It’s rock versus EDM in a bid to bring equality and electricity to all the people in Vinyl City and yes--it’s exactly as ridiculous as that sounds. No Straight Roads is an action game that is pure punk rock down to its soul and DNA. Much like punk, it’s kind of a mess at times, and not always in a way that works in the game’s favour. It reminds me of a talented and good-natured garage band who really believe they can make it but need a bit of support to reach the top. That's part of the charm, though, and No Straight Roads features a lot of really good concepts and some absolutely excellent music to back them all up.
In No Straight Roads, you play as the rock duo Bunk Bed Junction. The band is made up of the hyperactive lead guitarist Mayday and chill technical drum wizard Zuke, who live in the sewers of the futuristic Vinyl City where electricity is powered by music. No Straight Roads (NSR) is the name of the governing company which controls this power, and thus also music, and it's decided that EDM is king. May and Zuke want to bring rock music back to the city, but when they’re unjustly booted from a competition that might have seen them join NSR, they start to talk about revolution instead. The deal is sealed upon witnessing yet another blackout in the city where only NSR bigwigs have access to emergency power; all they do with it is throw sick EDM concerts. Thus Bunk Bed Junction decides to take out the top five NSR artists in music battles to rise to the top and bring electricity and musical equality back to the masses.
This journey requires navigating the overworld which makes up Vinyl City. Here, you collect tubes of qwasa, the electricity this world runs on, and spend them to power faulty lights and other electronics in the area. Doing this earns you a small number of fans each time, which are the currency you can use to level up your skill tree and buy new abilities. You also find stickers that give your instruments of destruction passive buffs. This loop begins as an entertaining activity that encourage exploration, especially as it’s introduced before everything else, but it dwindles when you realize that qwasa is in far more supply than what you could ever hope to use--there’s not actually that much to repair, and more lucrative ways to get upgrades reveal themselves later on. The city itself ends up feeling small and compact as a result, and while I enjoyed finding the odd characters and other pieces of world building, I felt disappointed by how limited it ended up being.
At the end of each area, you challenge the next NSR artist to unlock the next district. These battles are typically split into two segments: an approach and the actual boss battle against the artist. The approach is a series of small 3D platforming levels where you take down enemies, progressing past the various levels of security until you reach the boss. Movement is quite floaty, which works well for combat and avoiding attacks but makes platforming activities like jumping precise gaps and landing on a small surface much harder. It can also be difficult to judge depth in this game, especially when playing on the graphically stripped-down Switch version. This not only affects platforming but combat as well--judging the distance to an enemy can be tricky. It’s something I got better at as I played, and I definitely found it easier on PC with the higher detail and character shadows, but there were still frustrating moments where things didn’t line up how I expected.
Battles take place in real-time, and enemies, including bosses, always attack in time with the music--but not always in the same way. There are several different classes of NSR robot, for example, who all jump and do a ripple of damage around them. Some will jump more times in a row than others, some on off beats. It will also depend on the song itself. The swell of an incoming chorus can indicate a different set of attacks from the boss; you learn to dodge on the beat or look out for certain attacks during parts of the corresponding songs. It ends up feeling really good when it works well, like you have a sort of sixth sense because you’re so in tune with the music. You also start to associate parts of the song with the motions you do to survive them and it becomes almost more like a dance than a video game battle.
Mayday and Zuke play quite differently, with May having heavier melee attacks and Zuke being all about quicker combos--which feel especially good to nail in time to the music. They also have different special moves that you can unlock and equip, which can heal you, do ranged damage, or provide some other buff. Being able to choose and edit this loadout per battle gives you a lot of control over different strategies. For example, some bosses may stay further away and require more ranged attacks, so kitting the characters out to take advantage of this gives a tactical streak to the engagements.
Playing solo, you can swap between both characters at a push of a button to use whoever is more suited, or you take advantage of couch co-op and have a friend take on the other role. I didn’t realise how different their playstyles were until my partner and I were arguing over the best method to take out a boss, realising we were trying to cater to each character's strengths.
This became more evident when playing by myself. I expected to mostly stick to May but found myself really enjoying sapping between the pair. More importantly, I had to relearn how to play as a solo performer. Whichever character you’re not using won’t do a whole lot, which means you do far less damage playing solo. However, they regain health and energy for special moves so there’s a different strategy to it--battles can be longer but you feel much more in control of them, swapping for best use cases and survivability.
Playing solo means you also aren’t plagued as much by the camera issues that come with co-op mode. The two-player camera made me curse--while playing docked on the Switch, the combination of physical distance from the screen and lower resolution can exacerbate all the aforementioned depth issues. In overworld environments, only the primary player can control the camera, so it only really works if one player moves through the city while the other just allows themselves to let the game bring them forward between areas. It's better during levels because the camera is fixed and will often pan out to accommodate both players. However, if the camera is at its limit it makes the action very difficult to parse, and will drag players at the edge into the field of view and often into harm's way. A few times our controls would bug out and stop functioning all together, and while I have had it happen in single-player mode too, it seemed much more egregious when two people were involved. My partner and I still managed to play through every level together, but it wasn’t without frustration and it took easily twice as long as my solo playthrough because of it.
That said, there are some especially unique and well-thought-out levels, boss ones especially. Each boss has their own distinct style and subgenre of EDM. One will have you dodging dozens of digital projectiles in a virtual underwater world against a digital Cutecore idol. Another has you in a surrealist artist’s weird mirror world with deep Psydub synths where she pops in and out of dimensions split between May and Zuke. I was always impressed with whatever new weird wonderful thing No Straight Roads had to throw at me but by far, the best part was always the music.
During the levels you’ll see a metre between rock and EDM in the centre of your screen. Each phase you make it through will push it to rock and then reset back to EDM for the next phase, but the reason this is so damned cool is because the music reflects this change. The EDM tracks are still absolutely banging, but the introduction of heavier rock elements of guitar and drums as the metre pushes over feels powerful. One of my favourite stages starts out as a young virtuoso’s piano recital which you crash in a very “Are we the baddies?” moment. The electronics intermixed with the just stunning piano melody was already great, but hearing the rock seep in made it even better again. You can hear that you’re winning as the songs get meatier with additional layers of sound. It makes you feel as though you really do wield the power of music and can change the atmosphere around you. It’s incredibly impactful.
No Straight Roads feels best when you can lean into the musical nature of it, but the game doesn’t always make this easy. My relationship to No Straight Roads changed depending on how well I was performing. When you're doing terribly, it feels terrible, because things can snowball so quickly with the feeling of missing the beat, taking huge damaging hits and running into frustrating bugs. When you are doing well, it is completely engrossing. You feel one with the music--listening to it, reacting to it, and changing it. At its best, I was treating the game like a musical album--headphones on, controller in hand, and fully immersed in the music. Now that I’m actually decent it feels like a great session game I can experience in about three or four hours, or pick single tracks to play through in order to try for high scores. It’s quite a contrast to my 18-hour original save file filled with multiplayer failings and unnecessary busywork.
And while the story is silly and dumb, it’s still got heart. The jaunt of rock rebellion has some real lessons to share, about why people love music, what drives their passions, and whether or not those reasons are good ones. This is backed up by a great cast of voice work. May’s voice is full of life and fire while Zuke’s feels perfectly patient. In fact, pretty much the whole cast feels fitting. The main antagonist Tatiana especially has a voice like rich butter I could listen to for hours with wonderful and interesting inflections. There's also a wonderful sense of culture here that draws from the studio's Malaysian home. The South-East Asian accents and colloquialisms are unique and lovely to hear; full sentences are spoken in Malay and subtitled in English. There’s even one music snob with an Australian accent which feels like a believable testament to my country's proximity to the region.
My time in No Straight Roads was torn between true enjoyment and wanting to hurl my controller at the screen. Between camera issues, bugginess, and other weird little problems (especially in multiplayer mode), there’s enough to put a damper on the whole experience. However, The characters, bright futuristic world, imaginative boss battles, and excellent music act as wonderful antidotes. Once I eventually got into the groove, I found a really special and evocative musical experience in No Straight Roads. But I had to work pretty hard to get here. No Straight Roads asks a bit of its fans, but I’m glad I put the effort in and I’d gladly buy the t-shirt.