BunkBed Junction vs. The World
I’m a massive fan of rhythm games — I used to compete in DDR tournaments when those were a thing, I (pre-pandemic) go to Japanese arcades specifically to play Taiko no Tatsujin even though I have several versions complete with drums at home, and I bought a VR headset specifically for Beat Saber. Then, of course, there are rhythm games with a little bit more thrown into the mix; take PaRappa the Rapper, whose driver’s ed level song will be stuck in my head until the day I die, and Sayonara Wild Hearts, a recent favorite that I play a few times a week to relax to great music and gorgeous visuals.
So when the review code rolled in for No Straight Roads, I absolutely had to get my hands on it. A rhythm and action game that’s been compared to Jet Set Radio and Space Channel 5, No Straight Roads absolutely appeared to bring the heat, but could it sustain the temperature?
Developed by Malaysian-based team Metronomik and published by Sold Out Ltd., No Straight Roads follows the underground (no literally, they live in a sewer) rock duo BunkBed Junction Mayday and Zuke as they strive to take down the EDM oligarchy NSR (short for, you guessed it, No Straight Roads). Launched on PS4, XBox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Epic Games Store with an initial pricepoint of $39.99, No Straight Roads promises players “a rockin’ action-adventure from the minds of Wan Hazmer (Final Fantasy XV) and Daim Dziauddin (Street Fighter V).”
The premise is simple — No Straight Roads, the aforementioned EDM oligarchy, has reigned supreme over Vinyl City for far too long, decreeing rock and roll to be dead and gone. It’d be one thing if their power was over music alone, but they control the citizens’ every move through the music-powered Qwasa, the energy source illuminating Vinyl City. NSR holds regular music festivals appropriately named Lights-Up Auditions to find talented musicians to give power to the Qwasa, which leads us to the introduction of our rock duo, BunkBed Junction. Despite a stellar performance that powered the Qwasa to almost its full capacity, NSR forbade BunkBed Junction from ever performing again, rock music officially banned from the program.
Down but not out, BunkBed Junction wandered around Vinyl City, grumbling about the unfair call, when suddenly, a power outage struck. Mayday quickly noticed that NSR-controlled districts were suspiciously given access to backup electricity while the rest of the citizens made do in the dark. Enough was enough — the hyperactive Mayday swore then and there that the rock duo must take down the EDM dictatorship and give back power to the people, and Zuke, normally a chill, laid-back guy, agreed. The pair then dashed off to tackle the first of many EDM head honchos and save the city from NSR’s clutches through the power of rock.
Let’s talk aesthetics — No Straight Roads has an explosively energetic style, like an amp cranked up to full blast. There’s not one aspect of the game that is overtly responsible for this, either, as the entire package is so in-your-face that it’s simply not possible to say one weighs more than the other. The intense use of color is like a KPop music video on crack, the soundtrack is a fantastic blend of rock and EDM goodness, the characters are brilliantly fleshed out, and the voice acting has an abundance of personality — Mayday will feel like a face punch in the absolute best way.
The overall design of No Straight Roads will appeal to some — possibly the older gamers — and will feel empty to others. There is definitely a dated feel to Vinyl City that PS2 players will vividly recall, like very small areas of exploration until you unlock gated sections, easily-laid out collectibles, and a city with more atmosphere than things to do. Truth be told, in other indie games, I don’t think this would be as much of a deal-breaker, but with the literal onslaught of in-your-face visuals, personality, and audio, this portion of the game does indeed feel like something is missing.
Of course, the more exciting portion of No Straight Roads is when BunkBed Junction gets to take on NSR members in boss battles to the beat. Mayday and Zuke play guitar and drums, respectively, and use them as instruments of war during these straight up cinematic scenes. The visuals and audio are unique to each boss, absolutely brimming with awe-inspiring choreography that hooks you immediately. For example, the first boss is a space-themed EDM DJ with three stages: the inner planets, the outer planets, and then some weird level where he seemed to have broken the space-time continuum. It was legitimately cool to see the distinction between the three levels, the planets floating around, being pushed out to the outer planets and being separated from the DJ by the asteroid belt, and then all form and function going to shit when the big boss broke… everything.
Unfortunately, the gameplay itself is unnecessarily complicated, unbalanced, and can feel repetitive after awhile. There’s also a slight difficulty curve right up front with the first two bosses in what feels like a sink or swim introduction to the title. This will absolutely appeal to players who prefer action/adventure games but frustrate those who are coming at it from the rhythm angle. The bosses’ moves are supposed to follow the beat, and while they do in some situations in pseudo-QTEs, the melee aspect is a bit of a mess. The attacks don’t quite sync up with the beat, and I still can’t figure out if some attacks are in-line with the rhythm or it’s again meant to fall on the beat and misses; either way, it makes for complicated combat in its core concept.
While the soul BunkBed Junction brings is certainly punk rock — fighting against the system and going against the grain — their music has the sound of the cookie cutter pop punk from the 2000s that I loathed with every fiber of my being. Maybe it’s hard to recall a time when EDM wasn’t the industry cash cow that it is now, but I certainly remember a time when I had to subsist off 90s techno and Daft Punk alone in a sea of the same basic mainstream “punk” sound. Mass-produced pop punk dominated the radio waves, with rap and emo not too far behind (although the latter died soon thereafter). EDM simply wasn’t a thing because it hadn’t evolved yet; even Eminem famously took a jab at EDM’s predecessor in his 2002 hit “Without Me” when he exclaimed that “nobody listens to techno.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the game because I hate pop punk, but when Tatiana said rock ‘n roll was dead and BunkBed Junction fought back with an absolutely dead sound, she had a point. From techno’s ashes rose EDM, a completely new sound that ultimately became mass-produced much like pop punk a decade prior. NSR represented the height of this evolution, while Bunkbed Junction represented the shit they destroyed ten years ago. In attitude, Bunkbed Junction may have had the power to take down NSR, but in practice, they lacked the proper tools required.
Oddly enough, this actually does prove the point of No Straight Roads — as Mayday and Zuke uncover, the type of music required to power the Qwasa is irrelevant; what matters is the musicians’ convictions. Although BunkBed Junction brought nothing new to the table in terms of sound, their convictions were stronger than anything else experienced in game. Mayday lived every waking moment to the fullest potential, and Zuke, cool as a cucumber, had to be strong enough to be able to withstand Mayday’s explosive personality. There’s no way the rock duo was going to fail with that dedication, literally bringing power to the people.
In terms of the philosophy behind music and how passionate people can feel about it, No Straight Roads has delivered in spades; in terms of combat, unfortunately, it falters, stumbling at the finish line in an otherwise dazzling experience. It was frustrating to me that the controls were so clunky, the combat so unnecessarily complicated, and the weight these problems carried into otherwise glorious aspects of the game. Had there been more to balance out the flaws, I wouldn’t be left with such a bad taste in my mouth. It’s such a shame to say that this spectacular game failed to hit key notes where it counted.
In some ways, No Straight Roads felt like the second coming of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It had all the right ingredients to be the perfect blend of rhythm and action into one phenomenal package. And while it does plenty right, it’s a little too off-key where it counts. Some fine-tuning on the combat would certainly help sync the boss battles with the aesthetics and exploration aspects, as that mechanic carries way too much weight to ignore. Still, I can’t lie — I’ve absolutely fallen in love with No Straight Roads for what it does offer, which is an explosively intense experience that will punch your teeth right out of your face. If you favor adventure over rhythm, there’s no reason not to pick up No Straight Roads; if beats are more important than battles to you, perhaps wait for tickets to go on sale.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch (reviewed); Developer: Metronomik; Publisher: Sold Out Ltd.; Players: 1 – 2; Released: August 25, 2020; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of No Straight Roads provided by the publisher.