annunciating their difference. “We’re going to bunka, we’re going to junka and we’re gonna Bam in your faces” is a catchphrase Mayday is very fond of. Zuke not so much. The interviewer in question clearly does not care very much.
This is where you are given control of the characters. You are tasked with walking to the audition hall, complete with obstacles in the way, teaching you how to roll and jump – two skills that are desperately needed in your first fight. The audition entitled the “Lights up audition” tasks you with fighting robots and transforming objects with the power of music. This is where you learn of, perhaps, NSR’s most interesting mechanic. All enemy moves are coordinated to the music and attacks are always in rhythm. This means new instrumentation in the mix often signifies an enemy attempting to attack. You must dodge, jump, or launch a counterattack in rhythm to fight back. This starts simple, with a small robot using an AOE blast every couple of seconds, but has the opportunity to go much further as robots act as a countermelody or extra rhythm. Sensing and anticipating attacks is the fundamental rule you must learn to achieve victory. Each character has unique attributes and affects the music you hear. Mayday causes the soundtrack to become guitar-heavy whereas Zuke causes the track to become drum-heavy. Zuke and Mayday both have basic attacks and shots but the way they work is different. Zuke is less powerful but his moves combo in rhythm, and his shoot mechanic causes him to hit a tom sound.
Although I performed truly incredibly in the fight, the judges of the audition hated it due to it not being EDM and urged Zuke and Mayday to look for new careers. This is where you are given a level of understanding into the judges. They are stuck in the past and can only focus on EDM, forcing your art to conform to theirs. This is something No Straight Roads touches on well. Every piece of music is self-expressive and has no inherent value against another. The soundtrack is surprisingly eclectic too, focusing on rock, electronica, jazz and so many others – however it doesn’t treat rock like some pinnacle of music and EDM as bad. It simply treats every style as unique. The way in which musical superiority and elitism ultimately harms the music, in general, is clear through its narrative. After taking a solemn walk through a midnight city (electronic pun intended) you catch a glimpse of Vinyl City through a power out. Mayday is aggressive towards them and curses their style whereas Zuke sees the good they have caused for the city. That is until they find out prioritised citizens are receiving power whilst others aren’t. This is where you decide to fight back.
This narrative and style combines with the co-op nature of the game to great effect. Playing as a team completes the music, adding both the drums and guitar, so much so that it’s almost hollow playing without your co-op partner after seeing them work together. You can swap between them freely in single player but playing a distinct character with distinct moves makes you feel like part of a team in a meaningful way.
In the time I’ve spent with No Straight Roads via the Epic Games Store ahead of the full game launching on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC come August 25th 2020, some things have been very clear. It’s stylish, thoughtful and fun, and this level of fun feels very in line with classic action-adventures from the PS2; adventures like Psychonauts. It offers a level of depth that is interesting but also delivers a fun couch co-op experience that is just so rare these days. No Straight Roads doesn’t just promise a return to Rock but a return to old school-style games, and this is what makes it so fresh.
Huge thanks go out to Sold Out and Metronomik for giving us access to No Straight Roads on Epic Games Store. Keep an eye out for our full review on Xbox One in the weeks ahead.