Saints Row offers a fantastic sandbox full of opportunity and some great new gameplay additions, but its story and characters feel underutilized and almost neglected, leaving the experience feeling rather unmemorable.
As I sat down to write this Saints Row review, I felt incredibly conflicted about how I felt about this reboot of an iconic series. It’s a game that achieves most of what it is trying to do extremely well and creates a sandbox of fun for you and a friend. But, at the same time, it is incredibly undaring and unambitious when it comes to crafting a more interesting and contemporary videogame story and cast of characters. It’s a game where half of the experience is great and engaging and half of it is just bland and lifeless.
This fresh start for the series picks up with you, The Boss, already being friends with Neenah, Eli, and Kevin, the other future founding members of the Saints, which makes for a jarring introduction. You are thrust into your character on a job for Marshall Defense Technologies, and then you go home and pick up your life with your friends from where it left off. Everything beforehand you don’t really see or hear about, which means there is a rather flimsy connection between you (the player) and your fellow Saints
Over the course of the game, there are a few loyalty missions that allow you to spend time with each one, and when they are alongside you in the main story their personalities can shine from time to time. But, for the most part, the four core members of the Saints feel disappointingly dull.
Speaking of dull, the main story missions in Saints Row feel significantly toned down in terms of spectacle. I can’t really think of more than one or two big action set pieces. That skydiving sequence with Kanye West’s ‘Power’ playing in the background from Saints Row 3 still sticks in my mind today – I doubt a few years from now any moment in this reboot will manage to do the same.
Every mission seems to merge together and the story twists are poor and uninventive. This is a story that is so cookie-cutter and cliche that it could be from any TV show or game set in the American southwest.
I can sympathise with Volition to some degree. Saints Row 3, 4, and Gat Out Of Hell were so barmy that it must have been hard to decide where to start with a reboot. How much do you take from the last games in the series and what atmosphere do you want for a new group of Saints in a brand new location?
Those difficult decisions have sadly not resulted in strong choices, because Saints Row’s tone is just all over the place. The backbone of the game is that of a serious one, albeit with a satirical outlook on big corporations and capitalism. Its narrative core and the way you build up your new group of Saints is not one of humour. But, the game doesn’t go far enough in committing to that serious tone and the writing also isn’t matched to that either. Occasionally you will get a flash of the Saints Row 3 and 4 tone and lunacy pop through, which rarely lands because the rest of the game is grounded in the realistic-looking world of Santo Ileso.
At this point, you are probably wondering ‘Ok, but is Saints Row fun and enjoyable?’ Yes, it is. The narrative stuff is brief and easy to skip, so it doesn’t completely decimate the experience. Santo Ileso is enjoyable to explore and drive around, even if it isn’t as visually distinctive as previous Saints Row settings.
The arcade-sandbox formula is pretty much what you remember from Saints Row 4, but with some more modern open-world design, collectibles, and challenges that are less monotonous. Santo Ileso is a giant list of stuff to do, but most of it is fun.
Volition has done a decent job with combat too. Some of the skills you can learn are pretty wild, like being able to flip about like Spider-Man while shooting or chuck a grenade down someone’s pants and throw them at an enemy. They add some nice diversity to the combat, beyond just shooting – not that shooting is too much of a chore, as weapon handling and gun feel are pretty good. The new vehicle abilities like being able to tow a giant ball and destroy everything behind you are also immensely satisfying. The wingsuit is a nice addition too.
My favourite new addition to the gameplay has to be criminal ventures, which are businesses the Saints set up around Santo Ileso that bring in money for them. These businesses all have their own unique string of activities. For example, Shady Oaks brings back Insurance Fraud and others like Chalupacabra have you stealing food trucks for your drug business.
Truthfully, they are all repetitive, but I actually found it satisfying to have a themed set of missions to barrel through and complete, with the process of completing them actually adding to the feeling of your criminal empire growing stronger by the hour.
Despite not changing much from the old formula, I am actually super thrilled with the gameplay and open-world systems in Saints Row. I love a good checklist game and this fits that perfectly. It’s also good to have an open-world game that is big, but manageable, and not on a map that just keeps expanding as you progress. Santo Ileso at the beginning is the same size it is at the end, and I find that refreshing.
My expectations were admittedly low for gameplay – this genre is gaming comfort food, and Volition has made Saints Row as satisfying to play as it was ten years ago. But I’m actually pleased to see that Volition has built upon it and updated it for the 2020s.
However, the gameplay can’t mask my disappointment with Saints Row’s characters and narrative. Upon finishing Saints Row 3 I felt like I knew Kinzie, Johnny Gat, Shaundi, and the whole gang. They were friends and had vibrant personalities that really made them stick out. But, Eli, Kevin, and Neenah just aren’t utilised well here and the lack of ambition to tell a meaningful character-driven story is disappointing.
Having to sit through boring story missions and listen to poor dialogue is a huge blemish on Saints Row. Volition’s risky decision to combine the same satisfying, chaotic and outlandish gameplay with a more serious tone has not gone to plan. Maybe that’s down to execution, or maybe it’s a combination that is too juxtaposed to ever work.
Despite this, Saints Row is still a decent play. Unlike the narrative, the open-world formula and the core gameplay are perfect fits for a reboot that looks to appease both old fans and newcomers. While Volition hasn’t totally reinvented the series in the way I thought it might before launch, it has at least retained most of what made Saints Row games great.