Punk purists may be intrigued—and then quickly scandalised by—the premise of No Straight Roads, a musical action-adventure game about two indie rock misfits clashing against the commercialisation of music, which has taken form as a massive electronic dance music (EDM) conglomerate. That’s because, in spite of the punk ethos that’s seemingly behind the game’s devil-may-care attitude, No Straight Roads really isn’t all that anti-establishment.
In this alternative universe, music has become a key source of energy for Vinyl City, which is generating enough electricity to power the town. Then comes the inevitable corporate takeover, with a megacorporation scouting for musicians as renewable energy sources by hosting talent shows. Unfortunately, the scrappy rock duo, made up of drummer Zuko and guitarist Mayday, doesn’t quite cut it, even though they have aced their auditions. Rock music is passé, the judges argued and will be outlawed because it’s silly. Oh, and there’s also a diabolical plot by the evil company to hoard the energy for the elites. It’s time to save the city with rock music!
Yet it’s mostly a coup d ‘état in name. Vinyl City is still a vibrant, bustling community despite the crisis, and you’ll hardly see any tangible effects of this power outage on the common folk, the structural oppression brought about by the EDM empire, or any havoc wrought upon Vinyl City by the big bad business. All these are just a narrative setup to get to the fun stuff. And there’s no faulting that, really; No Straight Roads is a genuinely enjoyable experience. Rather than the hardcore punk of Dead Kennedys, the game is more like the effervescent pop-punk of Blink 182, striving to indulge its players in the full range of earnest, adolescent emotions. The feisty duo of No Straight Roads is mostly just doing cool shit like slapping stickers onto and modding their instruments, playing arcade games, breaking into security systems, attending interviews, collecting cylinders of energy to fix the city’s ailing electrical grid, and hijacking EDM concerts. The latter, of course, is an attempt by the band to restore power in the city and wrestle back creative control from the supposedly straight-laced, mindless drone of EDM.
Will September end?
At least, this is what No Straight Roads seems like it’s setting players up for. For a game that’s heavily centred around music, it’s more of a hack-and-slash title than a rhythm game. Zuko and Mayday wield their instruments as weapons—drumsticks and electric guitar, respectively—to challenge EDM musicians to an intoxicating duel when hijacking their concerts, akin to a game of boss battles. You can switch between the two characters, or grab a second player to slash, shoot, double-jump, dodge and even parry assaults from the musician together. Every concert you hijack is made up of several climatic, exhilarating rounds of combat, where you have to familiarise yourself with the patterns and curveballs of attacks. These are accompanied by a surprisingly well-crafted and impossibly catchy medley of electronic and rock tunes, which offers musical cues that are in sync with the barrage of attacks you’re receiving. Timing your manoeuvres right is of the essence here, and the game will score your performance at the end depending on your performance. And the sheer diversity and creativity of assaults will continue to keep you on your toes, too. While No Straight Roads isn’t a particularly punishing game—you can always choose to continue the duel even when you’ve exhausted your health bar—it’s not an easy one to excel in either, and you’ll find yourself returning to replay levels you were struggling with, so as to clinch a better grade.
Easing your playthrough is a progression system that’s, quite honestly, par for the course for most action-adventure titles. No Straight Roads doesn’t break the mould here, nor does it seek to do so. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock additional abilities that improve the potency of your attacks, let you move more nimbly, and award more manoeuvres. This is dependent on the strength of your fanbase; the more fans you garner, the more skills you’ll have at your disposal. Recruiting more fans to your cause isn’t an enigma, and you can do so by partaking in more of the cool stuff I mentioned earlier: giving kickass interviews, returning energy back to the impoverished city, and hijacking even more gigs.
There’s something to be said about the broad genres that No Straight Roads have used to pit against one another: rock is authentic; EDM is manufactured. But rock music is also prone to commercialisation—the post-grunge boom of the 2000s, as evident in the popularity of bands like Puddle of Mudd, Creed and Godsmack—is a clear example of this. Then there are EDM’s disco roots, a genre historically tied to black queer liberation. No Straight Roads has largely chosen to steer clear of these distinctions, but what surprised me is its inclusion of a rap battle that serves as the game’s secondary quest. This isn’t just your regular hip-hop, freestyle diss battles, but also stems from an esoteric musical form called dikir barat, a traditional Malay art form popular in Malaysia and Singapore that incorporates singing, poetry and movement. While modernised to fit No Straight Roads’ futuristic themes, the dikir barat performance is an extraordinary nod to the developer’s Malaysian roots. What’s more is that the battles are also set in the backdrop of a wayang kulit performance, a traditional Indonesian puppet-shadow theatre that’s well-known in Southeast Asia—and a sight rarely seen in games. This segment, however, is significantly more challenging than the main exploits of concert hijacking. It consists of dodging fast-moving masks that skid across three lanes, which you’ll have to control with both hands, and is probably better suited to a two-player setup.
No Straight Roads won’t impress punk fans with its devotion to palatability and conventions; it’s not wont to hollering “Fuck off nazi punks“ and pointing a middle finger to the authority and the Man. Instead, it’s content with embodying the irreverent goofiness of pop-punk bands, with the dynamic duo of Zuko and Mayday making loud, emotional proclamations about saving rock music against the tyranny of EDM without a sliver of irony. It’s all the more charming for its lack of pretension, and the polished veneer of its absolutely heady soundtrack, which is perfectly in sync with the intoxicating rhythm of its boss battles, makes this a game worth headbanging to.
[Reviewed on PC]