Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Released: July 27, 2023
Developer: Secret Base Pte Ltd.
Publisher: Modus Games, Joystick
Systems: PC, PS4/5, Switch (reviewed), Xbox One/XS
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge was a real delight when it came out last year. A modernized throwback to the classic coin-op days in which Turtles games thrived, the force of personality that beams from this energetic action game makes it hard to put down despite the relatively short length of its campaign.
The fact Splinter, Casey Jones, and April o’Neal joins the half-shelled heroes only makes matters more charming. April in particular is tremendously good fun to play, using her filming equipment to battle the Foot Clan by battering enemies with boom mics and smashing TV cameras onto them.
Combat is fast paced, responsive, and certainly doesn't lack for charismatic variety between the playable protagonists. Each stage is full of little sight gags that are genuinely funny, too - the Foot Clan vandalizing a height restriction sign by painting the word “Foot” over the abbreviation “Ft.” is easily one of my favorite dumb jokes in videogames.
Visually, Shredder’s Revenge is a total treat. While it maintains the retro aesthetic of its arcade predecessors, the gorgeous animation and impressive level of detail lends it a contemporary air. Its online co-op was sadly busted at launch, and nobody's playing it anymore on Switch, but it was pretty cool and added some extra enjoyment. A decent little upgrade system is tossed in too, adding new attacks and stat boosts, which is just nice to have. While it's short, it's also very replayable, and not because it relies on gimmicks - it's fun to replay simply because it's fun, and that's the only incentive it needs.
Oh wait... we're not reviewing Shredder's Revenge...
There’s been some really nice beat ‘em ups in recent years. As well as Shredder's Revenge, Streets of Rage 4 proved so damn engrossing I beat it on every difficulty setting, and there's plenty such games in the indie space as well. Your girl loves a good brawler, and I was looking forward to Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons very much.
I can at least say one good thing about it... it made me yearn so much for a fun beat 'em up I redownloaded Shredder's Revenge, so you could claim the thing at least led to a good time!
Rise of the Dragons feels like a severe step back from recent genre successes. In fact, it feels like a step back from Double Dragon Neon which released in 2012! Stodgy, basic, showing few signs of evolution since the 1980s, utterly infuriating to play, I wish I could say the game was enjoyable for any amount of time, but that would make a liar of me.
At least it has really long loading times, at least on Switch, and they're so frequent that the mission select menu has its own loading screen. That's a surefire sign of a good time.
The cheeky bastard's selling itself as a roguelite, but in doing so it's only helped illustrate how borderline meaningless that label has become. Don't expect much in the way of randomization, unlockable content, or fresh experiences when replaying. Unless you actually enjoy the miserable experience this cuckoo's egg offers, the incentives to replay are far from anything you'd expect from a game daring to place itself in the same league as Hades or Enter the Gungeon.
You can beat the four stages in any order, and the later you play a stage, the more it's extended by new acts and bosses. This presentation is identical to the way Streets of Red does things, and it's neither procedural nor unpredictable. Beating the game in a different order will lead to new encounters, but every stage has a single linear track that simply reveals more of itself the later it comes in your sequence of progress.
You can buy random upgrades for your characters that persist for the length of one campaign "run" and you lose all mission progress when you get a Game Over - this is about the closest to a roguelite as things get. There aren’t any permanent upgrades to purchase between playthroughs, either - the unlock tokens you're given after every game can be used to acquire a few new characters, as well as purchase some truly useless shit like artwork, music, and... gameplay tips.
Gameplay tips! You're spending hard-earned currency to acquire fucking hints! Why would you spend a limited resource on something so stupid? How were they so bereft of ideas for unlockable items they pulled hints out of their asses? It's actually pretty damn impressive just how disappointing Gaiden's series of "rewards" manages to be. You normally have to play a game full of microtransactions to feel this shortchanged, yet this is what the game's trading on. It thinks this kind of bollocks is what'll keep you coming back for more.
I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Arc System Works of false advertising, but the promise of "endless playthrough possibilities" and "rougelite elements" in its store listing really, really pushes the limits of credibility.
Maybe if it was actually entertaining or endearing, Gaiden's "endless possibilities" would evidence themselves, but the gameplay is just plain dogshit. There are nicer ways to put it, but I'm disinclined to deploy them. Combat is slow and restrictive, with sluggish controls and characters that feel awkward to move around. Landing hits aren't particularly satisfying, lacking much of a sense of impact and generally feeling laborious in execution.
Despite animation overall being rather lackluster, there’s still somehow too much of it when delivering attacks. Many characters’ moves waste time with visual flourishes that add nothing but vulnerability to their offense. Fighters with grab attacks use them at great risk, as missing a target sees them momentarily stumble. Naturally they mapped grabs and item pickups to the same button like total geniuses.
You can choose two characters that tag in and out of combat, with their own attacks and special moves. Using specials to defeat opponents is crucial, as performing a Special KO earns more of the money you need to acquire upgrades and tokens. More importantly, finishing three enemies at once with a Special KO gives you a Crowd Control bonus, which not only adds more rewards but dishes out crucial healing items. The bigger the crowd, the better the items, obviously.
It's nice that there are unlockable characters consisting of bosses fought throughout the campaign, even if there's not a massive amount of them. To Gaiden’s credit, they all feel a little different, with their own combos and specials, even though the system of building a special meter and grouping foes together for Crowd Control makes them fundamentally formulaic. Not all characters are built equally though, with some featuring specials clearly designed for their boss fights rather than the player and consequently not working quite right.
Remember when I said attacks were overly animated? Some characters are so bad with this they fail to get Crowd Clear bonuses because their moves trap enemies and drop them at different times. This causes the game to think each KO was part of a separate attack and count them individually, thus cheating you out of the reward. It really makes you feel like you've spent your tokens well when you unlock a moveset that actively works against the combat system's principle feature.
This is the paragraph of positive things I have to say about the game. It’s a simplistic brawler, but it’s playable and it basically works. Oh, it also has some pretty nice music. If you want to play a decidedly throwback experience but don't feel like downloading some NES ROMs, this may be the kind of thing you're looking for. That's the end of this paragraph.
Now, I realize I’m going to invite tiresome cries of “Git Gud” when I say this, but Rise of the Dragons is cheap to the point of maliciousness. It's worth noting that everything I'm about to say has been said by a lot of people who like the game, too. They just forgave this bullshit for whatever curious reason.
There are very few defensive moves - some characters can clumsily dodge if they’re sprinting, and that’s about the best you’re getting if you want any protective frames. You sure as hell don’t get them if you’re knocked down, performing a special move, or even if you respawn after dying. The respawn screwjob is one I found out during the terrible final boss fight - after I'd died and spent a ton of coins to continue, I was subsequently dropped right in the path of an attack that annihilated almost all of my hit points. The damage was done before my button presses even registered.
You'd think the tagging system would be a way to get out of enemy combos, but nope. Bringing in your second character simply puts them in the same place so both your protagonists can get slapped around at once. Occassionally you may break the offense, but usually there's no choice but to be stunlocked when the game decides to stunlock you - a decision it makes liberally.
There are few things less fun than being stunlocked by a gang of enemies, thrown to the ground, and continually pummeled before you're even done getting back up. It's a miserable scenario so prevelant it typifies the Double Dragon Gaiden experience and culminates in an ultimate expression of contempt with the last level - four recycled bosses at once locking you in a cycle of hurting, followed by one of the absolute shittest final bosses I've ever had the misfortune of battling.
Quite a few of the basic enemy mooks actually look like they'd be more enjoyable to play. At least they have quick and reliable evasive moves. I'd much rather be a common gang member than Billy or Jimmy, because they seem way better at this shit than those two assholes.
Playing as Marian is the most "fun" I’ve had, since her gun is about as cheap as anything the opposition throws at you and it means you don’t have to engage with combat in good faith. Able to deal damage at any range and packing a rocket launcher with a significant area of effect among her special moves, she’s more powerful and useful than any of the playable bosses I've put in the effort to unlock. Nothing comes close to Marian and her gun.
That’s how I found some enjoyment of Double Dragon - turning it into an incredibly wank shooter game, and even then, you have to play as a fucking cop.
The A.I. is spectacularly dumb. Enemies will merrily wander into spiked floors, stand under falling rocks, or even walk into dynamite they themselves just threw! I keep beating one boss because he keeps throwing himself off the side of a building. His suicidal antics naturally render his dropped rewards irretrievable, because that's the kind of game this is. Indeed, enemies are so prone to killings themselves it seems almost like another spiteful way to rob you of Crowd Control bonuses.
The graphics? Ugly as sin. There’s a difference between a nostalgic art style and the flat, rudimentary eyesore Double Dragon Gaiden chooses to be. Character models are especially misshapen and lacking in detail, with even the larger and more animated bosses failing to rival anything you could see at an arcade twenty years ago. It's not charmingly, stylistically retro... it's just hideous.
If you made me choose between spending six hours playing Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons versus six hours watching the Double Dragon movie on repeat, I’d ask you to pass me the popcorn. At least the film is entertainingly bad and has Robert Patrick in it. Gaiden is simply bloody awful, and neither Patrick nor his little beard are anywhere to be seen.
It’s cheap from both a visual and combat standpoint, it’s unpleasant to control, and the incentives for enduring multiple “runs” are among the worst rewards and unlocks I’ve ever seen. All it accomplished was getting me to replay Shredder’s Revenge and Streets of Rage 4, two games that completely embarrass this sorry little thing.
Damn fine soundtrack, though.