From the humble beginnings of the first game being sidelined as an attempt to capture the massive success of Grand Theft Auto to the excellent sequel that solidified the Saints as both an entertaining and heartfelt group worth following, the Saints Row franchise has come far. A bit too far, others might say.
Over time, Volition started leaning more towards the ridiculous nature of the franchise at the cost of everything else that made the first two games special. Sure, there were very wacky and cartoonish scenarios but, there were still well-contrasted by moments that felt emotionally driven and grounded. It knew when to say a joke and when to hold back and actually focus on telling a story.
In the third and fourth Saints Row games, characters became a caricature of themselves instead of receiving sensible development arcs in the narratives.
When a game franchise that was all about a street gang trying to make a name for themselves turns into a superhero simulator fighting against an alien invasion, something probably went wrong.
Saints Row (2022) is Volition’s attempt to recapture the endearing charm the first two games were able to have in their story and characters. You’re now back to building up the Saints gang from nothing.
Were they able to get the job done or are the Saints once again having trouble breaking free from the shadow of the original games? I’m both happy and disappointed to say that Saints Row is undeniably fun at times with moments that genuinely made me laugh out loud, while still being stuck in the past with its unpolished gameplay and sub-par visuals.
On the bright side, customizing your character or “The Boss” is as good as you would expect from Volition. There are tons of options both significant and insignificant to play around with. You can easily lose hours just trying to make the best-looking boss or the most outlandish one in recent memory.
The game somewhat won me over easily with a blatant and cheeky nod to the Dark Souls franchise with one of the emotes you can choose for your character. You’ll know it when you see it.
The first few hours of the game are easily its worst parts. It reminded me of a lesser version of Saints Row 4’s opening being about twice as long and infinitely duller. You are placed in one linear setpiece after the other having barely any setup as to where you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and who are the people you’re interacting with.
It doesn’t help that the core combat mechanics are very surface-level in depth. Shooting does not feel great at all with intrusive aim-assist, inaccurate hit detection, and weak sound design. The combat feels exactly like what it was in the previous titles. A lot of the animations were recycled as well, much to my disappointment.
Given that this is a more “realistic” (and I use that word very loosely) take on Saints Row, the weapons aren’t as outlandish as what came before. No signs of dubstep guns, dildo bats, and black hole launchers here.
The way the game difficulty is ramped up is through quantity rather than quality. The AI during combat looks more like headless chickens trying to run around. Saints Row will just keep throwing hordes of enemies at you attacking from all directions. While you do have access to multiple special skills in which you can choose four to play around with at any given time, they are tied to a cooldown mechanic.
You can regain health mid-combat by executing an enemy. While some of the kills may look cool, you are locked in watching that animation play out without any ability to skip. Some of them can get unnecessarily long.
There’s also a new spotlight being placed on car combat. You can either shoot from the passenger seat or on top of the roof which is pretty self-explanatory or you can unleash your inner Mad Max with vehicular combat.
When an enemy car is beside you, you can initiate a side swipe that will smack them into the side. While it looks and sounds cool and all, this system also breaks any form of flow and logic when it comes to car chase sequences. The game will now always let enemy cars catch up to you and stick to your left or right side as if it’s saying “they’re right here, go on and hit them” regardless of how fast you’re going and how slow their cars are are are supposed to be.
Much like the on-foot combat system, car combat feels cheap, easily exploitable, and hilariously predictable.
The New “Origin” of the Saints
Gameplay gripes aside, what about the story and the characters? One of the challenges Saints Row has is introducing an all-new set of Saints after fans have been so accustomed to the original roster with four mainline entries.
The first reveal trailer had me worried about where the story was going to go. Character designs look more like they belong in a Fortnite match and the dialogue being said wasn’t exactly convincing me otherwise.
There were times in the game where it felt like the “how do you do, fellow kids?” meme but it’s not as bad as Watch Dogs 2. Most of the attempts at humor fall flat. Nothing offensively bad like the immaturity levels the third and fourth entries in the original titles reached at least. The comedy here is much more laid back compared to the last two games in the franchise. For some that can be a deal breaker. Personally, I thought it was better than making “haha poop joke” every five minutes.
The new Saints are just okay. Kevin never wears a shirt and doesn’t shut up about cooking. Neenah is an art student-turned-mechanic who is really good at driving. Eli is the “brains” of the operation and is also the fidgety nerd who’s always worried. That’s about it. Nothing ever really comes out of their set personalities. Most of the time the Saints just blend into each other.
It was hard to connect with each of them simply because the game starts with the whole crew already being best buddies. You don’t really find out how they met and why they decided to live together despite being members of different groups in conflict with one another. It feels as if you’re just constantly watching a group making in-jokes from an outsider’s perspective.
The game tries to create some semblance of character building by adding tidbits of each character’s past being revealed such as traumatic experiences. The problem is that some of these revelations come out of nowhere. An early example would be a mission where you help someone get a toy. As soon as you acquired it for the person, they then start explaining how they never really got the chance to get one of those when they were a kid.
While on one hand, I appreciate the attempt at humanizing the Saints once again after the glorification of past titles, I just wished the writers found a better way than just trauma dumping on the player about a dying parent being devastating after killing countless waves of enemies in the same mission.
Regardless, the story picks up greatly after the first couple of hours. After being almost dead broke with no source of reliable income, the group decided to start a criminal enterprise. You really get a sense that the Saints start from nothing.
Missions have a surprising amount of variety. At its core, it’s still mostly going to a location and triggering a combat sequence but there are some truly stand-out moments here that had me smiling. A mission concerning a prison comes to mind involving one of the best characters in the game. A big criticism I had with the original titles is that main missions feel more like excuses to introduce and force upon side activities to the players rather than a well-paced unique narrative experience. Luckily, Saints Row doesn’t have that.
Aside from the main story, players can get busy with criminal ventures and Saints Row’s version of loyalty missions. The Saints will set up businesses across each territory to grow their brand and gain more followers and profit. An example would be a hospital that is just a front for the franchise staple, insurance fraud. Or a LARP game being done to keep Eli happy.
And for the record, I haven’t laughed out loud to a video game in a while until the final LARP mission. Just trust me, when you’re playing the game, do the LARP missions.
Each side mission completed will reward you with significant loot such as unique weapons, better stats for your companions, and even more customization options.
I genuinely enjoyed each activity being offered here. Even the typically mundane ones from other open-world games such as delivery missions serve as one of my favorite distractions in Saints Row just because each side activity has its own mini-story or unique dialogue that comes with it. It’s a very small change that makes a lot of difference. It helps that the light-hearted tone opens up more opportunities for the developers to introduce more entertaining elements.
A Fun Playground
I always felt like Stilwater and Steelport from the original games were fine for their time but lacked any significant personality with mostly identical square buildings. Santo Ileso is the new city of Saints Row and it’s easily the best one Volition has made.
The new city feels more like an amusement park than an actual place a society can live in. It still doesn’t hold a candle to any of Rockstar Games’ living worlds but it surpasses them with the amount of fun and random carnage you can do. There are a lot of different locations with activities such as shooting galleries, photography, and collectibles to get lost in.
And to add the cherry on top, you can experience all of Saints Row with a friend through the excellent co-op. Surprisingly, I didn’t encounter any server or connection issues while I and my friend were just running around causing as much trouble as we can. I strongly recommend experiencing the game with a buddy of yours. It elevates everything by a significant margin.
Say what you will about the original titles, but they were always a blast when playing alongside a friend. I’m glad Saints Row continued with it.
Final Verdict – 7/10
I can’t end this review without mentioning the countless technical issues I encountered during my playtime with some being downright game-breaking and requiring me to restart.
Being stuck on loading screens, missing player location indicator on the map subtitles not working properly, getting randomly hurt when standing still when exiting a car, the game’s idea of “swimming”, character models gliding across the street, civilian cars randomly driving towards you for no reason, being trapped in the customization menus if you click too fast, etc. I can go on and on.
There’s a lot of cleanup work that still needs to be done, and the initial delay was not enough to iron out all the bugs. The problem is that whatever good is being done in Saints Row, other games do it so much better. Regardless, the foundation is already there.
Saints Row is a heavily flawed experience that I found myself thoroughly enjoying. Volition made a great decision in pulling back a lot of the absurdity that the franchise initially lost itself into. This doesn’t mean that the reboot is devoid of any comedy. With the restraint comes a lot of the much-needed focus the narrative needed to tell a Saints Row story. There are some really great character moments in this one that is showing a lot of promise if given the chance to be developed further.
If you were a fan of the first two games but were bothered with the weird direction three and four went, then Saints Row would be an easier recommend. However, if you loved the insanity angle the franchise took, then you might find yourself missing it with this one.
I hope this isn’t just a one-and-done release. There is so much potential for this new vision of the Saints Row franchise and it would be a bummer if Volition isn’t given a chance to realize it. At the end of the day, I’ll just call Saints Row how I see it; a damn fun video game that just needs a bit more care to be a great one as well.
This review was made using a game code for the PS5 provided by the publisher.