When I first heard of Tate Multimedia’s latest release Steel Rats, it was described to me as a 2.5D motorcycle platformer. If you’re anything like me, you probably think that sounds confusing, but also potentially really cool. As a lover of old-school side-scrolling adventures and motorcycles, I jumped at the chance to review this one.
After a short cutscene showing some kind of mechanical beasts descending on a 40’s era, dieselpunk-ish city named Coastal City, we’re introduced to a teenage genius named Toshi. Toshi is one-fourth of a motorcycle gang called the Steel Rats. After the cutscene, Toshi and her motorcycle are left to search the Rat’s Nest, the gang’s hideout. The other members are missing, and you’ll need them if you intend to fight off the horde of Junkbots.
As you probably expect, the first mission serves as an introduction to the controls, which is good, because they definitely take a little getting used to. You’ll be traveling left to right mostly, but there are three different levels (or paths) on the screen. You flick up or down on the analog stick to change lanes, be it the foreground, middle ground or background. Controlling a motorcycle in the 2.5D space probably would have been second nature to me before 3D gaming, but now it took several levels to really master it. You’re not steering with the analog stick like a typical racing game, because the motorcycle only goes left and right and slightly up and down on the screen. Flipping a U-turn requires a button push, making it feel at first more like a skating game than a racing game. If that sounds like a complaint, I apologize, because it isn’t. It really works and is probably the only way it could work in a 2.5D side-scrolling game.
There is a level fairly early in the game that requires you to escape a building that is collapsing. You’re basically driving a bike down a staircase without the stairs, requiring you to reverse course, sometimes in midair, on each level with virtually zero room for error. It was a good way for the developer to say, “no more faking your way through these controls. Master it now, so we can have some real fun.” I’m not going to lie, it did feel pretty good nailing that escape, and it definitely forced me to get the hang of the controls.
But we’re not here for a simple joy ride. These Junkbots are not playing around, so you’ll need to dish out some serious Hell’s Angels’ style justice. Each biker starts out with what is effectively a saw blade for a front wheel. Press the X button, and your front wheel glows bright orange and can cut through bad guys and junk cars like a hot knife through warm butter. This blade also allows you to climb certain walls opening each level up to a remarkable amount of exploration that I was not expecting in a motorcycle sidescroller.
Aside from this blade, as you eventually unlock the other three members of the biker gang, you’ll see they each have a unique primary attack. There is a harpoon gun, an overhead bot dealing destruction with a push of a button, or deadly fire shooting from your bike’s exhaust. In addition to these primary attack, as you’ll also unlock charge attacks and ultimate attacks for each character. You can purchase upgrades to these with the junk you collect.
Yes, junk is the currency of the game. As you chew through bad guys and anything else in your path, you collect “junk”. With this junk, you can purchase upgrades to your attacks, extra fuel and health bars, and even skins for your biker and his bike. The skins don’t offer any advantage, but upgrading your attacks was always exciting. Each level has challenges and collectibles to find, which will get you even more “junk”, but, before long, you’ll have more money than you know what to do with. Having way more money than I needed early in the game, and not having any real idea on why some things were available to purchase, while other items remained locked, made the leveling up a bit of a mess. If I had to guess, tweaking the leveling system is probably high on the developer’s list of things to patch.
But the game looks great. The bikes are cool. The bikers are well done, if not cliched, but it’s the levels that really shine. I love the futuristic/vintage look the world has. Finding alternate paths through the levels, discovering each area, and finding the collectibles greatly increases the game’s replayability.
Unfortunately, as cool as the world looks, they never really sold me on the story. In fact, I’m not totally sure what the story was. Although there is a cutscene each time you reach a new section of the town, and they peppered some story in via dialogue in some of the missions, it never resonated with me. The story didn’t get the same love as the world of Coastal City, which is a shame. The city is great, and I would have liked to be more invested in its history.
Obviously, Steel Rats is not a perfect game. The combat becomes repetitive, and it’s not overly difficult. Once I mastered the controls, I had a lot of fun playing Steel Rats. Racing the bikes through the interesting and beautifully realized levels always made me want to play just one more level.
Overall - Very Good - 7.0/10
Despite a story I didn’t connect with, an uneven leveling system, and controls that take a lot of getting used to, I had a lot of fun driving around the very cool world of Coastal City. If you’re looking for an unconventional, sides-scrolling adventure, Steel Rats will probably scratch that particular itch. It did for me.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using base PS4.
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When Jeremy isn’t writing books or playing video games, he’s living his life one random movie references at a time.