Saints Row is the highly anticipated reboot of a beloved franchise that is best described as a self-indulgent parody of Grand Theft Auto and other open-world city games of its ilk. Although the first two games were on the serious side, the final two completely lean into over-the-top nonsense, with the latest having the player act as President of the United States.
All four games launched throughout the Xbox 360 and PS3 console generations, and it’s been nine years since a full game boasting the Saints Row name graced us (as long as you don’t count Agents of Mayhem’s launch in 2017). But Deep Silver Volition is back with more Saints Row, throwing us into a rebooted world with the same premise. So, what’s the verdict?
Well, on one hand, Saints Row is fun. There’s a palpable simplicity to the game’s presentation that makes it feel like it absolutely belongs on the PlayStation 3, but it leans just enough into parody for it to be humorous without entering obnoxious territory à la Saints Row IV.
The story is comparable to earlier games in the franchise. There’s an elevated sense of logic bolstered by humorous character interactions, but this game isn’t a complete joke. The narrative is one you can take seriously, and from what I’ve played so far, the pacing has been somewhat competent.
On the other hand, Saints Row is the most broken game I’ve played in years. Many things do not work as intended, resulting in game-breaking bugs and tons of little issues that will quickly get on your nerves. Not all of them are to its detriment, though; some are genuinely hilarious, causing uncontrollable laughter — to the point of tears — while playing with my brother.
So many moments in Saints Row are the pure embodiment of dumb fun. However, it doesn’t seem entirely intentional, giving the game a noticeable “it’s so bad, it’s good” energy. It doesn’t help that Volition’s formula has not evolved and the gunplay is a complete mess. This is essentially just more of the same, and although it’s enjoyable, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before it’s worth buying.
A promising opening
Saints Row’s narrative gives the player time to sit with Santo Illeso’s primary antagonists rather than just throwing us into the desert. I found it endearing how each of the protagonist’s friends belong to the different gangs that make up the city, before ultimately getting screwed over by all of them in an exciting mission that leads to the creation of the titular Saints.
I was also quite impressed by how respectfully the characters are written in regards to their presence and reasoning for participating in these gangs. There’s self-awareness to each of their motivations that genuinely do make the characters feel real, whether that be Los Panteros being Neenah’s only family in a world that otherwise rejected her, or Kevin truly believing in the Idols’ goal to look out for the little guy.
The interpersonal banter adds a great deal of believability to this, with everyone coming together to input their beliefs into the new organization they create. While I’m not far into the story, I hope it keeps this up and continues with the solid pacing.
Can bugs be good?
Saints Row’s bugginess is at its worst when the loss of progress is involved, but there’s more to the game’s lack of polish than that, as plenty of bugs are just funny. When one player is trying to revive another, a disjointed animation begins that causes them to glitch upwards. This is when the ragdoll physics kick in (for some reason), forcing the downed person to suddenly collapse onto the floor.
When the player tries to execute takedowns on an enemy, the animations fail to connect, making it look like the player is stabbing or shooting at nothing mid-air and the enemy’s body is nonsensically tossed around a little ways off. Other times, I’ve had enemies just straight up disappear when I execute the takedown button.
Another bug occurred shortly after my brother and I used the “prank” feature on each other, which usually causes some ridiculous effect to impact our characters. In this case, he turned me into a walking vending machine; I turned him into a toilet. These effects normally last around a minute, but because we died during that time, it stuck with us throughout the rest of the mission. I could barely see past my enormous vending machine head, and whenever we ran, the sound of clinking metal smashing against concrete was constantly reverberating in our headphones and we could not stop laughing.
Not all of the bugs are as entertaining, though. One in particular caused my brother and I to desync while playing together. We could see each other within the world, but our actions were not lining up properly, which meant we pretty much had to restart the session. But even then, us being poorly synced resulted in some hilarity, like my brother driving quite far into a highway, but all I saw was a vehicle glitching up towards a building side, flipping uncontrollably. Another time, we just straight up could not see each other, and sometimes our map markers don’t work properly making it impossible to find one another.
One of the worst bugs relates to a clothing glitch that will reset your custom outfit colors whenever you purchase a new item or modify your clothes. This was unbearably frustrating, as it constantly meant I had to go back to the wardrobe menu to reassign the colors that I picked.
Rough game feel
Saints Row is rough around the edges, and the jankiest moments come from its gunplay. I’ve enjoyed plenty of third-person shooters on a controller, but this is up there as one of the most difficult aiming systems I’ve experienced. The way the character moves and responds to the joystick makes it nearly impossible to shoot properly. Every bullet feels like it comes out and connects to enemies at the wrong time, which is only worsened by the fact that many enemies are bullet sponges. Curious if this is how the series has always felt, I booted up Saints Row: The Third to test its aiming and had a far better time lining up shots.
Driving feels a little stiff and the crashes aren’t as dynamic as they should be, but there’s a lot of arcadiness elsewhere that makes it fun to go wild through Santo Illeso. The drift system lets you make turns at abnormal speeds. Meanwhile, every fire hydrant you smash into abruptly sends you into the air, which makes you fear sidewalks. I wish that more of the city was destructible though, as I have driven into certain barricades and railings only to be abruptly halted. Saints Row is so arcadey, it should absolutely let you drive through more stuff.
There’s also a rather limited selection of weaponry, and it’s also strange that grenades are locked behind the power meter that allows you to utilize special abilities. Players have a bar that will increase with every kill they get, and not only does it take a long time to fill up, but it’s not as strong as it could be. I would much prefer the ability to use grenades freely, as that special meter should be reserved for really powerful abilities and buffs.
Fun but familiar missions
Saints Row features plenty of little activities to distract you from the main story, but a lot of it is familiar. If you’ve played a Saints Row game before, you probably won’t be too surprised, as stuff like Insurance Fraud has made its return. But that’s perfectly okay with me, as crashing into cars and ragdolling into the air to cause traffic mayhem will always be pure joy.
Other missions require you to protect a vehicle or sometimes just steal one, and later ones will rehash already used gameplay systems as you proceed through the main story or buy new property from the city map. While I enjoy returning to classic Saints Row missions, the lack of fresh new systems to mess with throughout Santo Illeso brings back that feeling of the game seeming like it could exist on the PS3. It’s difficult to fully accept that this is a PS5 game, especially when compared to the slew of significantly more advanced open-world games that have launched since. This isn’t something that particularly bothers me, but the lack of novelty will turn some off.
Robust character creator
Saints Row drew me in with its character creator, which was a major aspect of the game’s marketing, so of course, we expected it to be good. And yes, it is quite solid, allowing the player to do tons of fun stuff with their hair colors or completely shift their bone structure how they please. You can even turn underwear filters off with special censor styles. I spent a long time making my character and came out pretty happy with it, and even if I wasn’t, the game lets you return to character creation directly from your in-game phone.
As soon as I finished the introductory missions and began exploring the world, the first thing I did was rush to find clothing stores. After spending so long working on my character, there’s no way I would be satisfied with the basic assortment of default clothes.
But overall, I came out a little disappointed. I expected a larger selection of clothing around the city, especially since there are tons of little blips on the map that would suggest otherwise, but they offer very few items to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, there was enough clothing for me to be satisfied, but I wasn’t impressed. I also would have loved more ethnic clothing options, as so much of it is very American.
So far, Saints Row has offered an enjoyable playground filled to the brim with fun activities, but there’s so much here that needs work. Beyond the hilarity of certain bugs, this game is immensely broken and will need a collection of thorough updates to set things right. Some will find it borderline unplayable, thanks to broken animations, multiplayer desyncing, occasional crashing, and potentially game breaking bugs that can eat save files.
And even when these things are fixed, Santo Illeso offers activities that aren't particularly unique when compared to previous Saints Row games. Couple this with underwhelming gunplay and this familiar reboot isn’t something to write home about. But even then, this series has always been fun and this game is no different.
The characters are treated like actual people and are provided with amusing senses of humor, while running around the world causing mayhem is still as fun as ever. I recommend waiting until the game is cheaper (and when its bugs are fixed), but it’s absolutely worth grabbing a buddy and jumping into Santo Illeso.