I’m heartbroken about No Straight Roads.
That’s an odd way to start this out, but it’s true and I am. There are so many things that I genuinely love about this game. I’m in awe of its soundtrack and its style. But it also has been the bane of my gaming existence for the past few days, and I hate that its actual gameplay ruins the experience for me.
No Straight Roads follows an aspiring rock group, Bunk Bed Junction, was they head to Vinyl City to compete in a talent competition run by the recording company NSR. Despite performing well at the audition, the duo made up of Mayday and Zuke fails and is dismissed by NSR head Tatiana and her major recording artists. As the two head off, they see a major power outage hit the city and only the “elite” given power by NSR. (This is because Vinyl City is the sort of wild and fantastic town where music generates energy.) Mayday and Zuke then set out to hijack NSR artists’ concerts, take over their districts, and bring rock back to a city dominated by EDM.
Even though that might seem like a fairly typical story, No Straight Roads handles it with such care. One of the major twists is pretty heavily telegraphed. (At least, I felt like I caught it pretty early.) But this beat’em up does a fantastic job of developing its characters, even the ones who really only show up for one boss fight. For example, the Vtuber/Vocaloid Sayu is actually four people all working together on the persona, and we see these wordless skits during the boss fight that shows what each person does and how they evolve her to handle attacks. Also genius is Yinu, the child prodigy’s boss fight.
It also has absolutely incredible music. Every performer has their own style and, during the fights, the gauge will vary from EDM to rock to change things up. I’m in love with Sayu’s song and the DK West and Zuke rap battles. (“DK West is your man, other they just stan.”) No Straight Roads is an absolute joy to listen to. It is all just handled so well. It might even end up being one of my favorite game soundtracks of the year.
I mean, listen to “VS Sayu” from James Landino with Nikki Simmons.
Which… makes the actual gameplay so disappointing. To start, a lot of the official descriptions make mention of the “rhythm-infused” gameplay. This isn’t a rhythm game. Enemies move in time to the beat, in a way, but trying to match the beat on your own will result in you being dead. It’s a more traditional beat’em up where each boss fight has a gimmick that can sometimes lead to more dodging and fighting with the camera than satisfying battles.
The camera is so terrible, and it won’t hit you right away. Like you’ll have an idea that it could be an issue against DJ Subatomic, but once you get to Sayu’s action-areas and boss battle, you’ll see how forced perspectives and odd angles will absolutely work against you. It might even keep you from seeing areas of the field or possible attacks. Especially if you play cooperatively. Playing cooperatively is a bad idea, because then it’s even more difficult to see where danger lurks and the camera will mess with you even more. (The Nintendo Switch version also has an exclusive three-player co-op mode, where a third person can be Elliegator and transform extra weapons or collect things, but I couldn’t test that.)
Also, there are platforming segments as you head to the bosses. The camera combines with this odd sense of not really connecting with the ground to make it difficult to sometimes gauge where you’re supposed to land. Again, all of this happens right when you get to Sayu’s stage, so pretty much immediately after the tutorial, No Straight Roads exposes you to its shortcomings. The jumps don’t feel right. It sometimes seems like you’re not as accurate as you should be, because sometimes I’d have Mayday swing her guitar and hit… nothing but air. (It seemed easier to judge distances as Zuke.)
And really, it breaks my heart. There are things here that would make No Straight Roads not just a good game, but a great game! I genuinely love the story, its characters, its design, and its music. It would have made an incredible anime. But the gameplay is so incredibly frustrating. Even once you figure out the nuances and think maybe you’re getting good at it, an issue with the camera will come up or you’ll be faced with some frustrating level and it ruins it.
No Straight Roads is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.