No Straight Roads is right up my alley

 No Straight Roads is right up my alley

After three years of development and as the first release of independent studio Metronomik, No Straight Roads released Worldwide this month. Its company was founded by cousins Daim Dziauddin, designer for Street Fighter titles since 2012 and Wan Hazmer, lead game designer of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV. Hazmer left Square Enix in 2017 with the goal of making a proud Malaysian game team, spawning the indie gem of No Straight Roads.

NSR: Where everyone can feel the beat (eventually)

The story of No Straight Roads follows Mayday and Zuke, the duo that make up the band Bunk Bunk Junction, on a mission to overthrow the leadership of NSR in Vinyl City. Not only were they turned away from their panel during the Lights Up auditions despite charging up the city’s power all the way, but NSR decide to turn away any genre of music that isn’t EDM. Funnily enough this mind-set is the complete opposite of how Metronomik treats its players, as it’s very accommodating to its players based on how familiar you are to rhythm games.

Rhythm games are notoriously hard, providing plenty of challenges but also steep learning curves to those not so in tune to the rhythm. In No Straight Roads, it can be as forgiving or as ruthless as you want. Throughout the boss battles, you’ll be rewarded with fans as your popularity increases with each boss defeated. The total depends on your final ranking. This will automatically be a C rank if you lose all your HP and choose to continue playing from the same point, so there is incentive to retry the battle from the start. As you can expect from a rhythm action game, the more successful you’ll be is by learning the song and beats to avoid enemy attacks and time your own attacks by dodging and most importantly, parrying, the key mechanic to delivering massive blows. Music notes can be obtained by taking out enemies to throw as projectiles at flying opponents, and some objects can be transformed into weapons and defenses during boss battles. The parrying mechanic using music notes is so helpful that there’s a parry only mode to be unlocked after defeating boss stages.

The marriage of rhythm and action

Mayday and Zuke have differing play styles, with Mayday providing harder hits than Zuke using her guitar and transforming objects offensively, while Zuke uses combos to chain attacks using his drumsticks and transforms objects for support and defense. You can switch which character you play as if you’re not playing with a friend. As each boss loses HP, different phases occur with harsher attacks and harder opportunities to relay damage onto them (I’m looking at you, Yinu!). By beating each district boss, their Platinum Disc becomes your possession, opening up the next district.

Rock vs EDM and the “my taste is better than yours” are the ongoing themes of the title. Each boss has different accompanying tracks that represent them, and depending on how well you’re doing, it changes from a rock, bass and EDM version of the track. The battle ends with a flashy ShowStopper and the change of the defeated musician’s vinyl art being altered by BunkBed Junction’s intervention. Each stage opens up with the musician’s logos in a ‘vs’ card across the screen, being one example of how artistic this title is and its soundtrack does wonders to make it even more impressive.

Japanese influences

Not only is the game’s artbook and promotional art depicted with Japanese text, No Straight Roads has taken many inspirations from existing artstyles home to Japan. Hazmer cited Gitaroo Man, Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio as influences on the title’s rhythm mechanics, and while the character designs were designed after Steven Universe, its storyline and overall art style took inspiration from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure specifically for the poses, including Psychonauts and Scott Pilgrim. Japanese rock band One Eye Closed whose track Low was used as the closing credits song.

The wonderfully illustrated bosses

Vinyl City has multiple districts led by the leading artists of NSR. There are five before you get to the CEO of NSR, Tatianna herself. There is a lot of heart put into not only the main relationship of Mayday and Zuke, but also its villains. It’s not too in depth considering the little screen time they all receive as well as the overall short run of the title, but the majority of villains also have a lot of history and underlining meaning. Its first boss, DJ Supernova literally thinks he’s the center of the Universe, relating to his space theme. Bunk Bed Junction puts his superiority down a peg once he’s defeated.

1010 is synth-pop, relating to the boyband being all androids. They are easily replaced as their creator Neon. J deploys another android if they perish in the fight, directly paralleling how we view K-pop bands. Then there’s Sayu, a virtual idol puppeteered by four talented musicians who met online to bring their creation of Sayu to reality. After Bunk Bed Junction defeats them, Mayday encourages the four to put their talents to better use to show off their faces instead of hiding behind Sayu.

While such bosses lacking more substance, Sayu’s story specifically is very wholesome even when her final form is terrifying (reverse mermaid should not be a thing), but it goes deeper once we get to Yinu, whose prodigy talent on the piano arose when her father gifted her the piano before he died. The first hint of this is by the appearance of this stage’s true boss, Yinu’s mother, whose only noticeable accessory is a wedding ring. She is in an overprotective, violent state until Yinu plays her favourite song on her broken piano after their defeat, bringing her mother back to normality and calmness. It’s a very sweet moment, but the true brunt of the emotions comes in Zuke exclusively.

Zuke’s history with his brother DK West hints at a time where Zuke was the opposite of his calm self we see him as today. In a constant head-to-head against his brother in their rap battles with West never owning up to his past mistakes and instead blames Zuke for them. The distance between the brothers widened once Zuke starting taking things more seriously unlike West’s lazy disposition despite Zuke always looking up to his older brother. What blew them up was Zuke dating Nadia who West had a one sided crush on during college. DK West, despite being a side boss with no stage, has the best track and most traditional rhythm based battle of the lot who really stands out for this reason alone.

The best characters of No Straight Roads (spoilers)

His next journey we see is in Nadia, his ex-girlfriend who turns out to become overly critical of not only her own artistic vision and talent, but comes to believes no one can truly understand her when she accepts who she is. Nadia becomes the number 1 crowning artist of NSR, the diva of the city, now known as Eve. Her whole aesthetic is bizarre and unique, heavily relying on portraying an overload of emotions (diva, duh!) shown by not only her character design but also in her stage design of her right red side being her “ugly, loathed” side she transports Mayday into which is more violent compared to the white side Zuke is in, portraying a more tranquil side she wants people to see her as.

Eve is easily the most interesting character of No Straight Roads. This is indicted by the collectible items once beating each version of the boss stages that show key moments of how they became their stage personas. Eve as a young girl would hide her skin condition with makeup, covering her face all pink while scalping a clay head of herself. She is later shown throwing paint onto the sculpture, shouting hateful comments towards herself until she says its perfect with the colour splattered onto it.

Next we see her acceptance of herself as she stands alongside Zuke in college, with her skin condition on full display as they create a lovely heart collage using hanging bottles. In the final video, Eve records herself commenting on Zuke leaving her after she illuminates his hair with “bright lights”, what she deems acceptable in showing her artistry instead of rationally saying fireworks. Zuke leaving her makes her fully embrace her artistic flare, telling the audience that if no one can love her or even understand her, then she will at least stay true to herself. Eve is wholly sympathetic and the choice in calling her Eve could suggest her obsession of Zuke is because he’s her “Adam”.

No Straight Roads is a lovingly made rhythm game with a short story to tell, but well worth listening to. Not only for its splendid soundtrack that all correlates to each boss design, but the underlining meanings behind the decisions such as everything relating to Eve. The main boss of Tatiana had abandoned the rock genre to embrace EDM, but her boss theme is both rock and symphonic metal, two genres that in this day and age have also been left behind and both led by ORDER (the composer of orchestras and often the most vocal in a band being the guitarist). The choice of her theme being predominately rock hints to her true character and hidden identity, that of Mayday’s favourite artist that inspired her to be a guitarist, Kul Fyra. The game even comments on the toxicity of obsessive fan culture and self importance as fans (seen in Kliff), wanting and knowing what’s best for their beloved artists.

A short but sweet story

It took me only 5 hours to complete the story, but with an immediate patch came with a new game+ where players retain their save before the final boss. There’s still so much to enjoy in No Straight Roads once completing its main game, with a skill tree not fully developed in one play through that provides upgrades for individual skills or duo abilities, and hard modes provided by none other than the Anime Man (yes, the Joey of No Straight Roads is YouTube’s notorious Anime Man providing his voice for the npc music elitist). No Straight Roads has no online mode, but it’s my current favourite couch co-op for the PS4, an option very rare in this day of online gaming.

The final revelation, while clogged down by an underwhelming end battle makes for a lovely closure to the plot, feeling almost like a movie’s progression with Mayday’s arc finalising. From seeing the many relationships of Zuke and the showcasing of Mayday and Zuke’s bond is the crux of the whole game. There is a lot of natural and humorous dialogue and moments, from 1010 flirting with Mayday and their interview after hijacking Sayu’s stage. But as much as I love this dynamic duo, both Eve and Tatianna are the ones I’ll always remember. Grab No Straight Roads on PS4, Xbox One, Switch or PC now!

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