While musically and visually on point, much-anticipated indie game No Straight Roads is all sensory overload and little substance.
I’ll give No Straight Roads one thing: I’ve never played a game where the title screen music was so good that even when I quit the game, frustrated, it lured me back in. No Straight Roads, the first offering from Malaysian developer Metronomix, is a curious mix of genre – combining the sensory overload and punishing timing of a rhythm game with the open-world exploration and pattern learning of a platformer. Unfortunately, the elements work well apart, but when put together? Not so much.
The premise of the game is light and intentionally silly, just the right foundation to lay some complex gameplay on. The player takes on the roles of Mayday, a hyperactive rock guitarist, and Zuke, a laconic drummer, who form the indie rock band Bunk Bed Junction. While the game starts with the duo auditioning for NSR, a corrupt electronic record label that also happens to govern Vinyl City, a futuristic techno metropolis, the band is quickly turned down, and so the player follows Bunk Bed Junction taking Vinyl City back for… rock.
If the plot of No Straight Roads sounds familiar to you, then you might have heard about the widely derided and hugely successful Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You. And if you’ve heard of We Will Rock You, chances are it’s not because of its deep, meaningful narrative. No Straight Roads doesn’t need to be breaking boundaries, but another product that rehashes the old dichotomy of rock music being good and every other kind of music being bad feels even more backwards in 2020. I mean, is there a popular music genre that’s more conservative and backwards-facing than rock?
It says a lot that while the plot is a definitive endorsement, even in a facile way, of rock music, the soundtrack is anything but. It’s a kaleidoscope of genres, touching on everything from EDM to deep house to classical music. The only thing linking them is that they’re all battle themes so they’re fairly high-octane – even the piano-and-strings-driven track that scores the boss fight with child prodigy YINU. As you might expect from a rhythm game, the soundtrack is the most impressive part of it, and even more remarkably, it stands outside of the context of the game. If you slipped some of these songs into a DJ mix, nobody would be any the wiser. It’s gaming’s weirdest secret that the hardest, wildest songs are boss themes, and No Straight Roads has some of the glossiest, most expensive and bangiest (technical term) tracks I’ve heard in a game for some time.
Nearly as impressive are the game’s visuals. The character designs are varied and beautiful, recalling the harsh lines and grotesque cuterie of Ren and Stimpy, while the environs of Vinyl City are bright and vivid which, in a sly move, light up the more power you collect. The player is literally contributing to the world lighting up and looking better. Whether or not you’re actually enjoying the game, it makes for a delightfully sensory experience.
So it’s a pity that once you actually start playing the game – and not just watching or listening to it – that it stumbles. Hard. When playing, it’s difficult to discern whether No Straight Roads is intended to be punishingly hard, or if the game is frustrating by design. Although it’s ostensibly a rhythm-based platformer, where your attacks and counter-attacks are meant to happen on the beat, the beat often has little correlation to what you’re seeing on screen. You’re playing by trial-and-error and pattern-learning, which is totally valid in most platformers – especially those that are intended to be punishingly hard – but that’s not what No Straight Roads wants to be. It wants to be a rhythm game where your reflexes determine whether you win, not your ability to memorise patterns or your determination to get through it. It’s a big obstacle, and one the game can’t get over, especially when it takes the training wheels off and gets even less forgiving.
The kindest thing I can say about No Straight Roads is that I’d love to watch someone who is very good at the game play it (and thank god that watching people play video games is a bizarrely booming and valid industry). In the end, you spend more time getting over the game’s hurdles than relishing in its pleasures. And in that case, why not just watch a good music video?
That title track’s a bloody banger, though.
No Straight Roads is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4 and PC.