No Straight Roads is a game with proud roots in a few things. The power of rock acts as the driving force for this debut, in an age where the world’s most prolific artists have forgotten the feel of wood and string. It’s also a proudly Malaysian developed independent, and it’s this devotion to raising the devil horns with a beautiful cultural panache that’s only possible with a developer in its infancy and prepared to take a few creative risks. No Straight Roads, if nothing else, pays homage to those who’ve come before and it gets more right than it doesn’t, misfiring in only a few areas.
The game focuses on the aspirations of Bunk Bed Junction, an indie rock duo trying to kickstart the heart of rock and roll in Vinyl City, an authoritarian music capital under the iron thumb of electronic dance music. After failing to impress Tatiana, the ruthless CEO of the No Straight Roads label, as well as the label’s superstar roster of artists, Mayday and Zuke, the band’s hotheaded guitarist and chilled drummer respectively, plot to overthrow the regime one district at a time and return rock music to the futuristic metropolis.
Although No Straight Roads is a by the numbers affair, there’s a lot of heart in the game’s message and it’s abundantly clear that a lot of love has gone into crafting a real identity for the game and its characters. There’s an inescapable sense of humour that reminded me a lot of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World without the relentless pop-culture parody.
Traversing the grooves and streets of Vinyl City is reminiscent to Jet Set Radio and it’s clear there’s a lot of inspiration there. Sadly, these cursory slices of city life in between each of the concerts Bunk Bed Junction have to hijack to claim back districts feel undercooked. There’s very little that incites exploration, although stopping to chat with the Vinyl City natives is most of the fun as they’re all super colourful and amusing encounters. No Straight Roads is marketed as a mishmash between a traditional action-platformer and a rhythm game, though the music-based gameplay is baked into the combat. Though the game tries to teach listening for audio cues, I found that several overlapping layers muddied the soundscape. Even with a pulsing, phenomenal soundtrack, this left observation as the simplest route to learning attack patterns. So if you’re after a ‘rhythm-violence’ game that is as inherently married to its concept like Thumper you won’t necessarily find that here.
Although the initial hacking stage creates a path into each of the concerts that becomes a mind-numbing task of simply rushing beat-bouncing bots and airborne turrets for several waves, once you’re at the mercy of these all-powerful, near cosmic chart-topping artists, No Straight Roads becomes something special. Being able to switch freely between Mayday and Zuke gives the player a lot of freedom in tackling all of the game’s handful of bosses. Both characters have a distinct playstyle that leans into their instrument of choice, Mayday swings her guitar like the colloquial axe it is whereas Zuke’s focus lies in chaining together combos with his drumsticks, creating a drumline of hurt. After crashing a concert, Bunk Bed Junction will win over fans — the amount of which is determined by your rank. These fans can be spent on a trio of robust skill trees spanning both Mayday and Zuke’s individual performance as well as a shared tree which lets the band air dash among other things. It adds a rather lite roleplay feel that pads out the experience somewhat, but ultimately No Straight Roads lives and dies by its spectacular boss encounters.
There’s a real Persona vibe to the game’s extravagant boss fights, they’re the definition of the word spectacle. The first concert you crash belongs to a DJ named Subatomic Supernova, a deep disco loving keeper of the cosmos, and it sets the tone straight away. Fortunately, once a district’s platinum disc is obtained by rocking their world, there’s massive replayability in hijacking the concerts again in a new light. Aside from the obvious hope of ranking up and gaining a greater windfall of fans, you’re also able to mix-and-match the encounter by taking one boss to another’s signature soundtrack. This flips the experience on its head and welcomes the player back for repeat visits.
The art direction in No Straight Roads might be its greatest strength when it’s all said and done. It’s said to draw inspiration from certain mangas as well as Steven Universe, while one can see small touches here and there I’d say the world of Vinyl City forges its own identity early on. There’s a largely non-traditional, fantastical approach to character design, with exaggerated features like Mayday’s saucer eyes, this place exists outside of the regular human experience. Far from muted, No Straight Roads has a vibrant and otherworldly colour palette that draws the eye, I could absolutely picture this game existing as a graphic novel much like Scott Pilgrim, a book this game attempts to emulate in ways.
Though it doesn’t always succeed at being integral to the game’s rhythm-based combat due to its many layers, the soundtrack in No Straight Roads perfectly rounds out the game’s top-shelf presentation. It’s certainly catchy and it should come as no surprise that the artists behind the score, known as Funk Fiction, have worked together several times in the past. The game presents a very diverse cast, Su Ling Chan’s Mayday is full of beans and indefatigable while Steven Bones plays Zuke much like Nigel Planer played Neil in The Young Ones, relaxed and a little vague.
No Straight Roads delivers on a lot of its promises. It’s a capable platformer with a memorable soundtrack, though it falls short in melding those two areas in a truly meaningful way. It is nevertheless one of the better indie games I’ve played this year, it’s equal parts Jet Set Radio, Psychonauts and Brutal Legend and it’s an utter delight.
THE PC VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
No Straight Roads has a laundry list of inspirations and it proudly pays homage to them all in one way or another throughout the journey. Though a few of the game’s ideas end up feeling underdeveloped, the game has a lot of heart, a slapping soundtrack and the best boss encounters you’ll see in a videogame this year. Just like Bunk Bed Junction in Vinyl City, I expect Metronomik to chart well within the indie scene.