For every adrenaline-pumping moment in Saints Row, another brings your fun to a screeching halt.
There’s no better example of this than when I stole a helicopter, wingsuited out to land on a car and escape the police, only to realize my character had become irreparably stuck to the top of the car. The only solution was to reload.
It’s been nine years since Saints Row 4, and this new entry feels like a back-to-basics reboot. But technical issues, bugs, and many more little frustrations conspire to make this a middling experience at launch. It’s unfortunate because when Saints Row fires on all cylinders, it’s an absolute blast with some truly lofty high points.
Starting from the bottom
Saints Row sports a brand new cast of characters that feels all-too-relatable. A group of roommates struggling to afford rent, student loans, and everything else in life. You have the studious Eli who loves podcasts and self-improvement, the mechanically gifted Neenah, and the music-obsessed Kev who refuses to ever wear a shirt. This vibrant and likable case is perhaps the best the series has ever seen.
At the start of the game your character, the Boss, gets a job with a massive Private Military Corporation called Marshall. Long story short, rival gangs and the Boss’ penchant for murder make things go awry, and the group of friends decides it’s time to really use their skills and start their own criminal empire. Saints Row’s Boss Factory has let gamers create their characters since June 9, and it really does set a high new benchmark for character creation in games. The amount of customization you have over your Boss is intense, and you can easily spend hours in the creator before even jumping into the game.
The surprisingly short story feels like the opening chapter to something much larger, and most moments that struggle for an emotional reaction just don’t feel earned. It’s a mixed bag with the occasional memorable moment, but the overall narrative fails to go anywhere interesting.
Aiming for the top
But we never remember Saints Row for the story. You’re here for the bombastic gameplay and a wide variety of gameplay experiences. In that regard, Saints Row doesn’t disappoint, and there are a few core improvements that make this entry play better than ever.
Shooting, in general, feels tight and satisfying, and a new skill system gives you some dynamic options in combat. As you level up, you’ll unlock skills that have some wild effects, like sticking a grenade in someone’s mouth and then throwing the body at enemies. Another new feature is the execution gauge that charges up as you take and cause damage. Once full you can use an instant execution that also heals you for one bar of health, a system similar to 2016’s Doom.
Another aspect that helps combat excel is a dynamic difficulty system that lets you fine-tune the difficulty of the entire game. It’s a great accessibility feature that lets you separately toggle individual difficulties like timed challenges, enemy health, vehicle difficulty, and more.
The problem that arises, then, is the unevenness in side activities and gameplay segments. The main story missions typically do a great job of creating exciting set pieces, like an epic train heist that has you jumping between vehicles, or an assault on a yacht that has you fleeing the exploding boat after gunning down hordes of enemies. The Saints Row series has always had stellar main missions, and this new game doesn’t disappoint. But the game relies too much on shootouts that simply throw dozens upon dozens of enemies at you with little in the way of nuance.
Outside of the story, there’s a wide array of things to do in Santo Ileso. Side Hustles return, this time tasking you with ferrying contraband across the map, flying a helicopter with a magnet attached to steal large items, and using a wingsuit to glide into enemy strongholds and destroy objectives. You can also photograph things across the city, which you can then use to decorate your stronghold.
Early on you’ll unlock a new feature called Criminal Ventures, which is where most of the game’s side content lies. These ventures in various zones across the city help you earn passive income while also unlocking new side missions. Criminal Ventures are also essentially used to pad out the main story, as you’ll need to complete a certain amount in order to undertake some story missions.
And there’s a lot of variety at play here: One has you stealing food trucks from rival companies while another tasks you with testing experimental weaponry. They’re mostly fun and engaging side quests, but a few feel frustrating at best. One venture forces you to fight a martial arts school, but the game’s melee combat simply isn’t robust enough to make it interesting, and I had to toggle the difficulty down to even get through it. Saints Row is at its best when giving you a wide array of bombastic destruction options, so focusing in on specific mechanics can oftentimes make that specific system fall apart.
That leads to the ugly part of Saints Row: the bugs and technical issues. While there is a day one patch coming, my experience was plagued by performance issues. Over my roughly 30-hour review period, the game hard crashed seven times. On occasion, skills made my character freeze, forcing me to exit and reload my save. Another time, an explosion caused my camera to get stuck pointed at the sky, once again forcing me to reload. There are numerous smaller hitches too, like icons disappearing from the map, enemies getting stuck outside of mission areas, and my character’s clothing getting swapped. The bugs absolutely had a detrimental effect on my experience, even while I was still enjoying most of what Saints Row has to offer.
The visuals of Saints Row are quite good, and one problem I didn’t experience was any kind of frame drops. The city of Santo Ileso is by far the most visually interesting location in the series yet, a cross between a dusty Texas town and Las Vegas. There are loads of striking landmarks that dot the map, and I was content to explore the map and find interesting items to photograph.
What baffles me about Saints Row, however, is that the many interesting landmarks and locations feel like window dressing and don’t factor into the story or missions in any way. Places like a massive football stadium, go-kart track, and medieval casino feel like they’d have been perfect for wacky missions, but they ultimately just sit there unused. I have to imagine the game will eventually get DLC that explores more of Santo Ileso, but as much as I enjoyed the town aesthetically, I wish it was explored mechanically a bit more. This visual breadth of the environmental design betrays a lack of depth to the whole experience.
Even without all the technical issues, I still feel a bit mixed on Saints Row overall. It’s certainly a good time, but doesn’t bring much new to the table. Likable characters can only take a generic story so far, and it struggles to iron out a coherent and consistent tone.
Saints Row is comfort food you know and love, but it’s unlikely to set your palette on fire.
Saints Row will release on August 23 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PS5.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.