The world of gaming is full of unfulfilled promises. Hype and its cousin overhype are a part of every form of entertainment, but they’ve become routine in video games, especially when it comes to sandbox-style or story-driven games. Peter Molenyeux, Telltale Games, and the first iterations of NO MAN’S SKY are some of the biggest offenders, with their promises of a plot and open world where you are free to do anything and your choices have a tangible impact on the experience. The trailer for STREETS OF ROGUE, a longtime Steam early-access title that recently saw its official console release, has a similarly skepticism-indusing pompousness about it. Proclaiming itself to be the “world’s only shooter RPG action roguelike stealth brawler,” one might raise an eyebrow at the barrage of buzzwords, but that description (and the hype) are well-earned. It breathes fresh life into the often stale genres of side mission-filled sandboxes and randomly generated, top-down roguelikes with tons of characters and an organic world that feel fulfilling to master and shape.
The danger that comes with roguelike sandboxes is that even with their distinctive traits and attributes, the characters are too similar, to the point that you can play them all in a nearly identical manner. Such homogenization of strategy is not present in STREETS OF ROGUE, as every game-breaking strength in one of the 24 characters is balanced by a significant weakness that fundamentally changes how you play the game. For example, the Gorilla has one of the highest base HP and can ally with other gorillas to create a team easier than others, but he cannot talk to anyone without the help of certain items and thus cannot buy items from shopkeepers or bribe anyone. Similarly, the Doctor can knock out anyone with one ability but cannot use weapons, while the Cop can arrest and incapacitate enemies while losing XP if it does so against innocents. These are great compromises that make you feel powerful and rewarded for learning to use a character’s unique strengths and playing around their handicaps.
Gorillas vs. Scientists: one of the greatest rivalries in history
To further make each character distinct, they all possess unique Big Quests that are not mandatory, but reward you with a lot of bonus XP if completed. Even as the rotation of retrieving an item, killing a target, or freeing a prisoner become routine, these Quests make every floor and character feel fresh and further teach you how to best use the tools at your disposal. While it is occasionally frustrating how these Quests pigeonhole you into a certain playstyle, there’s still plenty of wiggle-room to complete them how you want. For example, the Vampire has to kill every Werewolf on a floor, and you possess a spider-sense that tells you when Werewolves are close. You can either take the time to figure out exactly who you need to kill, or you can wantonly attack everyone in the vicinity till your target sheds their human form and becomes a furry monstrosity. I wish this style of character-specific achievement system was more prevalent!
The world of most modern roguelikes consists merely of enemies, with an occasional NPC that you can buy items off and little else. STREETS OF ROGUE stands out by creating a world that feels alive and ductile. NPCs don’t feel like passive props for you to mess with. If you steal from someone’s home or attack them, they get mad and chase you for a while; if you escape and encounter them again, they’ll recognize you and start fighting again. Brawls will break out between rival gangs, cops will chase after thieves or troublemakers, and bystanders will go so far as to pick up items scattered on the ground in the middle of combat. It feels euphoric to learn of a new use for an item or a new way to manipulate the environment to your advantage. A personal favorite of mine was rigging a door with an explosive and then knocking on said door so the NPC would get alerted to you and blow themselves up, or setting oil on fire, pulling out a leaf blower, and pushing hoards of NPCs to their fiery death.
You’d think the Cops would be the biggest killjoys. Nope! Turns out it’s the Firefighters
The cancerous mass of genres hinted at in the trailer and the prospective mayhem may seem like a lot to take in, but STREETS does a fantastic job of streamlining and conveying information. The UI and mini-map makes it clear what characters are, if they are annoyed or hostile, and where quests are. You can also teleport across a floor to certain points a la ENTER THE GUNGEON, which makes it easier to complete some busywork before leaving a floor. Aesthetically the game is fantastic as well, with a lot of sweaty nightclub energy, hardened urban dreariness, and fantastic, thumping trance music akin to HOTLINE MIAMI. I never talk about soundtracks in video games or movies, but STREETS’ OST is a perfect fit and follows in the footsteps of ISAAC when it comes to great music in indie rogue-likes.
There are a few strange design decisions in STREETS that aren’t bad as much as they are upsetting. All melee weapons have the same max durability despite their divergence in power level, and picking up a weapon you already have refills up to said cap and can lead to a lot of wasted ammo. It would be nice if the UI could tell you the durability of weapons on the ground so you didn’t feel so inefficient. The game’s secondary currency, Chicken Nuggets, is also capped at 99 for no reason, although quests do reward you with items instead of the Nuggets if you’re at the cap. If you can’t tell from that last complaint, the game also has some XD-so-random humor peppered throughout, resulting in a pretty jarring tone. Playing as a cannibal that must eat people to restore health is weird, but that’s nothing compared to the Slavemaster and how he enslaves people with helmets that blow up if they walk too far from him. It’s impressive that this character skeeved me out so much that I refused to play as him.
Much like DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB!, STREETS OF ROGUE is an indie gem that was developed by one guy and is horrifying in its own special way!
While STREETS OF ROGUE might occasionally make me feel like I need to take a shower after playing, there’s little that I can actually say that would impeach its design. There are some experiences here that are so familiar and yet so novel that you’re stunned they haven’t been done before. STREETS OF ROGUE brings the calculated social mayhem of HITMAN to the RNG nightmare that is the roguelike, a combination that should go about as well as orange juice and toothpaste, and yet it’s executed with such smoothness and meticulousness as to feel intentional. There are plenty of potential to routes to take, the world feels both moldable and alive, and the dozens of built-in mutators only adds to the massive replay-value. Believe the hype, people: this is the most fun I’ve had with a video game in a long time.