Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Saints Row Review – A rewarding, but shaky start for The Saints

Saints Row has a long, checkered and downright absurd history – one that feels ridiculous to review from an outsiders perspective, for sure. When they aren’t taking over cities and crushing their enemies, they’re getting kidnapped by aliens, befriending Jane Austen and Satan’s daughter, or getting sucked into various alternative universes. It’s tough, wacky and hilarious to be a Saint.

With such a wild background, it’s easy to see why Volition and Deep Silver chose to turn their gaze inward and reboot the series. Instead of following the adventures of The Boss, Johnny Gat, Shaundi, and Pierce Washington again, players are introduced to a new boss, world and cast of characters – some of which are a little fruity, if you were wondering.

Alongside a new boss comes a whole other beginning. Instead of being picked up from the streets like the Boss of 2006, the Boss of Santo Illeso – the players new playground to do chaos in – is introduced as a mercenary working for a private military organization, Marshall. They don’t necessarily like their job, but need it to pay rent for a 4-room apartment which they share with their companions, Kevin (a DJ for local gang, The Idols), Neenah (a getaway driver for Los Panteros), and Eli (the planner and brains behind The Saints).

However, after a job goes wrong, The Boss and their crew turn to a new venture: sitting at the top of the food chain. This means making themselves into a household name and earning power, money and respect while fighting off rival gangs and the police. The repercussions of that desire ripples through the story in a way that feels like a review of similar story beats for both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, but with some key differences that further hammers home that this new Saints Row is a reboot. But don’t worry, we won’t be spoiling anything in that regard.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the care and love that’s crafted the world of Santo Illeso. Steelport and Stilwater were intriguing cities in their own right, but both were dull, murky and muddy, a splatter of browns, dark yellow and black and blue, like that of a bruise. Terrible to look at, and painful if you spent too much of your time prodding away at it. Santo Illeso is something else entirely. It revels in being bright and in your face, vibrant blues, yellows, pinks, and reds that captures the personality of this playful and multi-cultural city with ease.

But more importantly: Santo Illeso is fun to explore too – especially if you’re someone who likes to see everything and get stuck in with all the side content that’s scattered throughout the map. Old activities like Insurance Fraud – a mini-game where you throw yourself at cars and ragdoll halfway across the map – has returned, but there’s also plenty of new things to do as well. A particular favourite of mine is the new activity that requires you to bad-mouth businesses via an app that’s loosely based off Yelp. The lower your rating, the larger amount of enemies protecting the place appear to kick your ass. I found myself truly being tested in these fights, especially as I was playing on a harder difficulty, forcing me to really think about my skill loadout and how best to compliment my playstyle.

Saints Row feels rewarding to play, despite some technical difficulties.

Unlike previous Saints Row games, activities and combat do feel a tad more challenging. For example, one of the side hustles you take part in that has you shooting cars while sitting on the roof of a car forces you to have to think tactically in how you approach winning. Shooting at police cars from the roof guarantees you’ll be able to hit certain angles, but you’re also leaving yourself open to the elements and your health will rapidly decline. Then there’s combat in general, which as mentioned above, feels less like you’re just shooting at cans in the distance and more like persistent sponges, soaking up damage while rapidly advancing to your location. It is hellish but makes it all the more rewarding when you upgrade, level-up and get more skills to help you really put terror into the heart of your enemies.

Your enemies this time around are split into three different groups: Los Panteros, The Idols, and Marshall. Each of them are out to get out for thinking that you can mess with their business like the capitalist savvy gangsters you are, and each has a variety of ways they can mess with you during combat. Los Panteros rely on heavy artillery, machine guns and rocket launchers that can send you flying; The Idols use what can only be described as a weird combination of yo-yo’s, which can deflect your bullets, and fireworks, which work like incendiary grenades. Then there’s Marshall, who employ a combination of tech that can stun you in place, or melt your face off. These special enemies require you to think on your toes, as they can be pretty hard-hitting, but once you’ve figured out the patterns they employ, it’s easy to use it to your advantage.

Thankfully you don’t have to face these enemies all by yourself. Your friends are but a phone call away and can join you on your adventures, often with a little quip here and there so you’re not just travelling with a robotic NPC. Just like previous Saints games, you can only call your buddies to your side when you’re not doing a quest or activity, which severely limits to what you can do with them. Yet despite this, Volition does seem to have managed to strike a good balance between spending time with your allies in situations that aren’t just there to push the story forward. One of the best missions is when you and Eli decide to go LARPing together – a mission that upgrades Eli’s health and damage yes, but one that lets us get to know a little more about him. This was entirely missing from Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, where personal quests for the gang were few and far in between. This changed in the fourth game of the series, but even that lacks in comparison to the wealth of quests and missions you take part in with your crew in this game. It’s a nice change of pace and makes the slog of going through activity after activity feel worthwhile.

Saints Row review
Saints Row doesn’t look to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to.

It also helps that your crew are just genuinely nice people, though at times I felt as though Kevin, Neenah and Eli were too flawless. Their backgrounds were all relatable, particularly Kevin who grew up poor and wanting, but the explicit lack of flaws made the characters feel flat at times. It was always going to be difficult to match up to icons from previous Saints games, but a part of me wonders if Volition played it too safe with the Boss’ friends this time around. Enjoyable characters yes, but memorable? I’m not so sure.

There were also a few technical difficulties that affected gameplay. One example being a side-quest with Neenah where you go and check up on your gang, which triggers the police to come and get you. However, the police would sometimes get stuck in a traffic jam and trying to pick them off would lead to the game warning you to get back into the area, otherwise it’d be an immediate mission failure. This happened a couple of times, and was easily fixed with reloading, but often this meant having to start right at the beginning of the mission, rather than a checkpoint – making the entire adventure tedious and irritating. This would also happen with side activities, where enemies just either wouldn’t load in, or they’d get stuck with my only way of getting rid of them through a well-placed shot with a sniper rifle. The positive is that this rarely happened in my 30+ hours of playing, but when it did, it made completing missions impossible and made the beauty of Santo Illeso’s open world feel far less immersive than it deserves.

Still, even with such a shaky standing at times, the reboot is far from being without merit. Saints Row’s character customization has always been heads and shoulders above the rest, and that hasn’t changed at all in the year 2022 – particularly for players who want to mess around outside the gender binary with their Boss. While Cyberpunk 2077 often bragged that you could be whoever you’d like to be, gender be damned, that wasn’t at all the case. Saints Row however not only fulfils that desire, but smashes it out of the park by making it your Saints is rarely – if ever – addressed with pronouns, regardless of what body type or voice you choose. You can choose to have breasts and a penis if you’re so inclined, and while you can’t see it, you’re at least able to see your character 24/7 thanks to a third-person POV so you can fully enjoy your work. There isn’t any transition scars unfortunately, but if Brian Traficante, Creative Director of Volition is correct, then free updates to the game could fix that sometime in the future.

Saints Row’s biggest win is its level of customization

But this level of customization doesn’t stop just at your character. Vehicles and weapons can be designed to include fancy decals, and you can even turn your gun into an umbrella and pop enemies from afar, almost like you’re a combination of Agent 47 and Mary Poppins. It’s wonderfully weird, just like most things Saints Row.

Ultimately this new Saints Row has a tough mission: proving that it can stand on its own feet as a reboot, all while keeping the same name that propelled it into the hearts of its fans. In many ways it succeeds, from its incredible level of customization with its character creator, vehicles and weapons, right to the lovingly detailed open-world of Santo Illeso and the numerous things you can do in it, all while having an absurdist, slap-stick energy that’s made it stand out amongst the crowd. Still, there are moments where it slips just shy of greatness by playing it too safe.

Score: 3.5/5

A copy of Saints Row for PlayStation 5 was provided to Gayming Magazine by the publisher.

[Disclaimer: Saints Row is one of our sponsors for our upcoming Gayming LIVE event. However, there is no direct nor indirect involvement in coverage whatsoever.]

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Gayming Magazine. She specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.