First impressions can make or break your artistic performance no matter what medium it is you choose to pursue and make a career out of. When it comes to No Straight Roads, first impressions are impressively realised when you bear witness to the neon, digital and highly stylised visuals on display. The marketing team must’ve done a stellar job because NSR looks astonishing – so astonishing that it may dupe its followers when they get into playing the game and come to the staggering reality that the gameplay underpinning the excellent presentation is disappointingly skin-deep and deflatingly scattershot in execution.
No Straight Roads follows a duo collectively known as Bed Bunk Junction and individually known as Mayday and Zuke. Mayday is an eccentric and determined guitarist and Zuke is a drummer with a laid-back attitude that runs counter to Mayday’s high energy enthusiasm. Together they set out to bring rock and roll back to prominence in a vibrant metropolis known as Vinyl City by using their peripherals as weapons after a music label dubbed No Straight Roads decides to deny them superstardom, deciding to instead monopolise the music industry by shutting out rock, and emphasizing the rise of EDM-style music, forcing Bed Bunk Junction to repel the tyranny of their oppressors and rise up to demolish their signees by metaphorically pulling the plug on their performances.
The premise of No Straight Roads is a pleasing reflection on the narrow direction of overwhelmingly popular music labels that marginalise certain genres of music in favour of others. As bold as other elements of the game are, the story and the premise echoes arcade-like simplicity. The way Mayday and Zuke appear as antitheses is noticeable and generates some of the games humorous moments – although Mayday is quite un-likeable thanks to her self-centred obsession with rock stardom. Despite the promising set-up here, it’s too bad the gameplay threatens to collapse its carefully layered house of cards.
When you begin your ascent into musical notoriety you are delivered a brief tutorial that shows you how to perform a few basic attacks and minimal defence strategies and nothing else. These attacks include the simple hack and slash motions Mayday can use with her guitar to take out the robotic speakers that bop up and down to the beat of the background music, as well as the ability to transform objects by holding down the Y button and waiting for a meter to fill up. Additionally you can use a parry to deflect ranged offence and roll dodge to evade sweeping onslaughts. You are then introduced to Zuke’s attacks that are basic and quicker to cancel than Mayday’s, but by and large there is no reason to opt for one character over the other.
Afterwards you and your cohort run through the Vinyl City streets and encounter your first boss – a poor way to acclimatise players by shoving them into a boss battle when they’ve not been given enough time to sufficiently learn the mechanics of the game.Maybe NSR professionalises in on-the-job training as opposed to the proper learning of the ropes before handling the deep-fat fryer of the games dazzling and eclectic boss battles. To make matters worse the first boss and subsequent bosses thereafter are induced with multiple health bars you have to drain before they are defeated, turning an already unfavourable first foray into something quite terrible if you haven’t got a co-op buddy on hand to help you out.
In these boss battles and during times where you’re progressing through levels by dismantling waves of security drones No Straight Roads operates like a third person slasher should. As Mayday you can bash your robotic adversaries with your guitar and as Zuke you can give the same robot sentries a whack with his trusty drumsticks for some close-quarters slashing. When at a distance from enemies you can throw note chords that sail diagonally into your enemies that leave a colourful stream behind and you are able to power weaponry and other objects by transforming them.
Boss fights task you with weakening their defences and health bars whilst you dodge incoming attacks and avoid traps and hazards. Many attacks require you to jump out of the way, which tends to work well, but sometimes the screen can fill up with reticules and icons that evading certain swipes can seem like an impossibility. It doesn’t help that there are no difficulty settings either because they are sorely lacking when you’re playing on your own and the game doesn’t support online co-op so you are left to find another human being to play alongside. Usually the boss fights are split into three waves, each one getting increasingly more difficult as you progress – so much so you will often find yourself constantly getting out of the way of attacks and doing your utmost to chip away at boss health.
The biggest gripe with NSR’s gameplay is that you don’t feel as powerful as you should. Mayday likes to talk a big game but neither her nor Zuke feel great to use, mainly because you spend much of your time bish, bosh and bashing and little time feeling like unstoppable rockstars that are capable of befalling the huge corporate entity you are trying to take down along with all of their clients.
Outside of the fighting there is a living quarters hangout that helps Mayday and Zuke unwind and plan for their next encounter. Starting with a dingy room you can decorate with doodads, as you gain prominence new sections of the house become available including an interview room where Mayday and Zuke sitdown with a DJ and take questions from fans, an underground party room where you can access a skill tree with various perks, Zuke’s hideout where he can feed his pet alligator, Mayday’s workshop where you can add stickers and swap out hers and Zuke’s special abilities and a strategy room.
The presentation of NSR is quite staggering to behold. the bosses are brilliantly memorable, and their distinguishing features are impressively realised. From a DJ, to a rapper, to a modest pianist – No Straight Roads does a great job of accentuating the music genres and their pleasing eye-popping flare is remarkable to behold. This attention to detail is found in the level design as well, especially later on where the game has you bounding between moving objects. Character models are as quirky as the visual style and are thus commendable and colourful.
The only considerable drawbacks include some strange cutscene weirdness where Mayday’s hair goes all funny and sometimes during a boss battle your character will momentarily seize up, making you wonder if the game has crashed. Checkpoints are quite cruel as well, sending you to the beginning of hard boss battles or right the way back to the Vinyl City hideout if you intend on turning off your console and returning to the game at a later time.
NSR’s audio is unsurprisingly an integral part of this rhythm action adventure. The music is diverse and catchy, playing into levels and boss fights in a modest but bold way. One of the boss fights includes a full song and a homage to Guitar Hero which is delightful – not to mention the song is a standout part of the game. Voice acting is on point thanks to an eclectic cast that bursts with charisma and charm. Mayday and Zuke in particular are voiced superbly and you can really tell how contrasting both of them are to one another due to the nonchalant smoothness of Zuke’s voice and the ebullient hypo eccentricity exuded by Mayday.
No Strange Roads presents something of an oddity – like a contradictory A-side and B-side. On the A-side you have a superb visual feast to experience, characterised by superb characters and bosses, coupled together with a solid soundtrack and a compelling yet simple premise that makes you want to ascend to the top of the music mountain. Unfortunately NSR’s B-side aggravates with unfair check-pointing, a tepid tutorial, a harsh opening level and a half-baked gameplay experience. Whether you can resist the ailments of the B-side depends on your tolerance for its shortcomings, but No Straight Roads still delivers a satisfying stage rush if you can avoid its pitfalls.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.