Welcome to Santo Illeso, a colorful and vibrant city filled with chaos, but hiding beneath the beautiful colors is a harsh and fairly rusty desert. Besides being the setting for the new Saints Row, it’s a good metaphor for what you can expect from the franchise reboot, available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Google Stadia.
Released by Volition and Deep Silver, Saints Row is like a rather sweet candy: attractive at first, but if you eat too much it’s bound to make you sick – which is a bad sign for an open-world game whose main purpose is to entertain for a handful of hours on end. But let’s go in parts, and it all starts in the Boss Factory, the game’s very neat customization system.
Be your own Boss
Since the game’s announcement in August 2021, all the promotional materials have made a point of putting the spotlight on customization. Now, after playing for hours and hours, I can say that this is what it is all about.
Customizing your “Boss” is the first step before playing in the chaotic city of Santo Illeso, and with that said, how about creating a character as unique as the vibrant setting? For me, it made all the difference. I started the campaign two different times: the first time with one of the visuals preset by the developer, and the other time using all the available customization features. For the purposes of gameplay and technical interaction with the environments and NPCs, the dynamics are the same. However, when it comes to character identification, seeing your own creation progressing in the game is quite special.
The possibilities are so many that it is no exaggeration to say that it is possible to spend hours playing just this, in order to transform your character into anything close to the human form that your mind can imagine. I, for example, made a point of testing all the bizarre skin options to turn my Boss into an Oscar statuette with a nice classic 80s mustache.
Among the various options, it is possible to get naked, add veins everywhere, touch every detail from the little finger to the last hair, and, above all, use the most different prostheses in different parts of the body, one of the coolest inclusions of the reboot. It is also important to mention that the Boss has no predefined gender, i.e., none of the choices described above are exclusive to a male or female character — a binary situation that many games of the style propose.
While the wackiness is very welcome for my style of play, it is natural that weirdness in cutscenes happens. After all, while all the NPC’s are very stylish, none are a mustachioed Oscar statuette. It’s amazing that the new Saints Row allows for countless combinations in character creation, but be aware that the game may not keep up with your craziness on certain occasions and you put yourself in a “stranger out of the nest” scenario. If this is going to take you out of the proposed immersion in some of the more dramatic missions, consider reconsidering.
Did you think such customizations were only for your character? Not at all. The fun extends to the cars, weapons, and environments you own. Want to play with a car filled with neon and gamer seats? I don’t see why not. A soccer ball that is actually a grenade? You have that too. Best of all, all changes can be accessed via the Boss’s cell phone or in stores and workshops populated throughout the city, making all changes easy and without the need for you to traverse the map to get to the Saints’ HQ — which can also be customized, by the way.
The chaotic Santo Illeso
After creating your Boss, it is time to enter Santo Illeso, a magical and vibrant universe with the smell of impunity in the air. The place is divided into districts and each district is dominated by one of the three Saints Row gangs — which we will detail later in this text. The city is clearly inspired by the cities of the southwestern United States, especially Las Vegas and New Mexico, and even has several buildings similar to the capital of Nevada. The famous Stratosphere Las Vegas hotel, one of the postcards of the city, is present in Santo Illeso, as well as the graffiti and references to Mexican soap operas — not to mention the many streets and stores with names in Spanish.
Even with such inspirations, one thing needs to be said: the city is not the glamour that Vegas promises, but it is just as anarchic. Whether you’re there or not, the city vibrates and unfolds in the most random ways possible — a fact that marries perfectly with the proposition of the Saints Row franchise.
While Santo Illeso is deeply entertaining to the eye and seems to be an open world of opportunity, unfortunately this is not quite the case and it proved to be a city that is fairly limited in one obvious thing: interaction. Just like Vegas, it is made up largely of giant casinos and monuments, which are eye-catching at first, but remain so, after all, you can’t enter most of them during the open world period. In other words, almost the entire city looks like a huge scale model. Beautiful, luxurious, but with nothing inside, forcing the fun to be based only on the surface. In a style of game where the environment is a fundamental part of immersion, Saints Row and Santo Illeso left something to be desired once you get inside.
Neon, muscles, and guns
Beyond the city itself, it’s important to highlight the traits of the three main types of “enemies” you’ll encounter. Let’s start with my favorite gang: the Idols. They are a crazy mix of young people who do not believe in any kind of capitalist hierarchy — although their words do not match their attitudes very well. Anyway, the battles against such a group are the funniest, since the members are by far the weirdest. It is normal, for example, for them to start taking selfies between one shot and another, or even trance dance out of nowhere on certain occasions. A great mix of rave and cyberpunk? Maybe that’s a good definition.
In contrast to the Idols, the gang called Los Panteros is the closest thing to Vin Diesel and company you will find in Saints Row. Sticky orange outfits, bulging muscles, and tuned cars are just the beginning. On the other hand, the Marshals, the last of the three groups, are a large military force based on technology. Between you and me, it is the least creative of them, and both the personality and the look are pretty generic.
Even though the creation of each gang’s persona is nice, it is very true that their progression does not move at full speed. Most of the enemies you encounter at the beginning of the game will be the same as at the end, which brings us to another topic…
Missions, shooting, and more missions and shooting
Okay, now you know about the brilliant customization system, Santo Illeso, and also the gangs. Now what? You set out to dominate the city and participate in dozens of amazing quests – such as a secondary quest where you participate in an RPG with Nerfs.
The problem lies precisely there. Although the game presents several funny missions with unique propositions, like the one mentioned above, they are like a nice package of a repeated gift. And even if it doesn’t bother you at first, it can be boring in a second. After all, no matter how nice the gift is, it is not exactly stimulating to receive it several times.
In the end, regardless of the mission, almost always your objective will be to exchange shots with some gang, execute commands to finish off some enemy and recover life, and, probably, lead some car chase.Such simplicity has even generated a certain problem in relation to the various perks that the character has, after all, why make an effort to use smoke bombs and fire punches if I can just use grenades and finish everything? In Saints Row, you create your own fun ceiling and decide how you want to deal with the masses of incoming enemies, but it’s not as if the game forces you to adapt, innovate, rethink your strategies. In the end, everything ends up in a conventional exchange of shots and more shots.
Apart from the originality factor in the mission mechanics and simplicity beyond belief when it comes to let’s see, it must be said that in small doses the action moments really entertain. In this game, you have to be able to use a single button to do drifts in the car and motorcycle chases, which provide chilling scenes. Remember Burnout? There’s a lot of it here. Blow up some cars and have fun.
Saints Row in the old generation
Without mincing words, the game looks like an 8th generation game, not a triple AAA for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S.
Both in details of the scenery and the characters, the graphics are not as polished as they could be. The same goes for the movement of the characters, especially in the miraculous fight scenes where everything becomes slightly robotic. Moments of the protagonist sliding on the ground to perform a blow or of too many artificial explosions are not few, as well as the already classic invisible walls of sandbox games. Everything seems to lack a slight refinement. The problem here is not the cartoonish aesthetics, but the execution of such.
Another pillar of the game, which is the shooting, could also be better in one fundamental aspect: the aim, which is not smart at all. Instead of the locked aim being an enabler, it will often give you a headache, and switching from one enemy to another is slightly dysfunctional. You might imagine, “great, I took a headshot, I’m going to the next head…” However, the game doesn’t think so, and will lock its aim on a random location on the body of the next enemy, forcing you to release the trigger of the controller and once again redirect the aim. These are details, but in extended play they can begin to undermine the experience and make it tiresome.
Like the major franchise reboot that it is, Saints Row connects several of the franchise’s previous games’ tonics, but also softens and alters tropes characteristic of its predecessors. It is not as dark and dramatically violent as the second in the series, just as it is not as blunt and acidic as the third. The new game seeks something new — and does not hide certain inspirations for it.
Within the vibrant environment of Santo Illeso, you’ll find clear references to Fortnite, Burnout, and even Back to the Future — yes, there are hooverboards! Everything is cartoony and pulled towards fun at the expense of blood and violence, something that may seem odd in a game about gangs and turf battles, but it works well.
Even if the change in tone is new and an interesting refresher for the franchise itself, it is true that it is not the exponent of originality. For many moments you will feel like you are playing a strangely familiar game, an old friend you haven’t seen in a few years, but one that has evolved using the best and worst of several other games that have existed along the way. A great pot-pourri of memories. Whether it will encourage you to learn the nuances of Santo Illeso or consider that you already know it from past lives, you will only find out by playing.
- Super full and inclusive customization
- Good action and chase scenes
- Santo Illeso visuals
- Repetitive missions
- Not very functional shooting mechanics
- Generic story
- Limited open-world interaction options
One thing I can say. At first, I admired the game’s courage in distancing itself from what made the franchise most famous: the outrageous nonsense that only flying dildos lined with machine gun bullets can achieve. In the end, however, I missed that craziness. In going for something new, Saints Row hit the nail on the head with a sandbox that looks super shiny and innovative on the outside, but in the end has over-pasteurized traits of many other games we’ve played. Don’t get the wrong idea. The game is fun and can give you great hours of fun, but will hardly surprise you successively to the point of becoming an inviting open world to search.
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