Rebooting a franchise is never an easy ordeal. One of the positive metrics of a reboot is that whatever is getting rebooted had something worth sticking with but its also a glaring indication that something wasn’t right a hundred percent either. In the case of Saints Row, the hard dive into low brow juvenile potty humor to match up with its South Park-esque social commentary became so glaring and obvious that the game itself became a walking penis joke and fart machine. Now some may have loved that style of humor, but for many of us we checked out because despite a wonderful cast of characters and some insane things to throw into the open world genre, Saints Row never broke the mold for said genre and just continued to chug along at its own pace and did what it wanted to anyways. That’s part of the appeal of the series though and longtime fans appreciated the not so serious take in an open world crime game. If Grand Theft Auto was set to be the Goodfellas of video games, Saints Row was more at home being the resident South Park/Family Guy/Insert other show here that provided social commentary in the form of humor.
As an open world video game, Saints Row is not going to break any new ground whatsoever. It feels very much like a game made back in 2012 but with today’s powerful machines which gives the game this sort of double-edged take as a work representative of where the industry is currently at. Its Saints Row though, so anyone expecting this to achieve Breath of the Wild or Ghosts of Tsushima levels of a push forward will surely be mistaken in thinking this. It’s a very by the book entry into the genre that fills the map with markers for you to go do a variety of side missions and quests alongside the main campaign. If you focus solely on the campaign, you’ll find a standard 15–20 hour single player story that makes a ton of pop culture references not just in its dialogue but mission structure. You’ll immediately recognize plot points from Fast and the Furious movies. Breaking Bad, Ocean’s 11 and several other popular movies and shows that feature criminals as the protagonists. If you want to take in the entire world and fictional city of Santo Ileso you can expect a much meatier palate of 40+ hours of side quests and campaign combined.
Santo Ileso is an extremely vibrant world mimicking the deserts of Nevada and the shiny ventures of Las Vegas all in one. The streets of the populated areas team with city life as its denizens walk around and go about their daily lives, but there are also a lot of areas that are just devoid of life, keen on making you appreciate the beautiful vistas of the rocky canyons and desert as the sun sets in the distance. At other times it gets disgustingly obscured due to a sandstorm and others it may feel lonely and desolate as there isn’t an NPC for miles and very rarely are there cars anywhere. It may not be the most memorable sandbox to play in, but it checks all the boxes that the genre is known for by being a place that balances the quiet and the loud of everyday city hustle and bustle if you take the time out to appreciate it. I feel many will miss this point of the sandbox if they just focus solely on completing the campaign though.
Narratively Saints Row is also hit or miss. The game is extremely self-aware and self-deprecating with its dialogue and story. It delivers plenty of jokes and social commentary hitting topics like gentrification, sticking it to the authorities and the representation of minority culture in the world alongside LGBTQ+ representation. These points all get a few moments in the sun, however due to the reboot nature and its need to dial it down some and move away from the dildos everywhere nature of the previous games, a lot of these topics don’t get the due diligence they deserve. Jokes are cracked and then the topics become an afterthought to push the story ahead to it’s conclusion. I feel that this is a huge, missed opportunity for the franchise. If Saints Row really wanted to be the South Park of the industry, I felt they could have leaned into it a bit harder with the commentary made on the subjects they touch on ever so briefly. It’s like the writers wanted to hold the magnifying glass up and say their piece on the various subject matters but then the executives came in and told them to dial it down for fear of being, “too woke.” There are some incredible moments where it comes through, but they’re quickly resolved or just outright dropped altogether because it remembers its supposed to be a video game and they want it to sell to as many people as possible. There are some poignant moments that stood out to me. The anti-establishment tones are immediately felt during the game’s early missions. In said early mission when escaping the cops, you dive into your getaway car and KRS-One’s “Sound of Da’ Police,” pipes in on the radio. Anyone who is familiar with that song knows how politically charged it is, and the game weaves in and out of that territory with its narrative but never fully charges into it which for me as a person who loves when video games reflect modern times and speaks on related points of controversy that have been prevalent in our society and news today; it feels like a huge sour point and big missed opportunity as I’ve stated before.
This fear to not really push the envelope slips into a lot of the game’s other areas too. Rather than embrace the strides forward that we’ve made in open world gaming, Saints Row is perfectly fine to sit in the past school of open world design. This unfortunately makes the mission structure very repetitive and almost archaic to a fault. There are some shining moments, such as the character loyalty styled missions of your crew members wherein as an example one of them is a LARP-styled quest full of everyone wearing Mad Max styled carboard armor and shooting NPCs with a nerf gun and battling it out in junkyard forts with a Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. These moments keep the game from getting too stale thankfully. I just wish the entirety of the game’s story and missions were given the same care and treatment.
The other hiccups are on the technical side of things. Frequent pop-in, some audio and visual bugs and even a few mission-based bugs rear their head from time to time. There were a few moments I had to flat out restart my PS5 due to a game freeze or other glitches prior to the game’s Day 1 patch. Thankfully these were only experienced a small handful of times and didn’t ruin the full experience of the game. The soundtrack while driving is a definitive highlight with a lot of variety and carefully selected songs but for the most part it’s very by the numbers. I wish some of the songs played during the missions as some of the mission moments could be amplified with certain songs, but instead we get to duke it out with the rival gangs to the symphony of grunts and gunshots instead.
All around though, this Saints Row reboot is a decent time if you’re not expecting the moon. It’s a competent title that doesn’t push the envelope but still is a solid and serviceable reboot to what the franchise once stood for. The humor is still intact and there is a ton to do despite it all being varying degrees of the same mission structure so you’re never fully bored or without something to do. If you’re a fan or new to the series, it’s a good starting point to what will no doubt become another franchise. I say welcome back Saints, you were missed.