Review – Saints Row
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The brand new reboot of the Saints Row franchise is a perfect example of this statement. Back when it was first announced, I cringed at its reveal trailer. It looked like a ton of things, EXCEPT the Saints Row I knew and loved. Clearly, it avoided the franchise’s absurdism in favor of a “millennial” approach, looking more like a mix between Fortnite and the “how do you do fellow kids” vibe from Far Cry: New Dawn.
It was a pretty bad reveal trailer, but Volition wouldn’t give up so easily. They wanted to show us that, yes, this would still be a Saints Row game at heart. Was this the reason they delayed the game by nearly half a year, from its original February release date? Did they add more content to win people over with a more familiar feel? That I’ll never know. All I know is that I have finally played the full product and, while I do have a lot of complaints regarding the series’ new direction, they were right: this is still Saints Row, and a damn good open world game to boot.
I don’t blame Volition with their attempt to reboot Saints Row. After the utter madness that was Saints Row IV, there was no way you could try to one-up it. Agents of Mayhem was an attempt to make something new with the franchise, but it fell flat. In order to move forward, Volition had to look back at their previous output and find a game that would piss off the least amount of people, as each Saints Row game feels completely different from one another in terms of comedic tone and structure. The Saints Row reboot is a clear nod to Saints Row 2 in particular, a game that tried to balance serious moments with some absurdist comedy. Granted, it is a bit funnier than 2, but at the same time, it has some tonal and atmospheric issues that simply did not feel Saints Row-ish at all in my opinion.
Saints Row feels like it was written by two completely different teams: one comprised of series veterans and another one comprised of people poached directly from Buzzfeed. One half wanted to maintain the franchise’s trademark idiocy, creating some of the coolest single-player missions I’ve ever seen in a GTA knockoff, often surpassing GTA itself. Whereas GTA would teach you the basics with a dumb “shoot the bottle” mission in a back alley, Saints Row does the same by throwing you in an homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance. Or a gigantic shootout inside a museum, miniguns and machine guns included, not even forty minutes into the game.
On the other hand, the “tame” bit of Saints Row is full of, for the lack of a better word, “Gen Z-isms”. The game is plagued with the same kind of “how do you do fellow kids” characters seen in Watch Dogs 2, Far Cry: New Dawn, Rage 2, and the Forspoken trailer. Characters that sound like pathetic attempts from older people to sound “hip” with the youths. I wanted to flinch in agony every time I heard one of the main characters actually saying the word “hashtag blessed” during a normal conversation. I also found the constant usage of social media posts as plot devices something unrealistic and idiotic… even for Saints Row standards.
There were other times Saints Row suffered from something I can only describe as “reverse MCU”. Do you know how people complain about MCU movies ruining dramatic moments with a joke being delivered from out of nowhere? Saints Row does the opposite: you’re casually blasting the hell out of a rival gang with a rocket-filled helicopter, and three seconds later you’re bombarded with some uncanny drama or a forced tear-jerking moment. This is something not even your own playable character, the Boss, is able to handle properly, as the Boss, thankfully enough, is still a dim-witted and snarky imbecile through and through. Love it.
All in all, the pandering towards the Buzzfeed generation falls flat each and every time the game attempts to be included by it. Saints Row has always been a series appreciated by those who thought that Grand Theft Auto was getting to realistic, too arcadey, too not-idiotic-enough. I get the removal of the franchise’s trademark misogyny (thank god) and some juvenile jokes, like the dildo-shaped baseball bat; 2022 is a different beast from 2011, after all. But don’t try to appeal so much towards an audience that won’t buy your game even if you desperately try to pander towards it. You will disappoint everyone as a result.
I have to admit that, despite the frequently cringeworthy millennial dialogue, I really enjoyed Saints Row‘s story. Most of that has to do with some really strong character development sections. Yes, they are cringy walking stereotypes of what forty-eight year old executives think college dropouts look and act like, but your Scooby Gang of “friends” (not “homies”, that doesn’t fit with our new Saints Row world) are really likeable. They felt like the complete opposite at first, but they won me over after a while. The plot is your standard “rags to riches” fare, but full of the aforementioned fantastic main missions that made me enjoy these story moments even more… despite the forced drama.
What I’m trying to say is that, yes, Saints Row is fun. Unnecessary pandering aside, this game still retains what made the series so cherished by those fed up with Grand Theft Auto‘s hand-holding and dated mission structure: good gameplay, memorable moments, and a ton of stuff to do on the side. I don’t think anything in it reinvented the wheel, especially considering this is supposed to be a reboot, but if you were worried about Saints Row not retaining the gameplay you’ve grown to love over the past fifteen or so years, fear not.
At its core, it retains most of the gameplay seen in Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third. I’ll even say that some animations look identical to some featured in those games. What little has changed has to do with a slightly more precise aiming system, which makes the ranged combat a lot more interesting and improved vehicular controls. Everything is just a tad more polished, removing a bit of the franchise’s traditional jank (but not all) in favor of something that doesn’t feel at all like a benchmark of what to expect from a next-gen GTA-inspired open world game, but a fun playground of destruction nevertheless.
The franchise is also known for its ludicrous amount of side missions and additional activities. It’s no different in this reboot. Some of the best moments in the game are seen in side missions like the hitman substories, beating out gang members after rating their restaurant poorly on this game’s version of Yelp, and the return of the fan favorite insurance fraud minigame. I also spent an awful lot of time tuning cars and completing side hustles in order to “activate” the cash flow from my business fronts, such as stealing food trucks in order to increase the scope of my drug smuggling operations. It’s not unlike Vice City‘s business front side missions.
I have to commend Volition for the return of a more robust character creator. These folks gave us the ultimate Boss creator, with a nonsensical level of depth and customization options. The best part about it is that you can freely edit your boss at any time, save presets, and even share them online. Even before the release of the game to a wider audience, I could already find lifelike recreations of Tom Cruise, Peaky Blinders‘ Thomas Shelby, Gorillaz’s 2-D, Morbius, Big Smoke from San Andreas, Walter White, and even Eustace from Courage the Cowardly Dog.
There are issues in the gameplay, however. One issue is more of a nitpick, which still needs to be said: you crouch by pressing down on the D-Pad, which does not feel natural or fluid at all, especially during a hectic gunfight. That’s the lesser evil. What bugged me more while playing Saints Row was the amount of glitches and technical issues.
As previously mentioned, Saints Row is a pretty game, but it’s NOT a game that looks like something you’d expect from next-gen hardware. I have already mentioned how some of its animations feel like they were copied and pasted from Saints Row: The Third, a PS3 game from 2011. Despite this inclusion of dated jank, the framerate is still quite inconsistent. It never falls down to unacceptable numbers, but I would have appreciated the option to lock it down to a less demanding framerate benchmark in order to deal with these problems.
The game is also a bit too glitchy, at least prior to the release of some inevitable day-one patches. I never phased through a street, but I did face a crash once, a few instances of menus not working at all, the disappearance of sound effects, and weirdly enough, my boss just randomly changing voice pitches on the fly. None of those issues were deal-breakers, but they need to be fixed as soon as possible. The combination of an unreliable framerate with the occasional janky glitch will piss off a ton of players.
Finally, I want to talk about Saints Row’s strongest aspect: its sound department. Despite the aforementioned sound effect issues, this is yet another iteration of the franchise featuring a solid combination of amazing voice acting (even though I miss the dumb celebrity cameos like Keith David or the late Burt Reynolds) and a plethora of excellent licensed music.
You’ll find tons of songs scattered throughout the game’s radio stations. DMX, Slayer, Cage the Elephant, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Accept, Iggy Pop, Beethoven… there is a bit of everything to please every kind of music fan. To top things off, you can create playlists with your favorite songs in order to listen to them at any time you want, mixing tunes from any radio station included in the game. Want to listen solely to TLC and Hatebreed? Go for it, there’s nothing preventing you from doing that.
Saints Row is much better than its terrible reveal trailer made it look like, with some great controls, a ton of side content, a ludicrous character creator, and some truly amazing story missions, but its tone suffers from a proper lack of direction. At times, it resembles the ultra-imbecilic Saints Row we all know and love. Other times, it tries desperately to pander to a dab-appreciating, hashtag-tolerant, Twitter-addicted, Buzzfeed-consuming Gen Z generation that would never consider buying a game in this franchise to begin with. It’s a game that feels like it was written by two completely antagonistic committees. If you can ignore its tonal discrepancies, as well as some glitches, you’ll have a great time with yet another strong outing from Volition.
Clearly not a title that could be considered next-gen in any way. The environments look great, but character models look and feel dated. There are plenty of framerate issues as well.
A traditional (and functional) third-person shooting gameplay loop/control scheme with just a handful of elements to make it stand out from other games. Driving is great as well. The framerate issues impact the gameplay a bit, but nothing that results in a complete deal-breaker.
Even if some of the dialogue exchanges are cringy, I cannot deny that the voice acting is excellent, as to be expected from a Saints Row game. There are some sound effect glitches here and there while driving, but they can be ignored thanks to the fantastic soundtrack included in this game.
It’s less absurdist than previous Saints Row games, but it makes up for it with some really strong character development and writing. It’s just full of clichés and “Gen-Z-isms” that just don’t fit at all with the franchise’s roots. As for the rest, it’s still a really fun open world game with a boatload of missions and side content to enjoy.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Saints Row is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S.
A copy of Saints Row was provided by the publisher.