No Straight Roads is a love letter to the old school. From its rock versus electronic story to its gameplay and characters, this could fit in with any of the classics from the PS2 era and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t just appease this longing for the old, it entirely satiates it.
From the very first moment of the story, No Straight Roads’ unbreakable charm forces its way to the surface. “The biggest change can come from the most unexpected individual. With the audience at your fingertips, all you need is a little push”. This quote fades out to reveal Zuke and Mayday, our central characters preparing themselves before an interview. Mayday is fiery and optimistic where Zuke is composed and occasionally air-headed. This is enunciated with a funny little bit where Mayday tries to get Zuke to play up as a character for the cameras, but it’s not really who he is.
This is captured through the gameplay very well. Zuke’s calm demeanor is expressed through his sense of rhythm, providing a backbone to the duo where Mayday is fiery and passionate but needs that support to keep herself in check. As both a band and an instrument-holding beat ‘em up duo, both of these parts must exist to make up your band “Bunk Bed Junction”.
After your short interview, the world of No Straight Roads starts to open to reveal the story at its core. You are on your way to a musical audition where you must play music to impress the world in front of a panel of judges. The judges are snobbish and dismiss your act due to its rock style. Zuke and Mayday play their heart out only to be snubbed despite getting a good reaction from the crowd. The audition works as a catalyst to the game and a nice tutorial expressing the gameplay. NSR’s combat feels like a mix of a rhythm game and a hack and slash, seeing enemies choreograph attacks through the melody and rhythm. Oftentimes, enemies add more to each song in the form of a counter rhythm or countermelody that is cast aside as you take down the enemies causing it. This means you take over an electronic song, add to it with your music stylings and slowly remove the EDM at its core.
This is a good analogy for the path you take in NSR. Not only do the EDM conglomerate in No Straight Roads control the music but they use that music to power the city. In a surprisingly great scene near the start, Mayday and Zuke are running down the night of Vinyl City to a mix of “chill beats to study to” and a distorted guitar solo only to witness the power go out. Moments later, the power comes back to only controlled buildings showing the tyrants at the bottom of the city. You aim to change the city from within and, much like the combat itself, that requires taking the EDM head on and replacing it with your rock stylings.
There are two central ideas at the base of this guerilla resistance. You can go around the city unlocking new paths, bringing power back and interacting with Citizens, and you can set up a boss rush-style takedown of all the power players in Vinyl City. Bringing back power and doing well on boss fights unlocks fans that can be repurposed to upgrade your fighting ability. You can opt to skip most of that entirely but it will make the reasonably challenging fights more difficult. You are the underdog, after all.
Combat and general traversal isn’t always fantastic but it works consistently enough to be mostly unnoticeable. The jump mechanics are generally the least consistent with characters occasionally jumping at random angles or getting caught on non-existent patches of terrain. The combat, on the other hand, is rather simplistic but the enemy mechanics, rather than your own, make it interesting. Instead of adding new combos or moves, NSR opts to throw new combat styles and enemies at you, making you switch up your attack patterns. This could go from an enemy having slightly different rhythm to entirely new enemies. Luckily, this isn’t the main show, just the opener to the much better act – the bosses.
The boss fights are fantastic and varied with a surprisingly great appreciation of both rock and EDM. It doesn’t just clash them and place one over the other, it makes the songs encompass both in great ways. This moves from trance, to Drum and Bass all the way to Malaysian dikir barat – a nice nod to the Malaysian developers’ roots. This one act is something that shows what NSR is well. It’s charming, fun and, most importantly, rather genuine. You could play it for the ten or so hours it takes to finish and enjoy it simply as it is or you can appreciate some of the other things it tries to do. Metronomik aren’t afraid to mention parts from their own Malaysian roots at the possible alienation of an audience who doesn’t understand, they aren’t worried about losing a market in its rather simplistic throwback to older titles and they treat its clashing music styles with care and, more importantly, appreciation.
In return, I appreciated No Straight Roads on Xbox One. It has some issues with combat but the overall experience is great, memorable, and kept a consistent smile on my face. I was expecting the act to be entertaining but didn’t think I’d finish shouting for an encore, I was wrong. Encore!