The rise of the scrolling beat ’em up genre continues with Double Dragon having another shot at a comeback after the less-than-stellar Double Dragon IV in 2017. The last time we got a good game in the series was 2012’s Double Dragon Neon. In 2023, Secret Base wants to give us a worthy successor to Neon and put the franchise back in the beat ’em up conversation. Have they succeeded?
As mentioned in my Preview, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is an “alternate take” on the origin story of the Double Dragon brothers Jimmy and Billy. Your mission is to rid a nuclear-devastated New York of the gangs that have now overrun it. But this time around it won’t just be the two of you. Uncle Matin and Marian (yes…that Marian) are also at the ready to dole out the punishment alongside you.
Let’s go crazy!
Therein lies the first of the two pretty major shifts to the franchise – the combat. Anyone who played the original Double Dragon games will remember the slow, clunky, and punishing combat that didn’t allow for more commonplace tactics like cheesing and any form of decent crowd control options.
Rise of the Dragons looks to mostly change all that. While cheesing still isn’t really much of an option, crowd control is now a massive focus for this game. Both through the additions of special moves (most of which are very reminiscent of Streets of Rage moves) and tag team combat a la Marvel vs Capcom. All of this is powered by a new special meter which is fed by your performance in combat. You can’t tag in your partner or perform special moves until the meter allows it.
Crowd control tactics are also rewarded. Perform a move that takes out 3 or more enemies in one hit? You’re given a healing item as well as bonus money. The more enemies you can KO in a single go, the better the healing item and the amount of money dropped increases.
But how does the combat feel? Well…that’s an interesting question. As someone who has played most of the Double Dragon games of the past, it’s arguably the best-feeling iteration of the game. However, compared to it’s contemporaries it feels a little slow and clunky in most instances. Which I’m assuming was the developer trying to strike a balance between modernising the game, while not straying too far from the feel of the original games. To make matters worse, there are some fairly baffling control scheme decisions at play here which make the game more cumbersome to play than it needed to be. I understand why some developers want to do things their own way, but sometimes control scheme conventions stay consistent for a reason. Functions that would be muscle memory for most – double tap to run, your punch/attack button also being your item pick up, walking up to enemies to grab them, all these things are now assigned to their own button and to this point in time I can’t work out the benefit. Generally, when a game breaks with control scheme conventions, there’s a reason for it. Like introducing a new fun mechanic that requires some adjustment but is so enjoyable you eventually get used to it. Not here. No matter how long I played the game, I kept finding myself trying to double tap to run, or pressing attack to pick items up. All it meant, was that I rarely ever used combat options available to me like grab, because having all these options on dedicated buttons simply made the combat more convoluted than it needed to be. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It actually makes the game fairly difficult compared to other scrolling beat ’em-ups. To the point where I needed to make use of the various accessibility options to make the game a bit easier to make it through. Even then it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, even for someone with a little more experience with these types of games. When combined with some pretty difficult boss battles, some may find the whole thing a touch frustrating.
Some of this is alleviated depending on the character you choose to play as and the game does a fantastic job of making all the characters feel very different to each other, more so than any other game I’ve played in the genre. As an example Jimmy and Billy feel genuinely different from each other, one is faster, the other is stronger, one can juggle enemies while the other has better crowd control special moves. This really encourages you to try and unlock more characters to get a feel for who you like for future runs.
Future runs you ask? Well…
This leads us to the second shift in the franchise…the rogue-lite elements. While most will groan at the idea of rogue-lite elements in a scrolling beat ’em up, it actually fits pretty well here and if you think about the history of the genre and how these games are generally structured, I’m surprised it’s actually not more common. While Rise of the Dragons isn’t the first to do it, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first time a “big name” franchise has implemented such elements.
It’s all set up in a way that keeps each playthrough different depending on your choices. You choose the order of your missions and your choices affect the length and difficulty of the subsequent missions. This can help break the monotony of multiple playthroughs which tends to be an issue for the genre. As mentioned earlier, money is everywhere and it can be used to buy temporary end mission upgrades (which last for your run and many are stackable) or you can choose to save some of your money (or all of it) to revive dead players to further your run. But be aware, as you pay to revive a player, it becomes more expensive going forward. It’s a neat mechanic that adds a little more tension to the game, forcing you to be more careful and measured in how you play it.
You can also buy and unlock tokens which can be used to unlock characters (there are 13 in total), art, music, gameplay modifiers, and “tips” which are basically instructions or tips on how best to play the game.
While the game isn’t very long – it can technically be “beaten” in about 2 hours, in true rogue-light fashion, there are multiple endings, some with their own story twist.
How Retro do you go?
Visually I wasn’t sure how I felt about the game. Again, it felt like Modus was trying to strike a balance between modernising the look while not straying too far from the look of the original games. While I have no issue with pixel art being used in the genre, the pixel art here felt a little too simplistic for my taste? They strayed a little too far towards “NES” territory for my liking in terms of pixel detail. Having said that, the animation quality is surprisingly high given the simplicity of the pixel art.
The environments are bright, colourful, and quite interactive. They want you to try and break everything you can see in order to get as much money as possible to get upgrades or revive yourself if you die. There’s some really nice variety in the missions with unique little touches accompanying each. As an example, the junkyard pyramid has sequences where you’re essentially fighting “in the dark” while your character is visible only under a spotlight so you need to stay on the move to try and get your enemies visible within your light. Again, it keeps things a little fresher and helps alleviate the repetitiveness these games can tend to suffer from.
The music and general audio are great. The remixes of classic tunes are well done and respectfully recreate the nostalgic vibes of the originals. The combat audio is punchy and really adds some impact to each hit and blends really well with the slower combat style of the game.
Overall I’d argue this is probably the best Double Dragon game yet. It does just enough to modernise the franchise without straying from the path well traveled and alienating fans of the franchise. Which is a particularly tough task given the age of the series and the seemingly directionless path it has taken over the journey. The omission of online co-op is a bummer, but given the state of online co-op in scrolling beat ’em ups, I feel like this complaint loses more and more steam with every game that doesn’t include it. I feel like Rise of Dragons lays a pretty good foundation should they choose to continue making more games going forward. If the next game can tighten and speed up the combat and go back to a more conventional control scheme it could be something truly great.
Review | Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Xbox Series X
- Unique take on the genre
- Fantastic audio
- Characters feel genuinely different to play as
- Combat feels slower and heavier than expected
- Unintuitive control scheme