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Saints Row (2022) review - a snappy but slightly uneven reboot

Sinner peace.
Volition's Saints Row reboot won't set the world alight, but there's a punchy game here with some pleasant surprises.

It takes guts to reboot something, doesn't it? Guts, and no doubt a lot of hand-wringing. It's a taciturn acknowledgement that something, at its core, still has value - something is worth sticking with - and yet it's also a painful public admission that something else isn't quite right. Be it a TV show, movie, or video game, I don't think that's ever an easy conclusion to reach… well, not with the eyes of an ardent fanbase looking on, anyways.

Whatever you feel about the decision to reboot the flailing Saints Row franchise, it's hard not to respect developer Volition and publisher THQ for that gutsy decision. I'll admit to you now, ahead of the series' reboot, Saints Row and I were not on good terms. It's the purple, I think: the purple and the silliness. I know all that was deliberate - that the franchise sought to differentiate itself from the numerous other GTA clones around it by slapping on some purple paint and making every entry just that little bit more larger-than-life - but there was too much of both for my tastes. It became too big and too unwieldy and - like Violet Beauregarde's similarly purple silhouette - that overshadowed everything else it had going for it. No, not every game needs to be serious and no, not every story has to be emotive… but not every game needs giant dildos, either.

So whilst I enjoyed Saints Row and its sequel, I didn't enjoy my stay with The Third, and side-stepped Saints Row IV altogether, which should give you some indication of my trepidation coming in, reboot or no reboot. I knew Volition can make engaging games with excellent characters and delightful gunplay, just as I knew Saints Row wasn't for me. Well. Until now, anyway.

Ian and Zoe are giving Saints Row a play with some launch day co-op - here's a stream!

For as much as the rebooted Saints Row retains much of its core DNA - there are plenty of guns and explosions and vehicular combat and an unhealthy dollop of curse words - its wackiness has been dialled down. And while the lead characters and their acrobatic stunts are all still a tad unbelievable at times, no longer is the story or gameplay overwhelmed by cheap gags and gaudy visuals. I suspect it'll still be too silly for some, but I think there's a lot to like when you realise that, beneath the bluster and eff bombs, here lies a satisfying shooter that gives you plenty to do and a lot of freedom in which to do it.

You - a nameless, build-your-own creation that can have a Southern drawl or a plummy English accent; the choice is yours - are one-quarter and quasi-leader of the Saints, a burgeoning criminal network. And for a series that spent a lot of time making sex jokes, the character creation options are curiously liberating. Regardless of what character model you choose, you can also select from a range of voices - there are no sex-based constraints - and wear whatever you like. You - yes, that's what your character is called; You - are fully non-binary and utterly without gendered pronouns throughout the entire game.

Saints Row review - weapon loadout screen
Saints Row review - over the shoulder combat inside a train, getting shot at with a green laser
Saints Row review - character customisation screen featuring you wearing a taco outfit

That's not to say everything is super serious now, of course; the dialogue between the four Saints' co-founders is stuffed with the cussing and bants you may well be expecting, and though I can't pretend it doesn't grate from time to time, there are undeniably some laugh-out-loud funny interactions, too.

The plot, such as it is, is to establish The Saints as the numero uno criminal organisation in the Las Vegas-esque city of Santo Ileso, besting your enemy factions - the Panteros, the Idols, and the military might of the Marshalls - to reign supreme. No, it's not a staggeringly novel concept, but it's not a bad one, either, helped in no small part by the game's admirably diverse mission types that keep the fight fresh and exciting.

For the most part, you'll breeze through the story and main missions with delicious speed, building up your criminal ventures and recruits whilst simultaneously customising your HQ and your good self with the profits of your illicit deeds. I can't say I cared much about the latter - collecting stuff is always fun, but I couldn't care less about putting them on display - but the former punctures the otherwise blistering pacing. To be pulled off the main mission path and forced to, say, drive back the eleventy gazillion toxic waste trucks dotted around the place doesn't dent the immersion as much as destroy it.

Saints Row review - a custscene still of a character on a balcony
Saints Row review - a wide view of the city across its river at sunset

Interestingly, a significant portion of your early game will also centre around LARPing, which is a weird and unexpected diversion that similarly artificially slows your progress. It's also a dizzying juxtaposition to hear your character make faux "pew pew pew" sounds and watch enemies fake their deaths after she massacred forty people on a street corner just five minutes previously. And maybe it's just me, but it also feels more of a pisstake than a lightly teasing homage to LARPing and those who enjoy it, too.

That said, the gunplay is indisputably brilliant. Each weapon feels and plays a little differently, and the individual weapon challenges - which, I'm delighted to report, buck a recent industry trend by being quickly and easily attainable - encourage diversity in your combat style. Admittedly, the auto-target is a little sticky (I experimented with it both on and off and definitely preferred the latter), but shooting stuff never gets old in Saints Row, and the more weapons you amass in your cache, the more enjoyable your combat sequences - of which there are many - will be.

Saints Row review - a massive, impressive explosion of traffic on a desert road

You can further spice up the combat with unlockable skills and perks that bring both passive and active advantages to your fights, too. In true Saints Row fashion, this ranges from the normal - say, extend your health bar - to the nonsensical - how about magic powers that enable you to throw a pack of enemies into the air before slamming them into the ground? - and yep, it is every bit as satisfying as it sounds.

Driving, too, feels good, which means even the vehicular missions - the chapters I tend to relish least in these kinds of games - are well choreographed, even if the route indicators (which are a stylistic purple, of course) don't always contrast strongly enough against the busy streets of Santo Ileso. The Drop, dedicated to dreamy synth music, was my preferred station whilst cruising the streets, side-swiping and smashing into as many innocent people as possible to bolster my XP.

As for Santo Ileso itself? A vibrant world, its inhabitants continue to go about their daily business despite the city's unapologetic embracing of the criminal underclass, the desert scrublands pushing in at all sides. By the time you get through the tutorial missions, you'll be free to explore the whole of the city at your leisure, with no superficial gateways or difficulty spikes impeding your exploration. Vegas-inspired, it boasts all the landmarks you'd expect and plenty of Points of Interest to explore, from the sun-soaked waterfront of Marina Del Lago to the gleaming skyscrapers of the Financial District.

Saints Row review - a gunfight
Saints Row review - characters chat at a bar

That said, there are times when it feels curiously bereft of life - you can speed through some areas of town without ever seeing another soul on foot or in a vehicle, and it happens enough times to dent the facade of a city teeming with life - but for the most part, its distinct districts are a fitting backdrop to the Saints' giddy escapades, even if it's not the most memorable sandbox world I've ever explored.

That said, Saint's Row is not without its issues. Unto the Breach, a mission wherein you and your pals once again LARP up and take a break from all that murdering by pretending to murder people instead, is currently unplayable - it crashes to the dash every single time I attempt it on PS5 - and on numerous occasions, I had to reload a checkpoint because the mission didn't progress. Sometimes it was because a character didn't trigger the next cut scene; sometimes enemies I had to kill were nowhere to be seen. A generous checkpoint system, though, means resetting to your last save is rarely unforgivably frustrating.

Otherwise, though, I can't help but admit I'm having a smashing time - quite literally - with Saints Row. Yes, the story is trite at times and yes, much of where that story takes you can feel a touch ridiculous, but it's to the team's credit that this deftly side-steps the issues of its predecessors and rarely feels gratuitous or malicious. The Saints Row reboot is self-aware and self-deprecating and if you're able to move past its prior reputation, there's a fast and furious shooter here that's worthy of your time.

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About the Author

Vikki Blake avatar

Vikki Blake

Contributor

When​ ​her friends​ ​were falling in love with soap stars, Vikki was falling in love with​ ​video games. She's a survival horror survivalist​ ​with a penchant for​ ​Yorkshire Tea, men dressed up as doctors and sweary words. She struggles to juggle a fair-to-middling Destiny/Halo addiction​ ​and her kill/death ratio is terrible.

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