Saints Row is the Fast and The Furious franchise of video games. It started as a somewhat grounded response to the success and popularity of Grand Theft Auto, but once it began to embrace the pieces of itself that made it into a strange, goofy sandbox more than a crime-driven open-world game, it devolved into a glorious madcap action romp doubling as both a violent fever dream and a ridiculously goofy experience.
It’s the weirdness of Saints Row that divorces it from conventional game ideas and really causes it to stand out above all other open world games. The world of Steelport is one where zombies exist, where lovable criminals make the White House into a 24-hour party zone, aliens invade, Keith David is vice president, and Haddaway’s “What is Love” can share a soundtrack library with Kanye West’s “Power.”
It’s nearly every permutation of weird wrapped in one. And it works.
With another chapter in the series undoubtedly on the horizon, it’s worth taking a look at what has worked in past games, and what could be improved to take Saints Row V to its next bizarre level.
Crank Up the Crazy
Saints Row: The Third is where developer Volition took the franchise out of accused “GTA clone” territory and really gave the franchise room to grow into a twisted power fantasy.
In Saints Row IV, the brakes were ripped out, a brick dropped on the gas pedal, and the franchise was sent rolling down a steep hill to crash into a gloriously over-the-top, self-aware and self-referential sea of absurdity.
Saints Row V will have to upstage an already impressive act, but enough groundwork has already been laid to provide opportunities for it.
The introduction of alien technology, super powers, and time travel in IV practically grants creators the freedom to do anything and go anywhere with the Third Street Saints. Fighting dinosaurs in prehistoric times, revisiting the idyllic 1950s again, meeting up with Winston Churchill, even becoming a street gang in Victorian London.
The biggest hurdle Saints Row faces is how to better marry its old mechanics with the new. The introduction of powers in IV added a swath of combat and transportation options into the game, but it also made more controversial modes such as cars, regular guns, and customization practically disposable. Granted, the powers were only a function of a simulation in which our heroes were trapped, but going from climbing buildings and racing around the world in a superpowered sprint makes driving feel like an anti-climactic devolution.
Like any half-baked morning DJ says, it’s time to “turn it up and rip the knob off” on Saints Row’s ever-increasing craziness. But this time, a dash of cohesion between its mechanics and some new ideas to take it to crazy new heights can only help build the brand.
Improve or Cut Down the Side Content
One of Saints Row IV’s biggest flaws is its embrace of the tired filler tropes present in open world games today. Sure, there’s a main story and the occasional side quest with narrative purpose, but a majority of the additional content in Saints Row’s world is a lot of tedious filler. It’s on-foot races, goofy ragdoll minigame, tower climbing, collectible hunting, and outpost liberating. Wash, rinse, repeat, over and over again until the player finally tires of it.
These may be great ways to hone mechanical skill, but they begin to distance the game from the elements that make them so unique.
The series might be better suited with a massive culling of the traditional open world elements and a bit more content based on side quests with more narrative importance. IV handled this with great side loyalty missions taking us back in time, exploring fan fiction, and even changing the entire game into a sidescrolling beat ‘em up at one point. With its brand of craziness, there’s no reason why some of the filler content couldn’t be cut to make room for more memorable experiences.
Let the Characters Breathe
The Third Street Saints are a very different breed of gang. They’re not hardened, brooding criminals so much as mischievous troublemakers who aren’t afraid to bust a few heads to achieve their goals. They’re a lovable group of misfits with wildly varying backgrounds who manage to find common ground.
Some of the best character moments occur when The Boss is nearby or interacting with various members of the crew. Everything from goofy romance options and bickering to laughable moments singing in cars suggests a lot about the nature of the relationships between numbers of the Saints.
These games also have a wonderfully diverse cast, and showing more of the interactions between each of them allows us to feel like part of something bigger. Sure, these games are meant to be a wacky power fantasy above all else, but it never hurts to make your large cast of characters more lovable and relatable.
That aforementioned diverse cast includes a number of great female characters; ones who are flawed, have disagreements while supporting one another, and freely make choices and exercise their own power. Plus, they are every bit as dynamic and important to the events in-game as their male counterparts, and there’s rarely a case where gender plays any sort of issue within the group.
The strengths of the women in the main story, however, are somewhat negated by the use of women in other aspects of both Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV. Sex workers are frequently treated like cannon fodder, lifeless AI characters meant to be mowed down en masse. When they’re not the subject of extreme violence, they’re carted around like cargo in side missions during Saints Row: The Third. The violence enacted toward sex workers in real life today is egregious; the coupling of women’s bodies and violence as entertainment is as troubling as it is problematic.
Saints Row is a strangely egalitarian and semi-sex positive series taking goofy jabs at these ideas, but the overwhelming emphasis on background women NPCs as both decoration and meaningless bodies to be mowed down undermines its weirdly progressive themes.
Much of it is meant to be harmless satire, but satire is only effective when it deconstructs elements of media, not when it winks and nods shortly before jumping into the same pool. It’s another tie Saints Row shares with its early years of aping GTA’s ideas that could–and should–definitely be cut for the better.