Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Release date: 27 July 2023
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons makes a strong first impression. The side-scrolling beat-’em-up revival initially seems like it might have it all: the art style is detailed but pleasingly retro and, much like a dragon, combat burns hot. Your first attempt to save the city is exhilarating.- I say attempts, plural, because Double Dragon Gaiden is a roguelike, sorta, and tumbling back to the main menu is a big part of it.
However, this euphoria doesn’t last. The roguelike structure and the ability to unlock new characters hint at longevity, but really each additional character just builds on the initial four. Once I’d successfully taken out the four gangs terrorising the city and the shadowy figure that acts as the game’s final boss, I felt the compulsion to play more Double Dragon Gaiden bleed out of me. I don’t feel bad though, I had a blast anyway.
Most of this is down to the simple but effective combat style. You tap the attack button to string a combo together and occasionally punctuate this by pushing a direction and the special move button to unleash a few different specials.
Enter the Dragons
The four initial characters (the titular Dragons Billy Lee, Jimmy Lee, Marian and Uncle Matin) all feel distinctly different, and the other characters you can unlock are several boss characters and elites from the game that each bring their own flavour to the mix. That said, for me, one fighter stood out from the pack. Marian, a police officer trying to help cleaning up the city with the help of her gun and several other heavy weapons. Marian is a ranged character primarily, and her combos involve unloading a gun into the enemy, while her specials involve mines, rocket launchers and other militarised hardware.
However to counter this, Marian can’t pick up dropped enemy weapons and her throw button is replaced with a dodge-roll that has her coming up with a powerful baton swing. As she rolls across the floor, she’ll pick up food or other consumables, making her surprisingly powerful when the game tosses a screenful of enemies at you.
After powering up Marian’s rocket launcher special, I managed to launch it at some bunched-up enemies resulting in an explosion of coins and gems, all before the announcer shouted “well done” and a hotdog dropped from the sky. Bliss.
This difficulty grows organically. The game is structured so that you can tackle each of the city’s four gangs in any order you want, with the surviving gangs getting stronger with each criminal empire that you topple. By the end of each run on the normal difficulty level, you’ll be fighting an entire screen of wall-to-wall bad guys.
This means characters like Marian are incredibly strong, their mobility giving them a strong sense of survivability. On the flipside, characters like Matin are strong and slow which is fun because you can pick enemies up and throw them into low-orbit, but he’s too sluggish to use effectively as you get assailed on all sides.
Your mileage might vary here depending on how skilled you are, but as an idiot with a controller, I found it better to move fast and hit hard and stuck with Marian and Billy Lee. This duo gave me the tools to handle most problems.
Yes, you’ll be controlling two fights most of the time like it’s some sort of WWE wrestling match or, for gamers of a certain age, it’s basically Mario Kart: Double Dash, except instead of Baby Park you get cold blooded vigilante murder.
Dragon on a bit
Your special bar can be used to tag in your partner, which you can use to interrupt an enemy combo or to mix up move sets to keep a combo going, or because your current fighter needs some time to heal up. Your new fighter rockets in from off screen, but your current fighter doesn’t immediately vanish, and there can be a moment when you are both performing special moves or, worse, the character you were just controlling has been bounced into the air and is being juggled as you desperately try to turn the tide with your incoming challenger.
This is the best part of the game, and something that pairs nicely with the character upgrades you can buy with your in-game cash at the end of each level. This can be something like your character giving your co-op partner a full heal and a damage boost when you die, or a flat damage boost to your basic attacks or a special ability. These often feel bespoke, but they’re quite simple really, a little extra flair to make your runs feel unique.
The level design is always interesting and has some aesthetic quirks that make it feel unique. The criminal empires found within Double Dragon Gaiden basically flicked through the big book of bad guy stereotypes and found a page they vibed with, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well done and vibrant throughout.
Honestly, can’t think of any more dragon puns
There are some issues, of course. The game’s floor hazards are often frustrating as are the platforming sections that involve you climbing a scrap pyramid or leaping across some grassy cliffs as rocks tumble to the floor. Both of these segments, and any other times when you are asked to navigate the environment rather than just scrap with people, actually kind of suck.
Also in the suck pile are the scorpions that attack you alongside one particular gang. These ne’er do wells can’t decide if they want to be Mad Max junklords or pyramid-inhabiting god-worshippers and have settled on a mix of the two. Yes, it’s cool to see a gang with a unique identity, but the heaps of scorpions? They can get into the bin.
Pair that off with the thumping soundtrack, and you can easily see why Double Dragon Gaiden’s introduction is like a kick to the head. Sadly, the title quickly loses its impact. You’ll enjoy the time you spend with Double Dragon Gaiden. It’s likely to be a game you’ll wind up remembering fondly, but it’s unlikely to be something into which you pour dozens of hours.
Not only is there no accessibility menu here, there’s not even a way to turn on subtitles – although it’s not really needed as the only voice I can recall is the announcer yelling enthusiastically as you batter people. If you have any specific access requirements, they probably won’t be met here.
How we reviewed
I rolled the credits on Double Dragon Gaiden a few times over 10 hours with the game and played it on PC with a combination of playing on the keyboard and the Xbox Elite Controller Gen 2. I’d use a controller given the choice. I played in single player, and a little bit in co-op and also tried out the Nintendo Switch version, which was fluid and responsive without slowdown too.
We’ve compiled the 10 best beat ’em ups on PC if you’re looking to take your combat skills to the next level, but if you’re looking for something more retro, why not check out our list of the best GBA games?
This post originally appeared on TechToday.