In this era of reboots, remasters and re-releases, it’s surprising that a number of EA’s classic 16-bit games have never been given the modern treatment: Desert Strike, Road Rash, FIFA… all remain trapped in the ‘90s, never to be resurrected (Okay, maybe not FIFA).
Nine years ago, developer Ian Fisch decided it was time for another Road Rash game. When it became clear that EA wasn’t interested, Fisch set up a Kickstarter to get a spiritual successor made instead. After an up-and-down development hit by numerous setbacks and delays, Road Redemption finally launched on PC a year ago, and now it’s on Switch too.
Fans of Road Rash will know the basics: Road Redemption has you riding your motorbike through lengthy courses, with the main gimmick being that you can beat up your opponents and knock them off their bikes. Although this was pretty much the sole major mechanic in Road Rash, though, here it’s only the tip of the iceberg: Road Redemption adds a bunch of roguelite features and other fun ideas to keep you hooked long after the wanton violence loses its appeal.
There’s a plot in there, but it’s fairly throwaway. Set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, a masked biker assassin has killed the leader of a notable weapons cartel. There’s a huge bounty of $15 million on this assassin’s head so, as part of the Jackal biker gang, you have to race across the country and reach said assassin before any rival gangs do. This involves driving through the turfs of three deadly gangs – the Reapers, SIGMA and the Phantoms – each of whom has their own hefty boss biker to contend with, too.
The setting is basically Road Rash meets Mad Max, right down to the dodgy Australian accents, but all of this is just window dressing for the main game itself: a series of procedurally-generated stages where the courses, enemies, available weapons, race type and post-level rewards are all randomised every time you play. It’s nothing too drastic – routes are still made up of pre-designed sections so it never really gets too wild – but it keeps things from getting boring, nonetheless.
Stage types come in five flavours: your standard races where you have to finish in a certain position, Time Trials (where you have to reach the end within a set time), Takedowns (where you have to kill a set number of enemies before reaching the end of the course), Survival (in which you simply have to reach the end without dying) and boss battles. Failing some of these doesn’t necessarily mean Game Over, but your health will be cut and you’ll miss out on a hefty chunk of prize money which can be spent on upgrades to your health, attack power, nitro meter and the like.
If you’re a Road Rash fan and this is all starting to sound a bit overly complicated, fret not: there’s also a Quick Play mode consisting of standard races. By getting gold cups for coming in first, you’ll eventually unlock a total of 16 courses in this mode, encompassing all the environments you’d have encountered in the main campaign. There’s also technically online multiplayer in there too, but we could never find an opponent – though, charmingly, it still lets you race and win against nobody, and gives you experience points anyway – so you can pretty much write online off.
This generous helping of game modes is all well and good, but where Road Redemption (thankfully) shines is in how it plays. Its spiritual ancestor Road Rash may have mainly been about punching opponents with the ability to get a weapon if you were good enough, but Redemption is an altogether more violent game and it hands you a blunt object right from the beginning. You can then collect more weapons as you play through each stage, each falling under four categories: melee weapons, swords, guns and explosives.
Every weapon type is useful in the right situations. Melee attacks are handy for wearing down an opponent’s energy, while swords are guaranteed one-hit decapitations if their helmet is off. Guns do great damage but are difficult to aim (you need to use the right stick while still racing with the left), and explosives – particularly the C4 bombs which can be attached to vehicles and bikes – do enormous damage but are limited in supply, and need you to get out of the way quickly.
This all actually makes combat hugely entertaining, especially when you end up in a swarm of four or five other bikes all swinging away at each other. There’s a rudimentary blocking system, similar to the Batman Arkham games, which lets you parry enemy attacks and leave them open for your own – some of the stronger foes require you to do this before you can damage them – and there’s a critical meter you can build up to deliver super-powered attacks. It isn’t exactly Street Fighter levels of depth, but it’s much more absorbing than just hammering an attack button.
It’s also just as well that it isn’t more complex, because it does require a bit of an adjustment period as it is. It can be a lot to remember when you’re flipping between weapons with the D-Pad, aiming your gun with the right stick, parrying attacks with the B button and checking to see if someone’s helmet’s on so you can switch to your sword, all while still having to take sharp turns and avoid oncoming traffic at the same time. It’s very much the video game equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly, and it can be a little overwhelming at first. You do get the hang of it eventually, though, and when you do it’s enormous fun.
Replay value is provided with a permanent upgrade system, where the XP you earn during a run can then be spent on increasing your health, upgrading your different weapons from the start, unlocking new bikes and the like. The skill tree is enormous and it’ll probably take around 100 hours (a rough estimate) before you’ve earned enough XP to completely max it out. It can feel a bit too granular at times, though: increasing your attack damage by 2.5% makes little to no impact on your game, but you have to buy upgrades like that to access more important ones, like new bikes and weapon boosts.
Meeting certain objectives will also earn you new characters. There are 15 to unlock, ranging from straightforward biker types with slightly tweaked stats, to more unique riders with quirky gimmicks that affect how the game’s played. The Helloween rider (who has a flaming pumpkin for a head) loses health every time he uses his turbo boost, but you can gain it back by decapitating opponents with your sword. Santa Claus, meanwhile, is armed with a candy cane which can’t hurt anyone (except bosses), making you focus more on racing and evasion than combat. Then there’s the questionable Freddy One Arm, who can only attack to the right. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an indie game these days without Shovel Knight being in there, too.
There are times where things can get a little too much for the Switch. Performance is generally smooth, but some stages (like the otherwise fantastic rooftop level) and particularly action-packed moments can see hefty drops in frame rate. At one point we blew up a truck while surrounded by six or seven bikers and the explosion pretty much turned things into a slideshow. These moments are still rare enough to not be a major issue when considering whether to buy it, but they’re worth mentioning because they do take the gloss off somewhat. Loading times can be long, too. We've got our fingers crossed that the developer will find some way of remedying these issue with an update.
Inconvenient as these are, such issues aren’t enough to ruin what is very often a fantastically entertaining game. A word of warning, though: given its darker setting there’s a fair amount of bad language during campaign mode, with plenty of f-bombs and even the odd c-nuke dropped in there. Although the options let you mute the voice acting, character dialogue still appears in text boxes, so if you’ve got a young one nearby who can read you might want to stick to the Quick Play mode while they’re around, since that’s banter-free (assuming they’re okay with heads being lopped off, of course).
When it all comes together, Road Redemption can offer some of the most thoroughly entertaining and over-the-top racing action you’ll find on the Switch. It’s a little rough around the edges and the performance could have done with a little optimisation prior to launch, but when a game’s as downright fun to play as this is, that’ll always be the overriding factor. The wait’s over, Road Rash fans: this is the modern spiritual successor you've been waiting for all these years.