Steel Rats seems like the sort of thing you’d find on late night television. Or, now that I think about it, as a greaser-tinged sequel to the CGI-heavy film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. An alien invasion strikes the United States in an alternate 1940’s and people of Coastal City have been driven into hiding by robotic creatures dubbed the Junkbots. These arachnid-like robots come in different shapes and sizes and gingerly wreak havoc on the population. With the Army and National Guard seemingly unable to stop the menace, the task of saving the world falls on the shoulders of a rag tag biker gang called the Street Rats, whose souped up motorcycles might be just enough to take the fight to the aliens and win back their home.
All this takes place on the ravaged and robot-filled streets in the boroughs that make up Coastal City. Though the game has the presentation of a 2.5D platformer (meaning the background has a lot more depth than a regular static layout), the streets you ride on are wide enough to move a character’s motorbike across different lanes to move deeper into the level or find secret areas. You experience the story and the world from the view of four primary members of the Street Rats, each with their own distinct personalities and special combat abilities.
Street Rats sees you navigating different stages primarily on am armed motorbikes that obey the laws of physics and forward momentum. Stages are designed to take advantage of these things, giving you a good handful of ramps and jumps that let you pull off some sick flips. All bikes are equipped with a device called the “wheelie saw” that operates as an offensive weapon that’ll saw through most things that fall in its path and stick to special piped surfaces that carry you along steep vertical climbs and ceilings without worrying about falling off. The invasion of Coastal City is marked by a collection of robot aliens that come in all different shapes and sizes, from simple scrappy drones and “hangers” (giant explosive mines that swing back and forth from the ceiling, waiting for anyone to pull off an ill-advised ramp jump) to bipedal Mega Goons that shoot at you with their hefty cannons. The bikes owned by the characters have special armaments that fit their different personalities.
The scrappy Toshi, a young “teenage genius,” has a repurposed Junkbot drone that follows close by and delivers bolts of electricity to damage enemies. Jack, the gruff leader of the Street Rats, has an energy attack that shoots out a battering ram-like beam of energy to damage anything in front of him. Lisa’s bike commands fire, shooting jets from her exhaust and laying down a trail that does damage over time to anything caught in the path. Randy, the most outspoken and rambunctious of the group, uses special energy tethers that can grapple onto an enemy and bring him closer to the target for an upfront attack. The weapons Toshi, Jack, Randy, and Lisa use can be upgraded from the in-game store before each level, using the junk collected from destroyed Junkbots and as a bonus for beating a level under a specific amount of time, without healing, and other feats. Perks and upgrades came at a bit of a slow trickle, leaving me often sitting on a massive stack of cash with nothing to spend it on.
Another issue I had with upgrades was the confusion of whether or not I was triggering them correctly. You consume energy whenever you dash, do a spin (which can damage enemies around you and deflect cannon fire from larger Goons), and fire your primary weapon. Launching higher level versions of these attacks require using up two or three bars of energy. I had some trouble using the charged attacks for certain characters like Toshi and was never sure if I was doing something wrong.
Steel Rats isn’t just about performing stunts and defying gravity, though most of the time I caught myself wishing that it was. The core gameplay involves using each gang member’s bike weapons to destroy Junkbots as you ride through to the end of the level and fight bosses. The action is at its best when you’ve got long stretches of road filled with enemies to deal with but for those more intricate platformer sequences, the game doesn’t perform as well. I quickly learned that death can be a huge inconvenience. You can switch between the different bikes on the fly but I never felt like one character was better equipped to handle one situation over another so I mostly relied on Toshi and Jack. If these characters lose all their health, you pick up from the closest checkpoint with another character. If all of them die, you’re forced to restart the entire level. This isn’t all that fun, to be honest, especially in situations that weren’t my fault, like when the game decided to crash.
Another part of the game that bothered me was the level design and pathfinding. An on-screen arrow points in the general direction you need to go and there were times I didn’t quite find it helpful. One stage in particular was confusing because the area would lead me to a second floor and then having me jump to the bottom of the screen. I went back to the first floor and didn’t see any clue of where to go. On the opposite end of the stage was a long elevator shaft that I thought I needed to get to but with no visible trigger to help get me down safely. After falling down the shaft and dying (long falls will kill the characters, by the way), I spawned into the area I was supposed to go and found out that the path to the room was a wall climb zone the entry point of which was obscured by a piece of the environment.
If there’s one part of Street Rats I really liked, it’s the presentation. Although you don’t get much of the “alternate 1940’s” aesthetic beyond the story cutscenes and some in-game architecture ((because the city is, well, being destroyed) the game has a little bit of a Pacific Northwest vibe that I’m a fan of. The coloring is also pretty great, with a lot of reds, green, and orange schemes that tend to look vibrant and fantastic. I also really liked the sultry electronica music that reminds me a little bit of Dark City’s quieter moments. The sound design is fun, too, as as spider drones skitter and chirp and Mega Goons blow up real nice. My favorite sound effect is the high-pitched whine the comes from the bike when it zips along the special piped paths that run along the sides of buildings and ceilings.
The gameplay takes some getting used to as does the twitchiness of the bike. Because Steel Rats reminded me so much of Trials HD, I had a tendency to rush through the game which led to a lot of deaths and frustration. Apart from end level bonuses and certain chase sequences (that were surprisingly difficult and mostly unfun), there’s no need to rush and it’s OK to take things slow and steady. That does go at odds with the idea of using high speed vehicles to get around and to be honest, I think I would have liked the game better if the characters were on foot or the bikes were less touchy. In the end, I give Street Rats some credit for its creativity because I haven’t seen a mashup of gameplay like this before. It’s fun and has a great sense of style that works with the world it’s trying to show off.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.