At Gamescom 2021, the world got its first glimpse of the newest Saints Row game and…yeah, it isn’t looking good. As a longtime fan of the franchise, the way that Volition handled the reveal has been very disconcerting for a number of reasons. It’s understandable to go in a different direction for a reboot, but nothing about what was revealed at Gamescom seems to have any trace of what made Saints Row good.
Let me make this clear now, there won’t be any mentions of “wokeness,” “forced diversity,” “SJW” or any other terms you can find on the Twitter buzzword of the day calendar. There also won’t be any mention of the characters looking like millennials, as none of the featured characters look to be 30 years old. Arguments like those add absolutely nothing to any conversation and, frankly, there are a number of criticisms to be made about the way Volition handled the reveal that are actually objective.
The first and most prominent issue with a CG trailer reveal is that it is a CG trailer. This is an issue for obvious reasons, but it’s compounded by the fact that the game is apparently set to release just six months from now. The game should be, at the very least, in functional shape by now. Hopefully, I’m just paranoid, but the fact that Volition seemed either unwilling or unable to showcase actual gameplay is very concerning.
The only other knowledge we have about the game is what was shared in the “Welcome to Santo Ileso” trailer, which is mostly the game devs talking about what they did for the game. Make no mistake, developer-centric videos on how games are made are excellent and the industry needs more of them. However, there are videos online that compile all of the legitimate gameplay footage available to the public. They are less than 30 seconds long and have so many jump cuts that they cause headaches. There is next to no actual knowledge about how the game will be or if there are any substantial changes to the formula.
Then, there are the Saints themselves. Many of the critiques online center around how the new Saints just don’t look like gangsters before, inevitably, bemoaning that the Saints Row franchise should return to its grittier roots. I’m not here to tell anyone which specific games they should enjoy — if you only liked the grittier tones of the first two, that’s great. Personally, I didn’t expect or even really want the original cast to return, but I also agree that the new characters simply don’t look all too compelling.
In a lot of ways, the CG trailer shows that Volition has learned nothing from Agents of Mayhem and is once again adopting the humor principle of “If we just keep throwing out jokes, at least one of them has to land, right?” There’s an inability, or unwillingness, to realize that their humor isn’t just about the jokes they tell, but also the framing around them.
What makes Saints Row fun is the very same thing that makes the Yakuza series fun. On the surface, it can tell a serious story but is also brimming with absurdity. It’s the reason that Saints Row: The Third is my favorite game in the series. Volition seemed to have the most fun with that game, but that fun was packaged in with a legitimately serious story about revenge. There were signs of Volition losing sight of that in Saints Row 4, before Agents of Mayhem utterly proved that they apparently aren’t aware of what it was that made their games charming.
The key to what makes Saints Row’s humor work is the juxtaposition. The dildo bat, for example, was only as funny as it was because it appeared alongside legitimately painful-looking melee weapons. Missions that involved wrestling at a luchador show, tax fraud, and Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax were only wacky because they appeared in the middle of Boss’s rampage to avenge their (believed to be) murdered friend. The dubstep gun was only charming because it made the aliens, the same beings that destroyed Earth and enslaved the few survivors, dance uncontrollably.
Compare these components to the whole of Agents of Mayhem, or the cutscene in Saints Row 4 where Earth explodes and the gravity of the moment is maintained for about less than a minute before Keith David drops the line “You need help turning on the VCR…” When Volition, for the lack of a better phrase, “tries too hard” to be funny, not only does it usually fail, it betrays what made the earlier Saints Row games as good as they were.
At the end of the day, we still don’t know what the game actually looks like, and while I’ll be keeping an open mind because of that, there just isn’t any way around the fact that it looks like Volition is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what happens.
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