An inventive and engaging game, but the story falls a little flat.
Steel Rats is a hybrid that mixes many things, from side-scrolling adventure to 2.5D kind-of beat-‘em-up arcade-platformer. Set in a steampunk/dieselpunk 1940s United States, it is – according to Polish developers Tate Multimedia – a “destructive, octane-fuelled, motorbike combat and death-defying experience.” The result is an inventive and engaging game whose depth of storytelling doesn’t quite match the atmosphere it conjures up.
At its core, Steel Rats is a great-looking 2.5D motorbike side-scrolling adventure, starring a gang of outlaw bikers and scrappers (the eponymous Steel Rats). The gang comprises an old-timer experienced leader, a Japanese-American tech-savvy teen, a daring fire-speedster and a loony stunt acrobat. Their story begins as a horde of alien robots invade their home – the fictional Coastal City, Michigan – and the Steel Rats decide set out to save the world by destroying the origin of this chaos.
The game is drenched in atmosphere, with a visual style that blends steampunk and dieselpunk elements with the noir carcass of 1940s America: vintage cars, elaborate buildings, and a soundtrack that imbues the game with a low-pitch, dark theme that harks back to black-and-white cinema classics.
It’s a romp to explore, destroy and fight through each level. Once you get used to the dizzying array of controls and options – which allow you to choose your style when encountering robot mobs, large enemies and bosses – using your chosen biker’s special abilities, weapons and perks feels natural and versatile. The ability to switch between characters at any point is a useful one, especially when you’re running low on health and there’s not a dynamo-based restore machine in sight. Meanwhile, avoiding falls by changing direction in midair proves surprisingly smooth – and while there might be too many controls to remember sometimes, on the whole there’s a nice flow to proceedings.
You can perform stunts and mid-air madness to earn bonuses, although these never provide a truly substantial reward. Collecting scraps from destroyed cars and bots enables you to purchase new perks, abilities and skins for each of the four members of the Steel Rats, such as additional health, a strong ally bot, powerful ultimates, and more. They’re not much of a challenge to obtain: I quickly found myself swimming in scrap parts without anything to spend them on.
Each level also hides a secret, represented by a giant Steel Rats golden symbol. Discovering these triggers a largely text-based cutscene which details a character’s back story, or more about the universe’s particularities. While it’s nice to be rewarded for optional exploration, I can’t help but feel there’s wasted potential from a storytelling perspective. In a world that feels so rich, a total of just six small cinematic sequences left me hungry for more.
With a map divided in five districts – a total of 28 levels to traverse, an equal number of secrets to unlock and three different challenges to complete in each level – there’s certainly plenty to get stuck into. Perhaps there’s only so much story you can pour into such a heady mix of mechanics. It’s commendable that Steel Rats even tries to tell an interesting story in what is ultimately a side-scrolling 2.5D bike-’em-up, and it’s the one significant weakness of an otherwise enjoyable game.