The streets are in chaos. There is a police officer beating a slum dweller. A red-shirted gangster has started an ill-advised stabbing match with three members of a rival blue gang. And an ape, recently escaped from captivity, is calmly watching it all, unable to speak the language of these terrible people. Amid such bedlam, what do you do as a player of Streets Of Rogue? You tell a joke. Your character is a comedian after all, it’ll make everyone happy.
“Make it stop!” they shout. “Get out of here!” they cry. “Ughhhh.”
Streets Of Rogue is a pixelly top-down roguelike set in a randomly generated city where the mayor has banned chicken nuggets and thus created a black market currency of processed McNugs. It is a ridiculous mini-immersive sim that plops you into slums and industrial hellzones with rando missions like “neutralise this drug dealer” or “press three buttons in this deathtrap maze ha ha”. Complete the missions, using the powers of your character and any items you find, and then take the elevator to the next floor. Because this city is actually a tower, built in multiple layers. “Like a lasagna,” says the boss of your resistance group. Your goal is to take down the corrupt mayor at the very top. After each death you can buy new traits and gadgets for your next attempt with the chicken nuggets you've earned. More importantly, you unlock new characters by doing certain tasks, like spending a lot of money or, say, killing a ghost.
It is very silly. The characters range from a thief with impostor syndrome to an investment banker who has to keep taking cocaine to stay alive. There are bartenders, cannibals, jocks, ninjas. There is a werewolf who can transform into his raging animal form and tear people apart (you use the mouse to aim and click swipes) but when his wolfy form wears off he becomes dizzy and unable to move for a few seconds, so you better have killed absolutely everyone by the time it wears off. Otherwise the people you’ve provoked will beat you to death as you recover.
Then it throws a bunch of items, character traits, and character allegiances into the mix. There are shrink rays, there is whiskey. There is a trait that makes you speedier. There are upset soldiers who don't like you. It all works together to make a soup of anarchy that’s probably not very nutritious but damn it tastes good. Here are some things which happened to me in my last two hours of playing.
Playing as a scientist, I have to steal a stash of documents in the storeroom of a shop. But I realise I have no way of opening the locked door. Helpfully, the scientist starts with a bunch of gadgets, so I whip out a leafblower and blast the shopkeeper through the wall of the storeroom, creating a hole large enough to dash through and grab the docs. The shopkeeper is rightly miffed, so I use a freeze ray gun to frost him in place. Unfortunately, a by-standing customer was caught in my earlier leafblower crossfire and is now attacking me. I have to freeze him too, before finally escaping with the documents.
As a comedian, things went differently. I was asked to “neutralise” a doctor, which normally just means “kill”. But this time, I use the comedian’s power to tell a joke. This makes the doctor like me. So I simply ask the good doctor to leave town (a little prompt tells you there’s a 70% chance they’ll say yes). He agrees, he must leave. “Thanks for the warning!” he shouts as he runs off to one side of the screen. And that was it. I spent the rest of the level telling jokes and convincing people I was funny enough to be given the keys to their store lockers and combination codes to all their safes. Some policemen, however, did not like my joke and became marked as “annoyed”.
As a gorilla, things are different again. The scientists peppered around the levels hate gorillas by default, and these white-coated bigots can be found in labs experimenting on your fellow apes. But if they see me, an ape, walk into their labs, the sciencefolk will attack on sight. So I do what any sensible ape would do. I put down a boombox outside, belting out a great tune, which makes all three scientists in a nearby lab leave their work to dance in the street. I sneak into their newly boffin-free building to save a captive ape friend from his cage, and he agrees to follow me.
There are lots of ways it could have gone. I could've busted in brute-force and used my ape-leap power to crush the science people, for example, or simply ignored the ape and got on with my other missions. That particular ape outing continues with me using more of the game’s varied items and tricks. At a hideout, I pump a vial of sulfuric acid into a building through the air conditioning unit, killing the criminals inside. Later, I strap a bomb to the door of another laboratory, knock politely, and then step back a few metres as one of the dirty science men answers it and erupts in an explosion of fire and gore. I rush in and take out a second scientist with a baseball bat, unlock the cage of another primate pal, and we all escape to the next level through the elevator. Nobody can stop us!
Except, in the next level, there’s a bounty on our head.
This is one of the big events that kicks in every few levels. There might be a riot, in which the city’s people are all walking about with aggression in their eyes, rather than their usual passive, neutral NPC selves. Or there might be radiation blasts every 20 seconds that splatter those caught without a protective ceiling.
Another one of these events is a storm that zaps everybody with a status effect every 10 seconds. One moment you’re dizzy, unable to move more than a few metres, the next you’re regenerating health. I once got granted invincibility in the middle of a panicked brawl with a cannibal because of this storm. By coincidence, the cannibal was also randomly given invincibility. So we were both just battering each other through walls and wrecking the city for a full ten seconds, like two superheroes having a fight and ruining all the shops downtown.
It’s a smashing game, in more than the property-destroying sense. You can play as a cop who can arrest people and confiscate their stuff, but also loses experience if you harm innocents or arrest people who haven’t wronged the law. And between levels you can update your character with a new trait, like allowing them to recruit more allies to their cause, or granting more XP for completing missions. I gave my cop “disturbing facial features”, which means enemies are more likely to simply run away in a fight.
But one of my favourite characters is the shapeshifter – a tiny naked dude who can leap into other people’s bodies while their back is turned. This basically allows you to play all characters, amping up the “playground” feeling to max. You might leap into the body of hacker, who can hack computers, and use him to hack a cloning machine, which will burp out a random character to become your ally. Burp. Out comes a cloned police officer. That’s bad, because policemen immediately attack the shapeshifter if they see him in his natural form (he is naked, after all).
There are too many of these tiny rules and interactions to list. Shopkeepers dislike thieves and always tell them to leave the shop. Bartenders can mix drinks from drug syringes and serve them to unsuspecting bouncers. There is a zombie that must infect the other citizens and take down the mayor as part of an undead outbreak. I once walked into a house and wondered why all the inhabitants started attacking my friend. It's because all the people in the house were in the red gang, and my friend was in the blue gang. My friend was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Whoops.
If there is a flaw, it’s that all of this happens within the confines of a top-down pixel city with straightforward clicking and inventory shuffling. The flavour text is not always as funny as the moment-to-moment wackiness of play. And it’s sometimes hard to do twitchy shooting when you’re being bashed halfway across the screen, struggling to track your character when a disagreement turns into a messy melee in the streets. But I’ll happily take a little messiness for the sheer variety of this city’s pandemonium. Streets of Rogue is a small and cheerful antidote to the relatively plain-faced immersive sims of the blockbuster sort. It's a daft miscellany of violent mobsters and unseen assassins, criss-crossing feuds and small mistakes that snowball into bloody knife fights. If you want a tiny, varied Deus Ex that will make you laugh, this is it.