Saints Row — Being Your Best Self
Saints Row has long been an unexpected joy in my life. From the moment I saw the President of the United States launch into the air and fly over a brightly lit cityscape to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” I was sold. I moved all around the Saints Row timeline, from 4, to 2, up to 3, appreciating the hijinks the Third Street Saints would get up to in the name of Crime and Puckish Roguishness, whether grounded in pseudo-reality or blasting past anything resembling it. So even with a return to something mostly as grounded as 2022’s re-quel/se-boot Saints Row (noted as Saints Row ’22 moving forward), I knew what to expect: puckish rogues, crime, open worlds, and violence. Now, whether it be old age or a refocused worldview, this iteration of the Saints feels more centered and focused. In its world, gameplay, characters, and tone, everything feels tighter, all without sacrificing anything that makes the experience a Saints experience.
Just Do You
Maybe this is coming right off of Elden Ring and feeling the crunch of late-game railroading, but damn it’s nice to be burdened with options and openness. Santo Ileso is a truly open world, blown wide from the time you finish the tutorial levels. More and more tasks and side missions open up as players complete early-game missions, and rarely is there wanting for “something to do.” Complete little side missions for fun? No problem. Go to a store you haven’t visited yet? Got those in spades. Gig economy contract killing? Morals are for losers, and everyone likes money. Criminal enterprises? Take your pick. Just gliding through the city? Find an elevator and jump. Nothing is stopping you from just doing you. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, burn through the story at breakneck speed, or lick every square inch of the desert before even touching a set mission.
More, Saints Row ’22 wants you to have your experience your way: five different difficulty levels, and enough accessibility options to send an angry Baby Boomer into orbit. From the sensitivity of Fine Aim, Auto-Lock On, the strength of aim-snapping (even locking onto enemies you can’t see), quicktime event assistance (even for as few QTEs as there are), toggle options to press instead of hold, and plenty more. Saints Row ’22 breaks down the door and tries to make this open-world, purple-tinted explosion of a city as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Just another step in the right direction for people to have the kind of adventure and experience they want, even as the story remains the same for everyone.
Just Be You
The Saints Row series has always leaned heavy into their character customization options, but Saints Row ’22 is the current apex of the feature, not just in the Saints Row series, but in gaming that I’ve seen so far. First, it gives players multiple chances to find their “Boss” (the player-controlled character) and their vibe. At the start, you’re mostly just finagling the body-type, physical appearance, voice, and mannerisms. So, like, clothes notwithstanding, how does your Boss look? But it elevates the concept out of the gate with its customization. Everything from classic hairstyle, makeup options, and skin color to variations of vitiligo, prosthetic options, facial hair, scarring, and muscle definition.
I think it hit me once I started playing around with the Body options more fully. There is no gender selection as there is in other character creators, and as there has been in previous Saints Row games. Players aren’t locked out of certain options, like bust size or groin size, based on a selection on the gender binary, because there is no binary. There’s just the Boss, however you want them to look.
So, you figure that out. You watch the intro cutscene, play the tutorial level, and then dropped into customization again. Now, you can adjust bits and bobs of your physical appearance (since you’ve tried it out for a while) and adjust general clothing. By introducing those creation elements piecemeal, it actually makes the whole process that much more appealing in the long-term.
And after that, there’s a section of your phone just for character customization. You can change it all at any non-combat time in the game. Available clothing, accessories, tattoos, piercings, groin and bust size, voice, body type, everything is fair game. And mad props for doing away with the “Sex Appeal” phrasing of bust and groin size; it’s the little things, especially as an Ace player. No longer do players have to visit an Image as Designed plastic surgery store to make their Boss who they want. There are no mechanical perks or changes to the game based on any of those options, so Saints Row ’22 just opens up the floodgates and gives players free reign from the start.
Players have everything they need to make the Boss how they want, whether it’s something aspirational as a form of escapism, something outlandish to lean into the comical elements of Saints, or something authentic and true to you, be it how you look on the outside or the inside. This is a realization of Saints Row’s appeal to a wide variety of players and the apex of the character creation feature itself.
Just Feel You
At the end of the day, the Third Street Saints are a street gang. Damn near every one of their members make their living by doing and perpetuating criminal activity, are quick to violence, and appear emotionally removed from their actions, individually and collectively. But Saints Row does what every its predecessors have failed to do so far: it makes me feel for the characters. And make no mistake: I love the crews in the old Saints Row games. Pierce, Gat, Kinzie, and Shaundi will all be cherished characters from my time gaming, as entertaining as they were fun to be around. But they were super-heightened, caricatures more than anything. Static.
The main trio of Saints Row ’22 start out pre-connected as friends and roommates, just trying to make the best of a terrible situation: society, and surviving in it. Most of them are minor cogs in Santo Ileso’s myriad gangs and organizations, all capable of more than what they do. In time, they decide to bank on their skills and camaraderie in the face of their unsustainable lifestyle. They’re all just trying to do something they love: automotive work and repairs, socializing and connecting people, business operations, or generalized violence and roguishness. They are all waylaid by forces out of their control: a micromanager with inflated expectations, showing how at-will employment is easily abused in and by leadership; a faceless collective demanding loyalty in exchange for friendship; leaders who lash out at the slightest transgression or challenge. They are pushed to respective brinks and remade in their ensuing conflicts.
I can call that trio at any time throughout the game; they roll up in their car, ready to start gunning down rival gang members, go for a drive, or cause property damage at the drop of a hat. They are, without a doubt, violent, destructive individuals, but they’re each still kind. They care about each other, they care about their growing crew and organization, regularly showing concern for new recruits. They allow each other to feel things in the moment, and allow them to cope how they need to cope. They fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge and experiences. They support each other. They love each other unconditionally, and let one another know it in the ways that matter most: saying it to their face, rescuing them from explosive-primed structures, or getting revenge for the destruction of something they cherish.
Kev, Neenah, and Eli feel more like characters than their predecessors ever could. They are few enough to keep track of and truly fall in love with, unique enough to stand on their own, and complementary enough to feel like part of a cohesive team. They are unexpectedly heartfelt as a crew. Especially for a reboot, in truly showing players how the Third Street Saints properly started, this is what the crew needed to be, so we could set the foundation for how the crews in the future would come to be.
Forward and Onward
Saints Row IV ended in space, Earth destroyed, and time travel open for business. A clean slate was the next logical step for the series, but it’s so good to see that they didn’t just rest on what worked for the re-quel. Saints Row ’22 has given the Saints heart in its most expressive entry to date, all while maintaining its core identity, and making it accessible to the widest number of people possible, both through gameplay and character expression. It is a proper evolution based on the groundwork laid down in its previous titles, and just as fun throughout. Expressing yourself, in action and appearance, has rarely been as fun as it is here.
All images captured by writer.