Steel Rats is a curious creature. It looks like a vaudevillian mash-up of Mad Max in a 1940’s film-noir universe. but then its storyline and characters summon nostalgic memories of Biker Mice from Mars re-imagined within a world under the threat of a robot apocalypse. Then there’s the gameplay itself, which plays out as a 2.5D motorbike shooter with the controls and physics of a title from the Urban Trial series. But the weirdest thing of all? This eccentric hodgepodge ultimately works really well.
Coastal City is under attack from a mysterious junk robot menace. The Steel Rats – a motorbike gang consisting of stoic hammer wielding leader James, super-fast bike riding badass Lisa, helmet clad and nipple revealing weirdo Randall, and loveable geek Toshi – are here to save the day. That, despite the plentiful and well produced cut-scenes book-ending each chapter insisting otherwise, is really all you need to know regarding the plot.
You’re tasked with navigating multi-tiered levels, fighting off a variety of junkbots on your way in combat that is both fast and chaotic. The first thing to get your head around is the slightly confusing controls and how best to use them to interact with the environment. Playing in 2.5D, each level is split into foreground and background planes, the biker able to move between the two with a nudge of the left thumb stick.
Thanks to the moody visuals, it can prove tricky to line your bike up correctly. Playing chicken with a junkbot can often result in an embarrassing moment of slipping harmlessly right past each other or – more frustratingly – you miss a launch ramp and send your biker spiralling to their death.
It’s not simply a case of travelling from the left to right either, as later levels become rather maze-like and you’ll also have to turn around and head back on yourself. The axis of the bike can be altered with the thumb stick to perform wheelies or rotate in the air during a jump which, alongside accelerating with the trigger, gives you real Trials vibes.
Each biker (which you can switch between on the fly) comes with special attacks, gun attacks and chargeable specials, but there’s also the cathartically splendid orgy of destruction that is the wheelsaw. It really does deserve special mention for being a highlight of my time with the game, capable of slicing through cars and steel pipes alike. The blade can even be used to alter your bikes trajectory through the air – leading to thrilling moments where near-death experiences are narrowly avoided. Oh, and the button that you were using to turn around with? That can also be double tapped to reflect projectiles.
There’s an awful lot of inputs to take onboard here, and I constantly found my fingers simply not being able to achieve what the game demanded of me during one of the many helter-skelter action set pieces.
After a lot of frustrating fails, everything finally starts to click and to make sense. I found that my rider, once so intent on backflipping onto their head during a battle, would now smoothly respond to my commands, darting around foes and unleashing attacks with devastating accuracy before flipping off a ramp – blasting another bot with a pistol shot mid-spin – and driving up a wall Tron-style. I’m sure some of you will reach this point long before I did, but to finally achieve success in the game after a great deal of time and application was immensely rewarding. Steel Rats trades on this by providing you with additional incentive to replay each level and undertake challenges; such as completing areas in certain time-limits, without taking damage, or destroying enemies using inventive methods. The scrap you receive can then be spent on upgrading your characters or buying them lovely new gear to wear.
Admittedly, the game does inundate you with far too much scrap; I constantly had enough of the stuff to unlock every single upgrade as they became available, but I didn’t feel this was a negative. Instead, it was incredibly refreshing to have no grind at all in order to obtain content – something that is rare to find in video games in 2018.
The additional abilities are also well thought out. Each highlights the individual strengths of the character and requiring you to use them all effectively to be able to reach the end of a level. James, for example, is a powerhouse capable of going one-on-0ne with even the largest junkbots, whilst Lisa is best for speed and manoeuvrability, her flame-spewing bike making her the ideal choice for completing rollercoaster like sections that will see her spending just as much time upside-down as right-side up.
Each level is a tight and streamlined experience, very rarely do any of them overstay their welcome thanks to well placed checkpoints. There are a few punishingly difficult deaths to be had, such as an underground station that sees your bike being wiped out by trains with little warning, but these are few and far between. When the game hits its highlights – such as a section that sees you leaping through the sky, going from exploding blimp to exploding blimp – it really offers a unique experience. Steel Rats requires your dedication to see the best of it, but once it clicks and the controls work, there’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had.
Steel Rats is an undeniably daring experiment; fusing gameplay mechanics, varied visuals and control inputs that have no right to go together. The game should be an absolute mess, but it deftly weaves these disparate elements together and what we are left with is a thrilling and refreshing stunt=based shoot ’em up.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 – also available on PC