An engaging presentation and some cool ideas can't help elevate No Straight Road's hollow loop.
When I met Wan Hazmer and Daim Dziauddin, founders of No Straight Roads developer Metronomik, at EGX Rezzed last year, I was immediately taken with the great story behind the game. Not only did the two want to release a homegrown Malaysian game and thus support their local game industry, but they also envisioned rhythm gaming as something more than following cursors and pressing buttons to the beat. One loves rock, the other is more into EDM, and thus Vinyl City was born, a place where a lone rock band takes on an evil EDM empire.
Vinyl City is a place so infused with music that it's powered by the screams of its music hungry fans. Bunk Bed Junction, a rock band consisting of the boisterous Mayday and her friend and polar opposite Zuke, wants to be the next big thing, but despite playing a solid show at an audition, they're told to beat it - all of the top performing artists play EDM, and simply see no reason in changing what works. About to give up, Bunk Bed Junction discover that the EDM Empire called No Straight Roads also disproportionately favours the rich and famous when it comes to electricity distribution, and so our heroes decide to become a very vocal opposition and climb to the top of the charts.
It's confusing at first, but at no point is No Straight Roads ever really a rhythm game. Instead, it's an action adventure with platforming elements that vaguely follow a rhythm. Before taking on an artist, you need to bypass "security" by traveling through rooms filled with enemies that attack to the beat. You can either play as Mayday or Zuke or play with a friend - either way you need to give these fiends a whacking and you can only do that during the moment they don't attack, as being hit cancels out your own animation.
It feels counterintuitive - in a world where everything moves rhythmically, you're the one thing moving against the beat. I'm sure it's a metaphor, but in its execution, it's also very simple stuff, made worse by the fact that these security levels overstay their welcome - you basically fight the same three types of enemies, plus some variants depending on level, with minimal variation between six and eight times by either dodging, jumping or parrying in giant, mostly empty rooms. Then you do the same thing again during boss battles, resulting in oodles of repetition. It seems like the idea comes from the type of enemies you find in platformers, which by themselves rarely do more than move from left to right or shoot, either, but without the context of environmental and behavioural variety that usually makes them work. Same goes for the platforming sequences, which for how simple they are turn out to be incredibly frustrating because the camera, movable outside of battles, is static here, leading to situations where I can't see where I'm going.
No Straight Roads looks fantastic, though, and got me excited basically whenever it ignored its own premise. There's a rap level that has you furiously changing lanes as you dodge items, and a level in which Mayday and Zuke get trapped in different dimensions. As much love as Metronomik put in its worldbuilding, though, it feels swiftly abandoned. The whole rock vs. EDM idea also doesn't really work out, mostly because it's clear the team love both and a bunch of other genres besides. A nice touch is that whenever you start to turn the tides in battle, rock starts worming its way into the track.
The music is more backing track than anything I would listen to by itself. I love the expressive character designs and the voice acting, mostly done by Malaysian voice actors. The Tim Schafer-esque tone to each joke made me laugh out loud more than once, and while there isn't really a story to speak of, I was really taken with the writing that is there. It refers mostly to situations we as players aren't privy to, which can be annoying, but it affectionately pokes fun at the music industry and its various idiosyncrasies. The only thing I was disappointed with in this regard was the undercooked relationship between Mayday and Zuke - Mayday turns into a kind of running gag while Zuke gets all the good bits.
Mayday and Zuke play as distinct characters - they both have a skill tree and different special attacks, and you can spend fan energy on developing them further. Unfortunately, with the mechanics being the way they are, I had absolutely no need for any of this. No Straight Road's goal is clearly for you to not be hit at all, but since enemies can cancel your attacks and you can't cancel theirs, there's a lot of waiting around. Getting a hit in the first time may not be enough to defeat an enemy, and so I go in, go back, go in again. I can understand the concept for a boss fight, but this is no Dark Souls, and having to do this for an enemy that follows a basic jumping pattern is a bit too much. The boss battles follow the same pattern, which again would be fun if the waiting/whacking gameplay were about half as long and didn't take up to 20 minutes each time. If you die, you can start from where you left off, but your rank will go no higher than C - starting from the beginning however means running the whole security gauntlet again, so while the ranking system is obviously meant to increase replayability, I didn't feel it at all.
Gameplay isn't everything, and I love plenty of games that have somewhat underwhelming gameplay but offer plenty of other things to love. Indeed, there's a lot to love here - but sadly No Straight Roads is centred around a gameplay idea that could've done with a bit more work.
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