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No Straight Roads Is A Few Steps Short To Action Gaming Greatness…
Review originally published on 25th August, 2020. It’s bumped up due to the Steam version that’s out right now.
Platform(s): PC (Epic Games & Steam), PS4, Xbox One Nintendo Switch
Genre: Uniquely Malaysian music-rhythm action mash-up
Readers on this site may notice my affinity to hyper-stylized action games like the Bayonetta games and recent fares like the really-hard-to-get-to Astral Chain.
And as a Malaysian-made site with Southeast Asian reach, we at Kakuchopurei relish great games that happen to be made in Malaysia, and not being the butt of some white writer’s punchline. Having said that, we’ll still go hard on games & pieces of entertainment that don’t meet our standards, regardless of where they’re from.
Many folks are elated that Malaysian company Metronomik is making an action game that combines music rhythm game mechanics for a smooth blend that presumably tastes as good as your roadside stall rojak. The fact that two video game industry veterans, Wan Hazmer and Daim Dziauddin, are spearheading the project means a ton of pressure from everyone watching and waiting. I do not envy the studio in this regard.
So is No Straight Roads all that? Is it really just a puff piece of a game that’s hiding beneath its veneer of “Malaysia Boleh” championing from government bodies putting stakes on it? Is it the saviour of our industry that’s only profiteering from asset-creation for bigger US and Japan triple-A titles? Or is it really a gem in a rough that in time can inspire everyone to press on forward, as well as being the first-ever music-rhythm action game that doesn’t use conventional “conveyor belt & button press” methods of gameplay?
The more hours I’ve put in, especially past the 5-hour mark post-credits, I’m leaning towards the latter. Despite some quirks, NSRÂ is a uniquely awesome action title that deserves its slew of action-savvy audiences, be it locally or worldwide.
NSR’s plot is as simple and as old-aged as they come: rock music duo Mayday and Zuke are on a quest to bring relevance to the genre in Vinyl City, ruled by a power company called NSR that uses EDM as an energy source. Music powers up populations, and thus begins the battle between two genres. From start to finish, you’ll spot the obvious plot twists, cliches, and revelations coming a mile away if you’ve at least seen a few films in your life.
However, its presentation and charisma make it a helluva ride to experience. One obvious thing you’ll notice upon going through the first few minutes is how uniquely Malaysian the game looks and feels. Or if you’re outside the SEA region, you’ll experience a refreshing new take on a music-laced game with humanoids and robots of different shapes, body proportions, and colour.
This is all thanks to the art style and its eclectic voice-casting, from leads Su Ling Chan and Steven Bones who voice our protagonists Mayday & Zuke respectively, to Malaysian media legends like Joanna “Kopitiam” Bessey (Eve) and Priscilla “Rakita Traffic” Patrick (Tatiana). These folks breathe life to a solid-if-familiar tale, from Mayday’s energy to Zuke’s chillax take on life and his dilemmas. There’s even a couple of segments involving Bahasa Melayu that sounds natural and adds to the already-unique flavour to the title.
NSR is proud of where it’s coming from and also languishes in being unlike any other action game in style and flair. It pulls this off with aplomb, bombastic-ness, and grace of an early 90s Guns N’ Roses live performance, sans the drama.
As for gameplay? This part’s slightly complicated because the game opens up its true form once you’re done with the main campaign.
Some preamble: No Straight Roads’ gaming gimmick is fusing music rhythm game mechanics with action. You attack enemies on-screen while dodging their attacks, but whatever your adversary does is in-sync with the music. Which means that evading enemy attacks is not just recognizing telegraphs & cues, but also doing it to the beat of the tune that’s playing.
The music influences don’t stop there: your dynamic duo Mayday and Zuke (guitarist and drummer respectively) can not only parry pink projectiles and attacks (to the beat of the tunes), but can also rock out and transform specific objects to either attack enemies or protect them. They can also fire music note projectiles to hit hard-to-reach foes; you get these by either killing enemies that drop them or parry attacks perfectly.
Both our leads fight differently. Mayday has reach with her swings and hits hard, while Zuke has quick combo attacks that power up his finisher, and has an easier time cancelling to an evade. These differences may seem slight, but they get more nuanced when you get enough fans for the necessary upgrades in NSR’s skill tree.
You can also power up Mayday and Zuke with stickers, mods, and Ultimate Duo attacks. Stickers are temporary multi-use items that add boosts when you fight bosses, be it a simple attack buff to widening parry radius and damage. Mods are special abilities you can activate using either the left or right trigger and some of your power meter, while Ultimate Duo attacks make you perform a game-changing special that uses up both Mayday and Zuke’s power meter.
Later on, you’ll figure out that Mayday is better at creating offensive turrets via transformation, but takes a while to set it up. Zuke deals less damage, but can cap off his 8-hit combo attack with an AoE that shoots out projectiles. Both characters are pretty fun to switch between once they slowly have their best skills opening up for use.
To get fans, you need to fight and complete boss fights via hijacking their concerts. NSR features six major boss battles, each of them starting off with a simple linear room-clearing and/or platforming section. After that, you have to duel with them, figure out their attacks and level gimmick(s), and then beat them at their own game. This is NSR’s other selling point, and it delivers for the most part.
The boss fights are memorable, fun, challenging, and comes with catchy EDM-slash-rock background mixes that blend in seamlessly depending on the stages of the fight. My personal standouts include DJ Subatomic Supernova, Sayu (above), and Eve, with the latter forcing you to conserve both Mayday and Zuke’s health and endure being separated in the battle. I won’t say more, but this particular fight highlights the importance of switching, dodging, and persevering through the intentionally-messy graphics.
Every fight in NSR requires you not to pay attention to patterns and telltale signs, but also music cues. Your dodge and parries have invincibility frames, but if you don’t time it right to the music, you will get hit really hard. Once you get the hang of it after repeated deaths, you’ll start having fun as you crack each boss.
If you can’t get the hang of a particular tussle, or wish to get a better rating for more fans, NSR’s got you covered. In fact, the whole game offers a good amount of replayability; part and parcel of an action game with seemingly obtuse mechanics. Even after you’re done with the 5-hour main campaign, you can unlock Hard, Crazy, and Parry mode for all the major boss fights that open up new attacks, stage hazards, and parry opportunities.
Hard and Crazy are self-explanatory (new attacks, more hit points for the baddies), but Parry Mode adds a whole new level of fighting. You can’t generate ammo via conventional means, which means you have to rely mostly on your well-timed parries (and skill tree perks) to damage the boss.
Suddenly, the fights against DJ Subatomic Supernova and Sayu just got 10 times more interesting and challenging. NSR’s mechanics are more fleshed out and opened up for better play and a jamming experience, so to speak. You will need to find the right stickers, mods, and Duo attacks to make through these battles, as if the regular versions aren’t a handful for some.
Perfect Parry Mode is essentially the game’s equivalent of “Dante must Die”, “Hell and Hell”, and “Revengeance” mode. You die in one hit and must be on-point with your parries to make it to the end. And you have to restart the fight if you bite the dust. All I can say is I look forward to the many, MANY attempts on stream for this in the next few weeks.
Why did I say “for the most part” earlier? Because the game has a few technical issues. They don’t crash the game or corrupt your save file thankfully, but they crop up and show the imperfections within the seams. Some fights will have enemy death cries peaking loud momentarily, while some declare “game over” when you get your life reduced to zero right when a cutscene signifying the enemy’s next form hits.
And then there are some hit detection issues in the harder modes, especially in Crazy, Parry, and Perfect Parry Mode. Here, you swear you were dodging something but the game doesn’t recognize it. These aren’t huge deal-breakers, but you’ll need to remember that this is a hack-and-slash action game trying new things and is made by a modestly-sized company.
You will face some level of jank on occasions that may test your patience. And it arguably makes Perfect Parry mode nigh-on impossible except to the most dedicated of action game fans. You know, the kind who ploughs through Bayonetta’s post-game Rodin fights with one hand.
Think on the levels of the No More Heroes series where you know the game is made on a particular budget. Or even those HD-era action games from 2007 onwards like Bullet Witch or X-Blades. But obviously on a superior product.
Oh, and whoever thought it was a good idea to have your characters run back and forth on the Vinyl City hubworld collecting power-up stickers and heading to replayable fight locations, instead of saving time and making all this menu-based, should be horsewhipped.
No Straight Roads is a culmination of great ideas and good intentions that mostly succeeds. I’ll be up-front: it ain’t perfect and it’s got a little bit of that 3rd party jank in common action games back in the tumultuous era where everyone’s trying to make their own God of WarÂ orÂ Devil May Cry clones.
Odd hitboxes, getting hit when you know you’ve dodged; camera issues that mess with your perspective time and again. It’ll take some time getting used to the game’s action beats and flow. It’s far from terrible, but it’s no Capcom 2001-era wunderkind.
However, its earnest charm & plot, brilliantly unique aesthetics, and innovative music-slash-combat hybrid are too hard to put down and ignore. Balance-wise, it’s generally great for casual action fans as well as seasoned pros who love them their Devil May Cry titles.Â With a little more polish & tweaking in its basic combat mechanics, it’ll be a platinum for sure.
For now, No Straight Roads is now the gold standard in Malaysian game development, and arguably Southeast Asia game-making as a whole. Action gaming fans & aficionados who aim for nothing but S-Ranks can do well to get the hang of its fighting and then have a ball with its tougher modes. Newbies and casuals can enjoy the main story and what it offers aesthetics-wise for its 5-hour runtime.
In short, No Straight Roads is not at the top of the stairway to heaven, but they’re three-quarters there. That still counts for a lot these days.
Review copy provided by Metronomik and Souled Out.