This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell.
Consider, if you will, the strange niche art form that is the wacky stand-alone expansion: small games chopped out of larger games with a new coat of paint and no obligation to directly follow the original. They're the youngest, runtiest member of the slightly inbred rural extended family that is the AAA games industry, clad in hand-me-down trousers that have known five generations of ball sweat and occasionally forgotten about when the parents are buying Christmas presents, going on holiday or evacuating the house in the event of catastrophic fire.
But since they're not under as much scrutiny, they can get away with being a bit more out there than their progenitors, and you might end up with something like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon! Not always of course. Most of the time, they just add the inevitable fucking zombies as in Undead Nightmare, Yakuza: Dead Souls, or that one rather curious Train Simulator expansion, because imagination continues to be the black market contraband of the AAA world and creative freedom's not a whole lot of use without it. It's like drilling a glory hole six feet off the floor.
Now on the surface, Saints Row 4 seems like the very last game that needs a wacky stand-alone expansion. "We successfully shifted our GTA knock-off sandbox crime series into a game about a superpowered President fighting aliens!" said Vincent Volition one day. "And now we can do something even crazier with it!"
"Yes! We can even design a new sandbox city instead of repainting the one from Saints Row 3 over and over again."
"You're fucking fired!"
But of course it was in Saints Row 3 that they introduced zombies as a subplot and it rather brought the whole thing down for me. Zombies are entry-level creative freedom shit, I clean zombies off the sides of my fucking toilet bowl every morning. So that was out, and the Far Cry: Blood Dragon routine was out 'cos Saints Row 4 already did the sudden left-turn into Wacky Sci-Fi Land. Therefore the only path remaining was obviously to lampoon popular interpretations of Christian dogma, and so we have Saints Row: Gat out of Hell. And if you mentally got through that title without getting Meat Loaf stuck in your head, then you've given yourself away, replicant human!
Well, time to write some snarky things about a comedy game's plot, 'cos I'm the kind of guy who'll try to light a swimming pool on fire. While flying around space, the President, who gratifyingly takes the appearance you gave them if you've got a Saints Row 4 save file lying around somewhere, gets kidnapped by Satan to get forcibly married to his daughter, Jezebel, so Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington travel to Hell to bring him out.
So right off the bat, we ditch one of the greatest strengths of the Saints series: the psychotic amorphous entity that is the protagonist, sculpted by the player but given agency by the game, simultaneously something that belongs to us but which can also surprise us with their actions, which I suppose provides enough incentive to rescue the bastard. But considering that a lot of the humor derives from slick dialogue between the many characters, it's disappointing that the cast is almost immediately pared down to two of the least interesting ones. We seem to be still persisting in the notion that Johnny Gat is this really great character, but I've never really bought that. He's good at violence, but then so is every recurring character in Saints Row now, and all he's got beyond that is a hairdo that looks like a cake decoration.
Saints Row as a series is a master of putting a lot of care into looking like it doesn't care at all, like a pickup artist five minutes before closing time. But there's just plain less effort evident in Gat out of Hell. It's disappointing how much of the plot is relayed tell-don't-show style in a narration over some still images, and here there may be a temptation to throw up the "it's only $20" card as one would a crucifix to a vampire, but they are a bit of a crutch at times. They're used when they enter Hell to hastily explain that your first ally, the main villain of Saints Row 2, gives you a magic halo that lets you fly and cast spells, and I would think since it drives most of the gameplay that this would call for slightly more ceremony and perhaps an explanation as to how Mr Saints Row 2 Villain Man got hold of it, and what he was doing with it before we came along. Without further context, I choose to picture him putting it on his knob and spinning it around like a hula hoop.
The superpowers are mainly similar to the ones from Saints Row 4. You've got your freeze blast and your super stomp (that is still the best opening argument in the great flight vs. groundling debate), the fast movement mechanic (that makes the vehicles completely pointless) is more about controlled flight this time around. And there are a couple of side missions that make the most of it, like catching falling souls before they hit the ground. So enough has been changed that it can be called slightly more than a palette-swap.
I say "side missions", but technically they aren't 'cos there isn't anything to be on the side of. Rather than the critical path in the traditional sense, your only task is to do whatever activities you like until Satan gets pissed off enough to open up the final boss fight, which on the one hand is very much in the spirit of cathartic sandbox gaming, but on the other for me is kind of like eating a meal consisting only of bread rolls and ketchup packets. The closest thing to a central story campaign is like two cutscenes in the middle of the sandbox orgy, one of which momentarily brings the game to life when it turns into a musical. It's like a small taste of what might have been if, say, they hadn't blown the whole story budget on one elaborate musical cutscene. Paradoxical, really.
Anyway, you get to the end, you kill Satan, then you get a classic case of Ending-Tron 3000 where you just pick one of five options, each leading to a two-second finale, and frankly I'd rather they'd slapped all the combined effort into one crazy blowout of an ending, 'cos then I wouldn't have had to go back and fight Satan four more times to see the rest of it, which I wouldn't have done at all if I hadn't found what I presumed was a design oversight, that meant I could freeze-blast Satan and hit him with the rocket launcher and kill him in four hits.
But in a way, that might be missing the point. The point is to shoot for 100% and make the most of this additional chunk of Saints Row 4 for people who've used up the original. But it's almost like Gat out of Hell is cramming Saints Row 4's already crowded arsenal of features into a much smaller space. Most of it gets pretty redundant since my basic rocket launcher is now technically the usurper of evil's throne. While it's nice to be back in this world for a few more hours, even the kitchen sink approach needs to stack up the plates in some kind of order, and I don't think we used enough washing up liquid.
- When he goes marching in: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And with kitchen sink gameplay you do have to watch out for the last teaspoon that you don't find until you empty all the water out
- Gone when the morning comes