No Straight Roads
There is something to be said of the garage band. A group of sophomore musicians putting talent behind heart. An allowance should be made for their performance is just as much practice regardless of the audience.
This beautiful metaphor does not apply to No Straight Roads because there were some industry heavies on the job. NSR (A name it adopts, confusingly as a title and the name of the Antagonist) is a game that has no right to be as buggy as it is. No reason for the boss fights to sometimes feel off beat despite expecting you to be “Perfect” in certain modes. It should have been so competent as to blast through all the noise and say, “Hello Gaming, are you ready to rock?” to the kind of thunderous applause that trope became famous for garnering.
It didn’t. Much like the game's protagonists, Zuke and Mayday, the game now needs to start the climb from an embarrassing debut to its rightful place, among the stage of cult hits.
NSR is a Boss-Rush-Rhythmesq-Action-Platformer developed by a talented team trying to tell a good story. It’s hard to say without spoilers but there is a great trick being pulled on the player the second they fire up the game. There is a spirit of competition that tells a greater story of collaboration and the gameplay is 100% geared towards selling that EXACT idea not only in it’s non-gameplay story but through the very mechanics of boss fights.
The title characters exist in a straight fucking fairytale where music is valued as both a commodity AND treated with the cultural relevance it deserves. Music is not only a “Hobby” or “passion”.
Music is power.
Music is politics.
Music is true expression.
Music is power but, you know, like electricity.
Music, again is everything.
Zuke and Mayday, our heroes, see themselves as revolutionaries who, after being shunned at the ceremonial "So You Think Your Music can Power Our City" competition, endeavor to hijack the shows of more famous EDM artists claiming that genre of music to be the reason their city is in such disarray. Zuke and Mayday’s band, Bunk Bed Junction is of course the champion of the people and thus they are a ROCK band. Since the story better played than explained, I’ll just “stick to critique” and say that it meshes well with the structure of the gameplay and elevates it, something all good game stories should at least try to do.
The story and characters all do a great job of coloring the world but it is all best experienced as past a certain point it isn’t deep enough to not lose some of the magic by having some asshole explain it to you in the course of a review. I’ll just say the second I saw the art style I was hooked and I watched the Youtube video of the first boss fight so much there is a slight burn in on my screen of D.J. Subatomic Supernova calling the player a simpleton.
The Gameplay is both where the game rises and falls. Ambitious but not fully successful. Unique but not fully disciplined. This is the point where the review will be less about the game and more about you and me.
If you are the kind of absolute dullard that you think a review pointing out a flaw and somehow contriving that to a number is a “reason” to not play a game or to write it off: Stop Reading.
Play the game and inform YOURSELF. I played this at the behest of no review and took MONTHS forming an opinion and if I am any sort of professional MONTHS writing it down. No Score. No Nit-picks. GO PLAY IT.
The Boss Fights are the clear star of the show and sometimes it’s hard not to see that all of that effort was put into those stages at the deficit the other half of the game. The action segments feel so forced and the structure of the overworld and the level selection practically screams “Don’t worry, you only need to beat these once!” This would put our intrepid indie title at an 8/10 if it wasn’t for one more deadly problem.
The Bosses are not on rhythm all the time. This greatly affects the replayability of the game, on Higher difficulties asking you to be perfect you are almost playing dice with if the attacks will be synched to the track. Some of the tracks even WARN YOU that they are not optimal if you want to do well score wise. Many of these bosses have sequences that harshly punish the player for mis-stepping even on lower difficulties.
However, the game embraces a lot of unique ways to make each opponent feel different. Each level either tells a story or introduces a novel addition to the gameplay; yet this clearly seems to be a weight the games development was buckling under. Some ideas seem too ambitious for score runs and that can be an issue with the large amount of extra work to hit that retry button, skip the cutscene and repeat the previous phases of the boss fight.
Again, take none of that as a reason to skip this game. "I'm having problems trying to get a high score in" is a better problem to have than most. No Straight Roads is lucky to have such an amazing world and music to support it. These are the kinds of problems a SEQUEL would remedy. To Repeat, good problems to have.
After all that I can go back to celebrating everything else about this game:
The Characters are alive, well written, tropey at the worst but actually moving at the best. The Story, though mostly functional, clearly has a lot of well honed lore and that may not always be coming across 100% but it is still the beating heart of the game, giving life to the gameplay. The Plot, to be minimal, is utilitarian but well told and dripping with that aforementioned good writing.
The voice acting, however, is something I live for.
GAME DEVELOPERS: THIS ALL CAPS MESSAGE IS FOR YOU. CHARACTERS SHOULD SPEAK IN THEIR MOTHER TONGUE OR BE PLAYED BY AN ENGLISH SPEAKER FROM SAID CHARACTERS PLACE OF ORIGIN!
It doesn’t need to be absolute, I am not asking for the head of Frank Azeria. I just LOVE to hear new languages and accents! Everything about us makes us unique and one of the things that makes NSR unique to me is the choice to cast Malaysian voice actors in the English roles. In more ways than one I feel like this game is not just showing me work made in Malaysia it is showing me “Malaysian Game Design”. A specific example I feel comfortable isn't a spoiler is D.K West’s voice actor:
In the most frustrating part of the game, we meet Zuke’s older brother D.K West and they hash out their feelings with a rap battle. This happens multiple times throughout the story and the gameplay was so ball breaking: Wan Hazmer, the games director had to show people how to git good at it via youtube; regardless, the subtext of the encounters is what sells an otherwise ephemeral and frustrating part of the game:
D.K doesn’t speak English and that is a showing trait about the divide between Zuke’s origins and where he is now. DK does rap in English and I think that is a missed opportunity as it is way more listenable in French ( I think that is the original as I couldn’t find a version in Malay). The side effect of this choice being that D.K’s language just adds to the list of things Zuke isn’t anymore that D.K kept true to; things like: being a rapper, a brother, and true to his origins. This fracture in their relationship is expertly conveyed, even if the gameplay is downright mean spirited. These sections are the most vertical slice you can take from the game that makes most of my points: They have more heart than they do objective quality, they are steeped in a love for music and they exist to tell the story through gameplay even if sometimes they hit sour notes.
The Art style clearly was an effort to translate to 3D models and that effort is one of the places I can’t even pretend to find a flaw in. The Characters are some of the most unique I have seen since Katamari Damacy. Every single person has a uniqueness that manages to highlight but not rely on the already unique overall style. NSR seems to have a distinct awareness that no two characters should look alike unless for the express purposes of making a “crowd”, a la Person 5. The Art itself only gets better with the previously mentioned voice work making even the most throwaway characters quotable: “Back in my day we used to go all in for music”, is a line I can mimic down to the intonations and it is a throwaway generic voice stab for a character you don’t talk to more than a handful of times. Sign of a well loved world and a finely crafted story.
No Straight Roads is a GOTY for one reason. Heart. In a year where we are all only talking about Cyberpunk 2077 weeks after we all decided it was not complete upon release, games like No Straight Roads are on stage singing their heart out to the Pre-show crowd, giving it their all. Games like NSR are dying because we have relegated them to footnotes until some prat with a bit of internet clout comes along and makes it a meme for better or worse. Games like No Straight Roads are triumphs of game development. They are worthy stories being told through the medium that shine through with their uniqueness in vision and clear passion on display.
No Straight Roads is a RFT90 2020 GOTY and scores 7/10.
Thank you Wan Hazmer, Metronomik games, Sold/Out and the whole Dev/PD Team for such an amazing musical experience...
OH SHIT IT DIDN’T EVEN MENTION THE AMAZING MUSIC-