Once upon a time in the halcyon days of 2013, Saints Row IV started with a question: Were the Third Street Saints nothing more than amoral murderers hell-bent on destruction, or puckish rogues here for nothing but a good time? It’s the question developers at Volition had wrestled with since Saints Row 2 altered the course of the series, and Saints Row the Third and Saints Row IV were, of course, the answer. Anarchic comedy was the way forward, and the series was better and more unique for it.
The reboot of Saints Row, conversely, feels like what was behind door number two when it came time for the developers at Volition to answer that question: a depressing and dated sleeping pill of a gaming experience in every possible way. Considering how much the gaming world could use more of the earlier Saints Row games’ energy, self-awareness, and sense of play—only Insomniac’s still-woefully underappreciated Sunset Overdrive ever captured that lightning in a bottle to any effective degree—it’s immensely disheartening to see Volition eschew all of that in favor of delivering what amounts to Watch Dogs 1.5.
Nothing is particularly wrong with Volition’s approach on paper: A diverse group of broke Gen-Zers living in Santo Ileso—the game’s pretty and well-crafted version of Las Vegas—are stuck in their respective ruts, and after figuring out that the 9-to-5 grind ain’t for them, they decide to go into illegal business for themselves, butting up against established criminals in the process. That plot only works, though, if the way our heroes decided to get rich or die trying was in any way different than that of the status quo. But these new Saints are dying to be the status quo. That by itself makes this reboot feel like it’s been dragged back under Grand Theft Auto’s long shadow—self-serious to a fault and utterly invisible because of it.
The antiquated mission structure, the early-GTA-style inaccuracy of the gunplay, the lack of unique weapon variety, the seriously limited radio station playlists, and the painfully stingy and sparse rewards for success are all mechanically stuck somewhere around 2006. All of this is largely functional—the old-school snap-on aiming system is one of those old ideas that deserves to come back—but held down by a slew of bugs and glitches. After nearly a week of gameplay, I’ve yet to have a session where my Boss’s clothes don’t get stuck on some default setting while trying to unsuccessfully change up her style. Despite running off a newer version of Volition’s engine, it’s worth bringing up these are largely the exact same glitches that plagued the remaster of Saints Row The Third at launch a couple of years ago.
Throughout this Saints Row, side activities rarely have an air of “fun for fun’s sake,” as they mostly scan as unsmiling necessities for continuous income. Spurred on by a motivational speaker that the über-blerd side character Eli loves so much, the solution to all of the Saints’ problems is to “be your own boss” and nothing else, and so they mostly lean into flimsy coercion and impressive body counts to build their empire, with very little in the means of variety or self-realization until much later in the game.
As messy as the Third Street Saints could be, theirs was an empire built on genuine rebellion and loyalty among thieves. Even when those Saints, hilariously, run the White House after the Boss becomes president, they install stripper poles in the Oval Office and end Republican filibusters by punching senators in the balls. The new Saints’ big ideas boil down to Instagram influencer nonsense but with a drop of extra murder involved, punctuated by reams of dialogue that feel like an experimental A.I. at Meta trying to imitate a 20-year-old.
Comedy is subjective, of course, but it’s shocking how atomically lame these people are. That’s not an indictment of how woke or PC or even young they are—it shouldn’t even have to be said, but, yes, there are plenty of examples of amazing, transgressive, ridiculously horny, yet inclusive Zoomer humor in games—but an indictment of how strangely afraid this Saints Row is of subversion, to the point of not bothering to crack actual jokes or write dialogue that doesn’t feel ripped from a discarded Joss Whedon first draft of the script.
What it all boils down to is this: Why would a group of people so brutally ground into the dirt by the establishment want to become the establishment? The irony here is how much the game feels like it wants “becoming the Man” to come across as progress, a lofty goal that the previous games bristled and fought against on the level of gameplay and characterization. There’s very little of worth in Saints Row, as a series, trying to put on a suit and act respectable. There is, though, a now-empty niche if some other game would like to step up and let players beat CEOs to death with a dildo bat while dressed as a rodeo clown.
This game was reviewed with a copy purchased by the reviewer.