Beat ’em ups have a timeline spanning nearly the same length as the platformer, but sadly never evolved in the way that the latter genre has over the years. Don’t get me wrong- I love a good session of Castle Crashers or TMNT: Turtles in Time every so often. I simply wish there was a little more innovation, which is why I was thrilled to try out Streets of Red, which recently released on the PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
As you might have guessed from the title (and font), Streets of Red offers many homages to classic games and (much to my pleasure) classic horror films. The game isn’t shy about it, either. A well-placed nod to Friday the 13th or Mega Man (among others) is just around the edge of every screen as you take on a zombie horde and massive bosses. Be it in the background, level design, or a boss that has you flinging enemies at the screen in a similar fashion to the first Shredder encounter from Turtles in Time, it’s almost always in your face.
Streets of Red attempts to inject some much needed variation in the traditional “go right and beat the crap out of anything that moves” formula in the form of randomization. While it’s not exactly what I’d call a rogue-lite (all of the levels were hand-made), Streets of Red allows you to choose the order you tackle the four main stages. The catch is that the length and difficulty of each stage will increase as you continue to clear them, meaning that you’ll be able to discover new sections in a particular stage on repeat playthroughs if you switch up your order. In addition, if you play the game on “Expert”, you’ll be able to place bets before each stage. These bets will make enemies and bosses more difficult to take down (not to mention increase the cost of reviving), but success will yield a higher cash payout (necessary for upgrades and obtaining the good ending). Both of these features, along with six playable characters, add to the game’s replay value and offer an interesting spin on an otherwise basic genre.
One other added wrinkle is how the game handles death. If you die and don’t have the cash to revive (don’t worry, this isn’t an EA game- you’ll be using in game currency instead of pulling out your credit card to keep the game going) or Soul Tokens to restart from the beginning of the stage you died on, you’ll have to start from scratch. The game will even delete your save file right in front of you to rub salt in the wound. While it seems like a harsh punishment, I didn’t find it problematic here as each complete playthrough only takes about an hour and, despite being indie and retro-inspired, Streets of Red is quite easy. There were only a handful of enemy types and a couple of bosses that gave me much trouble (even on expert) and I always had enough money and items to keep going. Heck, I wouldn’t have even known about this approach to death had the game’s store description failed to mention it.
The relative ease of the game is perhaps the only major issue I’ve after repeat playthroughs. Even if the bad guys can stun-lock you and chip off 15-20 HP at a time if you’re not careful, there’s always plenty of food pickups along the way that will replenish that lost vitality and then some. In addition, slaughtering three or more enemies in a row with your special attack is rewarded with cash and a smaller food item that restores at least 10-15 HP (and those aren’t particularly hard to pull off once you line everybody up on the edge of the screen). While the sharp controls and combat system (along with the splatters and crunches) make wailing on your adversaries incredibly satisfying, I just wish the “Expert” mode actually felt like an “Expert” mode.
Despite being pretty easy, Streets of Red is still a great time thanks to the homages, gritty presentation and added mechanics that I daresay improve the beat ’em up formula. At only $8.99, it’s treat for anyone who loves beat ’em ups and horror. Just don’t expect a lengthy campaign or the excruciating difficulty that independent developers tend to lean towards these days.