A scrappy tribute to the long-lost Road Rash series whose raw spirit just about overcomes its shortcomings.
Before I go on to lament the 14 years that have passed since the last Road Rash game - 2003's Jailbreak on Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, for the record, itself a port of an earlier PlayStation game - let's spare a thought for the three years that have passed since Road Redemption, developer Ian Fisch and his small team's spiritual successor, first broke cover. This is a game that's been slowly blooming in early access ever since, and one that's only now ready to be pushed across the finishing line.
It's a game born of a fannish devotion, first sparked in a rental Louisiana rental store when Fisch and his brother got hold of a copy of Road Rash on 3DO, and Road Redemption feels - for better and worse - like a fan-made game. There are rough edges, for sure - and for that matter, plenty of rough surfaces to boot - but there's also a game that's come about from a handful of devotees who ask the same questions we all so often do of our favourite games. What if? And how about?
So this can feel like a Road Rash filtered through the raw, unruly imagination of the infatuated teen. Wouldn't it be fun if that combat system was fleshed out with counters and critical hits? How about four-player splitscreen? And how awesome would it be if you were on one epic road trip, from bleached deserts to post-apocalyptic wastes, duking it out with various gangs? And how much more awesome would it be if it was a roguelike? And hey - how about jetpacks too?
Road Redemption adds all those things and more, but not before it nails the fundamentals of its inspiration. This remains a game where you take a motorbike out on a series of point-to-point events, threading through traffic and slinging a fist, foot or whatever weapon that comes to hand at your opponents. It's a game that understands how important it is to get that crunch of lead pipe on leather down pat - here told with the briefest hit pause and a little screen shake, as well as a nice little tug of force feedback in the pad - and the slice of a bowie knife on bare skin, or simply the joy of sticking some dynamite on a rival before nitrous boosting to safety.
The brutality is doubled down on, while elsewhere the original core is built out. The roguelike structure works remarkably well - reach the end of a stage and you're able to spend the money you acquired by knocking out opponents or racking up near misses on upgrades or totting up a little health. Bank a little XP and at the end of the run there's even a skill-tree for permanent upgrades that'll help you next time you set out. It all sets up a nice little groove to get caught in, a neat loop that rewards returning to the open road.
Don't let that deceive you into thinking that Road Redemption is smart, though. Far from it - this is a cheap and nasty game, though I mean that in a mostly positive sense. It's got the shambolic production values and raw energy of a straight-to-video 80s action flick - maybe one you might find a dog-eared VHS of in that same Louisiana rental store where Fisch's obsession started - and is quite often all the better for it. Revel in the shotgun reload animation, culled directly from Terminator 2, and you'll know where Road Redemption's heart lies.
Just as often, though, Road Redemption's rough and ready nature can get the better of it, and it falls short of its inspiration in a number of ways. The handling is, across the selection of unlockable bikes, plain awful. There's no weight transfer from the front wheels to the back, and no real sense of feedback from the bike, leaving you to glide, frictionless, across every road. The 1992 Mega Drive original of Road Rash had more convincing handling - and, in truth, it looked a fair bit better than Road Redemption, too.
This is an ugly game, its environments strange smears and its assets anonymous sketches, and as such it loses so much of the character of the originals with their sweeping shorthand for the great American outdoors. The factions you come across, too - hollow Xeroxes of Mad Max villains, complete with charmingly amateurish voice-acting - don't resonate anyway near as much as those you shared the road with back in the day. Though bear in mind these are complaints from someone who still holds a candle for Natasha and still bears a grudge against Biff, and who's read Sega Power's Road Rash novel through more than once.
And despite all that - or maybe because of it - I've got a massive soft spot for Road Redemption. The handling is awful, the art is a wreck and I don't think you'll get more than half a dozen hours out of it before you can stomach no more. But in the unabashed energy of Road Redemption, in its unhinged anarchy and cut-rate thrills, there's still something special to be found: a scrappy redneck racer that puts up one hell of a fight. In its own offbeat way, it's perhaps truer to the spirit of Road Rash than even Road Rash itself.