Reviving a series like Saints Row a decade after its last entry is no easy task, but it is one that the developers at Volition have attempted. The game’s original reveal left some fans worried about just how far the reboot would stray from the over-the-top power fantasy the series was known for. It turns out, however, that Saints Row stays very close to its roots, for better and worse.
The game begins with a brief cutscene showing the player’s character, referred to simply as Boss throughout the game, being ambushed at one of the gang’s parties and being buried alive nearby. The nature of the attack is shrouded in mystery to tantalize the player with the resolution to drive them through the story. From there, players are tossed months back in time to see the new origins of the Saints.
The story is centered around the player’s Boss as well as their three roommates Kev, Neenah, and Eli. The vast majority of the story revolves around the Boss’ relationship with their roommates as they solve everyday problems with explosions, navigate establishing their criminal empire, and make some new friends along the way. With this framework in mind, Saints Row’s story missions are a mixed bag. The dialogue between the Boss and the roommates is funny just as often as it is banal. Missions have fun moments and mechanics, but they never quite hit the sweet spot of the best setpieces throughout the series. A few of the missions really stand out, but most of them are just serviceable.
How much you’ll enjoy the missions in Saints Row will mostly depend on whether or not you enjoy the series’ sense of humor and its combat. The humor in the reboot is pretty good. It never reaches the ridiculous levels of Saints Row: The Third or Saints Row IV, however. Instead, it feels a lot more like Saints Row 2. There are ridiculous elements and a light-hearted tone throughout, but there are still moments where it wants to be taken seriously. Some of the serious moments work, except for the game’s final mission where the emotions fall completely flat.
Combat in Saints Row is one of the few areas that the game has tried to modernize from its predecessors. It is still a third-person shooter with little difficulty in normal settings, no need to use combat, and players can carry a radial wheel full of weapons at a time. To mix things up, Saints Row introduces Signature Moves, Perks, and Skills.
Your Signature Move is charged as you damage enemies through regular means. These work similarly to Glory Kills in the modern DOOM games. There are dozens of animations that play out when you perform one, and doing so successfully heals you, allowing you to play more aggressively. Perks are then unlocked by completing challenges and they have different tiers. There are Minor, Major, and Elite Perks. By spending some money you can eventually have two Minors, two Majors, and one Elite perk equipped at a time. These have effects like moving faster while crouching, getting a burst of speed when your health gets low, or helping you keep your Flow.
Flow is a resource used to activate your Skills. Skills are unlocked by leveling up and you can have four of them equipped at a time. As you engage in combat you’ll build up Flow that can then be expended to use a Skill. These Skills bring a really interesting layer to combat and there are some fun options like spinning around shooting pistols, pulling out a high-powered sniper rifle with exploding rounds, or healing yourself and allies whenever you deal damage. However, I wish there had been some more options, especially to customize one’s playstyle during co-op play.
There are still two more features very important for a Saints Row game, though: customization and side activities. Making a custom character and really leaving your impact on the Saints and the world is a core part of every Saints Row game. The newest version takes this up a notch by allowing players to customize their home base, placing business ventures throughout the city of Santo Ileso, modifying cars or guns, and tweaking every part of the Boss. Placing buildings throughout the city is really fun, especially since the map reacts to your decisions with billboards and advertisements. Each also unlocks certain side activities, which gives the decision of what to build when some extra weight. The character creator also has some great depth. However, the clothing options are pretty lacking. There are plenty of wacky objects to make your character ridiculous, but when it comes to more grounded or serious options the vast majority of options that players have are cowboy-themed. This makes sense with the setting of the game, but it also left me feeling like I couldn’t make the character I wanted because I didn’t want them to wear cowboy boots.
The worst part of Saints Row is undoubtedly the side activities, however. Side missions and collectibles make up a majority of the content in the game, but the vast majority of it is dull. After finishing the main story and three sets of side activities, and collectibles when I stumbled across them, I was only sitting at around 40% completion. The vast majority of the game is side-content. The vast amount of side missions boil down to either an excuse for basic combat or grabbing a car and driving somewhere with a time limit. With the strong legacy of side mission types in Saints Row, it is disappointing that most of the options in the newest entry are so uninspired.
When it comes to collectibles they range from passable to annoying. Some, such as taking pictures of landmarks or dumpster diving are fine because they can grant fun rewards and are fast enough to do that they don’t feel like a chore. Others very much feel like a chore. These collectibles force players to wander around an area either looking for wooden targets to shoot or stations that talk about the city’s history which I always dreaded doing.
While there are definitely elements of Saints Row that really annoyed me, I still generally had a good time with the game. It is great to have a game that is a complete package on launch with no microtransactions or exploitative monetization. If you consider yourself a Saints Row fan you’ll probably find plenty to enjoy in the newest entry, even if some of its elements are weaker than others. If you were hoping for a major new take on the series or what it could be, however, you’ll be left sorely wanting.
Saints Row is available on August 23 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
While there are definitely elements of Saints Row that really annoyed me, I still generally had a good time with the game. If you consider yourself a Saints Row fan you’ll probably find plenty to enjoy in the newest entry, even if some of its elements are weaker than others. If you were hoping for a major new take on the series or what it could be, however, you’ll be left sorely wanting.
Arron is a writer and video editor for But Why Tho? that is passionate about all things gaming, whether it be on a screen or table. When he isn’t writing for the site he’s either playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching arthouse movies, or trying to find someone to convince that the shooter Brink was ahead of its time.
March 20, 2023