VBlank Entertainment’s Retro City Rampage was a remarkable indie jab at video game giant Grand Theft Auto. Featuring everything from high-octane action to time-travelling shenanigans, it was a game that got everything right. It was smart, funny, gorgeous... in short, pretty much everything you’d want in a video game. After years of delays and an even longer development, you’d hope that Rampage’s successor Shakedown: Hawaii would be a grand return for VBlank. Unfortunately, it never hits the gold standard that was set before it.
From a purely presentational standpoint, Shakedown: Hawaii is vastly superior to its predecessor. While Rampage’s 8-bit visuals were appropriately amiable, Hawaii instead opts for a gorgeously detailed 16-bit aesthetic. While a pixel-art world will never be as immersive as the fully 3-D landscapes of Red Dead or GTA, Hawaii’s compact world is so detail-rich that you could imagine being there.
Fine details are plentiful: every corner of 16-bit Hawaii has something to gawp at, even if you’re just flattening pedestrians on your way to a mission. Civilians stroll around taking selfies, streets are filled with varied NPCs, trees sway and puddles cut as you drive through them. There’s no denying the attention to detail here. Most of the game’s gorgeous objects also have numerous states as you’ll inevitably destroy them at some point during your playthrough. That lovely-looking brick wall? You’re going to drive right through it. That tiny shop? You’re going to burn it down to the ground.
VBlank’s series has seen a growth spurt, not just in its visuals but also its story. While the original game was an amazing tongue-in-cheek jab at every pop culture reference in the past thirty years, Shakedown: Hawaii drops that entirely. Set thirty years after Rampage, the player character has evolved into the disgruntled CEO of the failing Feeble Corporation.
As you’re struggling to keep your company afloat, you’ll resort to a life of crime and unethical business practices to rise from the ashes and take out your competitor, Featherbottom. The plot here isn’t complex at all, but that’s because any meaningful story beats are cast away in favour of pure comedic moments. Humour may be subjective, but Shakedown: Hawaii doesn’t supply its comedy as cannily as its predecessor did; while Rampage drew its humour from parody and outlandish situations, this time the laughs purely stem from the player character’s inability to keep up with modern conveniences.
A lot of the jabs here are fair game. Large day one patches and console UI advertisements deserve to be heavily scrutinized, so too do egregious store-specific credit cards, but most of the jokes here are simply of the “old man yelling at a cloud” variety. That is the point; the character you’re playing as is hilariously out of touch, but Shakedown: Hawaii never evolves. Instead, you’re stuck with that one joke throughout most of the story. There are some chuckle-worthy scenes but, for the most part, it gets stale quickly and the dialogue is never as witty or clever as it was in Rampage.
With the world being blown up to four times the size of the original, VBlank has made sure there’s something other than mindless-albeit-fun violence to do within it. Opening the game’s map will show the many purchasable buildings which you’ll have to acquire, upgrade and perform the titular shakedowns in. Unfortunately, this is the most prominent part of the game.
Every few in-game minutes you’ll be granted daily revenue from your properties which immediately gets dumped into more properties. Once you purchased a building, you can upgrade it from a list of thirteen bonuses you’ll discover through story missions. Each building adds more revenue to purchase, yet more buildings and upgrades simply add a percentage increase to that revenue. It’s a mechanic that never evolves, it only gets more tedious. You’re simply buying a thing from a list of things that only serves the purpose of allowing you to buy even more things. It’s mindless busywork.
As a game that ridicules the worst of consumerism, Shakedown: Hawaii adopts one of the most reviled aspects of modern gaming: a Ubisoft-style checklist style of completion. There are 81 properties to shakedown, all of which come down to performing one of six different activities: eliminate gang members, scare away customers, cut off someone’s hair, escape from an underground jail, steal a shipment or drive away with the shop owner on the hood of your car. Since the shakedowns are placed in large clusters on the game’s map, you’ll most likely be tackling them in groups at a time, highlighting the repetitious nature of the signature mechanic.
In between shakedowns and story missions, you’ll pop into your map and purchase a few properties. Maybe you’ll save up for an expensive building and dump all of your money into upgrading that – it’ll make a good bonus for your daily revenue. Within Hawaii, there are hundreds of buildings to buy, each with thirteen upgrades that you’ll have to manually apply. It’s mindless repetition: the monotonous moments of repeatedly pressing down and “A” on each and every property to purchase its upgrades is far from fun.
In later sections, Shakedown: Hawaii does pick up the pace. With all shakedowns complete, each property purchased, and upgrades put in place, the long sections of menu navigation barely crop up in the last quarter of the game’s narrative. Of course, they’ll appear from time-to-time as most story missions end in you purchasing a property or upgrading something, but with your daily revenue in the millions, it’ll never gatekeep you from progression again.
When it’s purely playing itself as a sequel to Retro City Rampage, there is a lot to like here. Mindless weapon activities let you attack civilians with grenades and the game still provides you with plenty of enjoyable gunfights. Alas, these nuggets of gold fail to hide the game’s shortcomings. The pacing is still overwhelmingly slow and most missions end just as they’re getting started. It’s a disappointment, but it’s far from a failure; Shakedown: Hawaii simply strayed too far from what the original was great at.
VBlank Entertainment’s second GTA parody isn’t the close-to-perfect sequel we expected, but it’s still a decent game. Despite all of its numerous shortcomings, there’s still some fun to be had when you’re not toiling through menus, but it's hard not be disappointed when you consider VBlank's previous work; hopefully, like Retro City Rampage, we’ll see a better DX version in the future. As it stands, Shakedown: Hawaii is full of potential, but it’s overshadowed by monotony.