When rumors of the Saints Row reboot began to bubble up there was a feeling of excitement. The series had been continuously escalating to wackier and wackier heights, things began to get convoluted. The last time we saw the Saints in full swing they were battling aliens and going to Hell. These games were fun and had great things going on with gameplay and characters, but many wanted a shift back. The ending of Gat out of Hell opened the door for a reboot in the series, a clean slate. However poor sales and reception for Gat out of Hell would put the series on ice while Volition tried something new.
Years later in 2021, a very different Volition would unveil the new Saints Row at Gamescom with a CGI trailer. It introduced a completely new cast and showed they still wanted to retain the overtop nature of Saints Row. Immediately the game was levied criticism that the cast seemed too “woke” or catered to a “Gen Z audience”. After a cover story done by Gameinformer that showed a game with fun but unfinished mechanics, it would be delayed.
On August 23, 2022, Saints Row came out and invoked a unanimous sense of disappointment by all reviewers. The writing was called out for being poor and nonsensical with the new cast of Saints not landing. The game had bland mission design and mechanics which while fun just didn’t feel polished or thought out. It failed to please older fans and Volition couldn’t capture a new audience with their rebooted version of the Saints. The game had an identity crisis, it rejected everything that made Saints Row great while not introducing anything new. If you strip out the Saint’s name and colors from the game, you wouldn’t know it was Saint Row. But what went so wrong and is there any part of this game that could redeem it?
It’s Not All Bad
It’s important to recognize a game’s strengths, Saints Row does have some fun ideas and features within. Three core pillars of Saints Row that this game nails are customization, progression, and city takeover. These were features that helped Saints Row 1 distinguish itself from being just another GTA clone in the series’ early days.
This game lets you go crazy with customization, from a robust character creator to fine-tuning every aspect of your car. The developers clearly cared about giving the player agency when it comes to their boss and version of the Saints. Much of the progression and rewards are based on cosmetics, you’ll unlock new items with every activity completed. What you unlock isn’t just the same shirt with a different color but wholly unique and meaningful items. When playing, the constant hook for me was seeing what new crazy customize option I unlocked. If you love customization, then Saints Row might be worth a discounted pick-up price.
In the same respect as the customization, Saints Row has a heap of progression and gameplay unlocks sprinkled throughout. Your weaponry can escalate to absurd levels with all the various guns and ways to upgrade them. Vehicles come in various shapes and sizes with fun additions like towing magnets or wrecking balls able to be attached. There’s a staggering amount of gameplay features packed into this game; Volition seemed like they added in every idea possible. While not everything works great, you can’t deny that there’s some dumb fun to be had in Saints Row’s sandbox.
The focus on mechanically showing the Saints taking over the city might be this entry’s strongest pillar. While every Saints Row game prior differed in direction from each other, the thing they all shared was city takeovers. The reboot of Saints Row is no different, except this time it’s taken to a whole other level. The Saints start as nothing but doing activities scattered across Santo Ileso you unlock business ventures. These offer a vast selection of side modes to complete and doing so will net you more city territory and money. A noticeable amount of effort went into ensuring each business venture offered a unique gameplay experience and worthwhile unlocks. By the end of the game, the city felt like I earned it and the Saints had become the dominant gang.
What Went Wrong with Saints Row?
Unfortunately, despite what Saints Row does right, it does a lot more wrong. The most evident wrongdoing lies within its characters and overall writing. The tone of this game is purely silly and lighthearted, and the humor has no edge. It’s all played very safely, and characters just regurgitate the most nonsensical jokes that carry no weight. Not a single member of the Saints feels like a criminal, they come off more like some nerdy misfits. There’s nothing wrong with that but going about casually committing terrible crimes and killing people, just doesn’t add up. The old Saints certainly were very jokey but also were clearly horrendous people with an edge. Seeing them become celebrities or the president added to the humor and was built too. The new Saints don’t act like criminals, they are normal 20-year-olds who just decided to occasionally kill and rob.
With the right amount of care, this group could have worked as they are. A game like Watch Dogs 2 has a similar group dynamic but is handled very differently. That game’s mechanics and story is crafted so they aren’t traditional criminals, and their actions align with their personality. Saint’s Row doesn’t do that, it’s written without any care and bounces tonally all over the place. One moment the Saints are discussing waffle makers and the next they mercilessly shoot someone with no transition. At every turn, they seem to go in the opposite direction of the series’ strengths. If this game didn’t want to pay homage and faithfully reinvent the Saints, calling it Saints Row was a mistake.
Writing isn’t the only issue with the game, its design feels outdated and sloppily put together. The core combat when it works is generic at best, only being spiced up with weapons and skills. All the missions are your run-of-the-mill open-world stuff, with a rushed set piece occasionally. The world of Santo Illeso feels dead and instantly forgettable, just terrain to drive from mission to mission. Outside of the business ventures it’s just the same activities over and over with no surprises or unique concepts. The design of the game feels and looks like a middling 360 title that even older Saints Rows far surpassed.
The game does no favors for itself by consistently breaking in big and small ways. There’s a plethora of visual bugs and the AI shows little intelligence. The Major missions easily fall apart, even when their design just consists of shooting waves of enemies. This is an AAA game that launched broken and to this day still feels messy. The developers at Volition tried doing too much and ended up with a game packed with half-complete content.
A “Fix Post-Launch” Mindset
After the critically poor launch, the team at Volition went dark while trying to pull together this game after its release. When their silence broke they detailed a roadmap with 3 paid DLCs and a free update to the combat. The overhaul of their combat system was commendable, it showed they hadn’t completely given up hope. However, the DLCs were mostly disappointing and did little to improve the game. The Heist and The Hazardous campaign were 3 short missions and a new district that should have been in at launch. Doc Ketchum’s Murder Circus was just a reused horde mission from the base game with an added progression system. The final and biggest DLC A Song of Ice and Dust introduced 5 new missions and a new district.
All 3 DLCs offer little or no incentive for players to come back to the game. If the base wasn’t for you then the DLCs wouldn’t do much to change that. It leaves the future of Saints Row in question, and whether the studio will get another crack at it. The game was just announced for PlayStation’s monthly game in September which may breathe some more life into it. One thing is for certain though, we are still waiting for the Saints to truly return.