Saints Row (2022) belongs in a different era. A reboot of the open world crime series that saw its last real iteration in 2013, with Saints Row IV, the new game tries its darndest to bring back the over-the-top mayhem and buoyant, goofy comedy that the Saints Row franchise took on as its signature style during its peak. But aside from a stylish modern makeover and an affable new cast of characters, that old-school open world style has not changed, and nostalgia doesn’t make it more playable.
Depending on the day, I might’ve told you that the return of the frivolous Saints Row attitude is a breath of fresh air. That we haven’t had enough silly open world games in the past decade, and this is a great time for the series to come back. I could’ve also just as easily told you that playing Saints Row is a slog – a series of outdated, decade-old open world tropes and unsatisfying mechanics that would be dull at best, if the non-stop corny chatter wasn’t also there to grate on your nerves. That’s because Saints Row so often skirts that line between comfortably mindless, and utterly boring.
From certain perspectives, it’s easy to like Saints Row’s reboot package, which contains a fresh scenario, a mostly likeable cast of characters, a new Las Vegas-inspired city, and a colourful aesthetic. Revolving around a group of four penniless friends and housemates, all of whom find themselves dejected by their respective employers and gangs, they set out to work around the typical cogs of corporate and criminal structures by starting their own criminal enterprise: the Saints.
Aside from your customisable protagonist, it’s a diverse crew by design, and there’s a lot to be said for the little narrative details and the lighter injections of humour throughout the game’s main story beats that make the friends more relatable and empathetic, despite the game dialling its action and reactions up to far more extreme levels during actual gameplay. Some nice cinematic direction during story moments surprised me, and the overall art direction, which incorporates a mixture of cross-generational cultural considerations that a border city might feasibly contain, is very nice.
The city of Santo Ileso is largely well put together, and in places is quite picturesque, but it’s ultimately a city constructed with a playground of activities in mind, rather than environmental character. Given that Saints Row hinges around the potential for high degrees of mayhem in an open world space, that’s likely by design. If you’re in the mood to blow off some steam, countless side activities and challenges littered across the map provide ample opportunity, no matter what your flavour – so long as those flavours are shooting or driving.
The problem is that neither the shooting nor driving in Saints Row are inherently satisfying activities. Driving is particularly egregious – vehicles have very little sense of momentum or heft, and you often feel disassociated from them completely, as if you’re controlling a remote-control car from a distance, rather than holding the wheel. Going offroad results in a rocky ride, naturally, but the erratic movement of the car seems to be completely disassociated from the actual bumps of the surface. Simple button presses are a shortcut to actions like a violent sideswipe and drifting, which are convenient, but only add to the complete artificiality of driving.
Shooting firearms also lacks a sense of precision and tautness to the typical flow of aiming and shooting that is so integral to gun-based action games – which have improved and grown more numerous since Saints Row’s absence. The sense of feedback from using many of the guns just isn’t satisfying, compounded by the fact that enemies in Saints Row live and die based on a health bar system – a headshot is not always the instant kill you think it might be, and you could need several if they’re considered ‘armoured enemies,’ despite only sporting a singlet.
Special abilities and some quality-of-life shortcuts are the saving grace of combat in Saints Row, however. You can instantly target and shoot explosive objects with a single button press while aiming. You have the option to equip four special abilities, unlocked as you progress through the game, which let you perform entertaining and useful actions like unleashing a highly damaging, flaming punch, or sticking a grenade in an enemy’s pants and throwing them into their friends. Additionally, dispatching enough enemies charges up a high-powered takedown ability, which will let you instantly eliminate an opponent with a flashy, close-quarters melee combat sequence. These abilities help ease the burden of having to rely on unsatisfying shooting mechanics.
Being able to employ a mix of different kinds of shooting with your small arsenal, melee combat, and these abilities can make the brawls of Saints Row a lot more engaging, allowing you just enjoy the game’s silly scenarios that little bit more.
In the absence of inherently fulfilling mechanics, that silliness is also what helps salvage uninspiring mission designs, which Saints Row features in spades. In what could be considered ‘traditional’ open-world mission structure, the game features a lot of fetch quests, a lot of driving and talking objectives (usually with way too much talking), and missions that frequently just end up in shootouts with waves and waves of enemies. Having to man a turret and mow down enemies for minutes at a time is frankly something I hoped I would never have to do again, let alone do multiple times.
I can’t ignore that going through the motions of this old-fashioned style of open world game can feel comfortable and reassuring, especially with the high spirits of the Saints Row legacy in tow – something that it seems to be banking on. If you find yourself in the right frame of mind, the unhinged nature of Saints Row can be cathartic, particularly if you find yourself in a good series of missions where the writing and humour aren’t too manic. In the end, Saints Row succeeds in recalling and refreshing the affable personality of the dormant series, but this reboot is simply a return, not an evolution.
2 Stars: ★★
The PlayStation 5 version of Saints Row (2022) was provided and played for the purposes of this review.