I’ll preface our Saints Row review by saying that I’m not the biggest fan of Volition’s open-world, action-adventure series. While previous entries had dozens of jokes and zany moments that made me chuckle, I still felt that they lacked the necessary “oomph” to make the experience memorable.
Fast forward to the present, and the newest entry is set to release on the Epic Games Store. Mind you, it’s a reboot of the franchise, veering away from the over-the-top wackiness and raunchiness. In some ways, Saints Row does succeed in providing a refreshing take on a long-running formula, but it’s also held back by a number of flaws.
We’re not friends… we’re family
The story is often one of the biggest hurdles in open-world games. Can a developer craft a compelling narrative and well-written characters to keep the player engaged, or will it devolve into mindless blasting and explosions all over the city? Saints Row falls in the middle of the road in this regard.
At the start of the campaign, you design your own boss, one who seems to be on top of the world with the faction ruling the city of Santo Ileso. Then, disaster strikes, and you’ll relive the journey of how things came to be. From a scrappy rookie working for Marshall Defense Industries, you’ll lead the Saints to dominance. With you are your close friends: Neenah, a former member of the Los Panteros gang; Kevin, a former member of the Idols gang; and Eli, a timid and nerdy guy who organizes the group’s activities. Likewise, there are a few supporting characters that round out the cast.
There’s a lot of emphasis on building a well-rounded cast of characters, as there are several missions where you get to know them. Tons of banter and fluff are mixed in to present a bond between you and your companions. Sadly, these are tied to some rather nonsensical plots, poor pacing, and a bit of cheesiness. It’s akin to The Fast and the Furious movies, except cornier.
Welcome to Santo Ileso
Saints Row is set in the city of Santo Ileso, which would remind you of Las Vegas. There are districts that are filled with casinos and attractions, suburbs with small businesses, and vast deserts on the horizon. It’s a massive playground for you to explore on foot, in a vehicle, or while gliding with your wingsuit, and the visuals are fairly decent to boot.
As mentioned earlier, the three factions (Marshalls, Panteros, and Idols) rule the city, and subsequent missions offer opportunities to take them down. Similarly, there are countless optional activities, such as side hustles (i.e., sidequests) to earn extra cash, wanted missions where you have to eliminate a target, points of interest that you can visit, and even locations that can be unlocked as fast travel points if you take a picture.
Your criminal empire will grow over time. By placing business ventures all over Santo Ileso, your establishments will act as a front for your moneymaking schemes. Examples include the Chalupacabra food trucks (i.e., steal a food truck and earn money), JimRob’s Garage (i.e., steal a specific car), Bright Future (i.e., commandeer a truck to dump its toxic waste), Eurekabator (i.e., test new prototypes), and Shady Oaks (i.e., good ol’ insurance fraud).
This is a passive means of earning income. By removing threats within the district, your establishment generates more revenue, which can then be added to your total cash by way of your character’s phone app.
Saints Row still has a lot of action going for it. You’ll have loads of tense car chases where you can blow up a lot of vehicles (you can cling on top of a roof while destroying your foes). And, naturally, there are numerous firefights. This leads to tedious repetitiveness a majority of missions tend to follow this trend.
Still, your arsenal is bolstered by takedowns, brutal ways to incapacitate your opponents in melee. You’ll see everything from martial arts moves reminiscent of The Karate Kid to vicious stabs and point-blank gunshots akin to the John Wick and Bourne films.
I do have a couple of gripes. Firstly, it’s that the takedown action needs to charge a lot faster. Breezing through and cutting down enemies is ridiculous fun, but having to mow down a dozen before I could use it again is a bummer. Secondly, the combat skills and passive perks feel a bit too tacked on and lacking in depth.
As for guns, you can acquire several from missions and shops. Unfortunately, since the game is a bit more toned down compared to its predecessors, you won’t see some old favorites like the dildo bat or certain “out of this world” options.
A key factor that used to set Saints Row apart from the pack, at least for me, was its use of over-the-top humor. When it comes to the laughs, there were a few moments that did put a smile on my face. A memorable example is the Castle Kraken criminal enterprise.
During the course of the campaign, it’s revealed that Eli loves live-action role-playing (LARPing). Upon starting House Sandy Kraken, you’ll fight enemies from House Dust Storm and House Phoenix to take their turfs. However, since this is LARPing that we’re talking about, everyone has goofy dialogue and you don’t really “kill” people. Even your punches during takedown animations only hit empty air, and your targets act as though they’re getting hit.
Certain instances also made me chuckle, like a short stint where the Boss mopes around, complete with quick-time events (QTEs) for extremely banal actions. Another was a “stealth mission” where the mechanic was as simple as walking past the guards before they recognize you (there’s no need to crouch or use obstacles to block line-of-sight).
Finding your groove
Still, Saints Row does suffer from annoying bugs, glitches, and crashes. In fact, I had to restart the game as soon as I created my character when the menu stopped being functional. There were also some moments when getting inside a vehicle would place the camera inside the textures, and times when reloading your weapon doesn’t do anything. Moreover, there were a handful of missions that led to crashes or soft locks — in a couple of instances, I even had to restart my PC. There was no other recourse but to begin the mission from scratch (the checkpoint will be gone if you restart the game).
There are other misgivings as well, including what Saints Row is trying to be. I considered the previous games as “GTA, except wackier.” Now, with a crowded field, it’s hard to see it standing head and shoulders above the rest. Even its “stunt driving” mechanics, which add small amounts of XP, pale in comparison to Forza Horizon 5.
That is, perhaps, the most glaring disappointment I’ve had with the Saints Row reboot. It simply doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the pack. Worse, the criminal business ventures I mentioned earlier aren’t necessarily tied to the campaign. They’re just there, side activities that are more akin to checklist tasks instead of making you feel that you’re actually ruling the roost. The middling narrative, repetitive mission progression, and uninspired mechanics don’t help its case at all.
Last but not least, I should add that I wasn’t able to try the game’s co-op mode during the course of this review. As such, my enjoyment (or lack thereof) is solely for the single-player experience.