A thumping house beat, a chugging guitar riff or a delicate piece of piano are all capable of changing the world. No Straight Roads, the first game from Malaysian studio Metronomik lead by Final Fantasy XV lead designer Wan Hazmer, takes that one much more literal step further, as music is capable of powering a whole city.
The appropriately named Vinyl City is ruled over by NSR, a shadowy organisation that, for reasons unknown, has done away with rock music, making EDM the source of all power. Our unlikely heroes, Mayday and Juke, and their even more unlikely-named band Bunk Bed Junction, set out to right some musical wrongs, setting the tone for a fantastical music-based boss rush that has as much heart as it does crunching riffs.
Opening with the Lights Up Audition, Bunk Bed Junction give it their all, but are immediately smacked down in the finest Simon Cowell-style by NSR for their outdated adherence to rock. To add insult to X-Factor injury, they go on to ban rock from all future auditions, and Mayday and Zuke are kicked to the curb, despite their audition having created all kinds of sweet music-energy. The final straw comes in the form of rolling blackouts, and Vinyl City is beset by a loss of power – for everyone except NSR, that is, who hoard the remaining tune-power in their skyscraper.
That’s more than enough motivation for our heroes to venture forth and overthrow the powers that be, and Mayday and Zuke are a loveable, driven – and mildly naïve – pair to spend time with. The real stars of the game though prove to be the villains of the piece. Each section of Vinyl City is held in sway by an NSR star performer, starting with DJ Subatomic and working all the way up to their evil mastermind, Tatiana, and they’re a diverse, interesting batch of characters whose musical chops are aiming to be your undoing.
Mayday and Zuke hijack each of these stars’ gigs, with each section broken down into an approach, followed by the main performance. The approaches are by-the-numbers platforming and 3D combat sections, with some definite hints of Kingdom Hearts (though with a narrative that makes more sense). The one wrinkle is that all of the enemy movements and attacks are in time with the music. They’re not particularly tough to beat, and barring the sections leading up to virtual music icon Sayu, do very little that’s different. They feel like a means to an end, and they are.
That end is an epic showdown with each of NSR’s top performers. These boss battles are the focus, and easily the most enjoyable part, of the game. Each of them boasts a different musical style, though there are EDM elements to all of them given NSR’s penchant for all things electronic. From the classical piano of the diminutive Yinu to Eve’s laid-back synthwave, they’re a real pleasure to play along to, even if there are one or two times where unfairness creeps into the mix.
They’re designed to be played over and over again in the course of your playthrough, grading you on different aspects of your own gaming performance. The ones that really resonate with you will be the ones that see the most replay, and I must have played the Yinu battle some ten times already without tiring of it. It’s kept fresh by there being a variety of different versions of each battle, and you can also alter the audio mix in each once you’ve found them by exploring Vinyl City.
Successfully doing away with the NSR stars sees Bunk Bed Junction gain fans, and they’re an integral part of the band’s growth as you can exchange fans for unlocking slots on the skill tree. The way Bunk Bed Junction evolve feels natural, and though there are elements of grind in having to replay the same sections, you get stronger, gain new skills and abilities. There’s a real pull to see just how quickly you can beat the bosses while taking as little damage as possible. It’s not anything you won’t have come across before, but it’s nicely done.
It also helps to cover up the fact that No Straight Roads is a fairly small-scale game. From the limited number of boss characters through to the repetitive approach sections and their recycled enemies, the team at Metronomik have done a pretty good job of spinning the ideas out as far as they’ll go, and it’s a credit to them that it doesn’t feel too small scale.
There are certainly elements that aren’t made enough of though, and Vinyl City itself is one of them. The city and its varied districts can look quite impressive at times, and you can run around exploring, chatting to the locals, and using your collected power to repair broken sections of the city. On paper it’s a great idea, and bringing the city back to life is a compelling one. Sadly, the implementation is about as limited as you could imagine, and though you might bring light where there was previously darkness it doesn’t do much except feed into your own skill tree growth.
We were able to spend time with both the PS4 and Switch versions of No Straight Roads during our review, with the more powerful console reaching a far more attractive visual standard, with no hint of any performance issues. The Switch version meanwhile still looks the part, the bright and bold art shining through, but there are occasional hiccups and examples of pop-in whenever you’re running around Vinyl City. Fortunately it doesn’t affect the central boss battles in any way, and Switch fans can rest assured they’re still going to find plenty of fun in their console’s version.