I first got my hands on the 2.5D bike platformer Steel Rats all the way back in March 2018 at EGX Rezzed. Having played a few levels of the game I described it as a “true curio, mixing trials with Streets of Rage in a retro-futuristic setting” and that “I’m expecting big things when Steel Rats launches later this year”. Well, Steel Rats is here and it has delivered on some, but not all, of those big things.
Steel Rats is the story of a stereotypical biker gang that gets embroiled in an invasion of deadly junkbots in their fictional Gotham Art-Deco meets 1950’s retro-futuristic home, Coastal City. The Steel Rats aren’t usually the good guys but as you progress, you learn that the usual law enforcement and government agencies aren’t capable of dealing with the threat that the Junkbots pose, so the usually nefarious biker gang step up to do what’s necessary. The plot to the game takes some foreseeable but interesting turns – presented through cut scenes at the end of every chapter, radio broadcasts during play and through chatter between the gang members – which I won’t spoil here. Just know it’s a plot that escalates throughout, right up till the credits roll, keeping you interested by revealing just enough information to keep you wanting more.
The game itself is presented much like a metroidvania. Each of the games levels involves reaching an end point but getting to it will involve platforming, combat, back tracking and exploring all while on the back of a motorbike. One of the unique aspects of Steel Rats is the traversal. Throughout the game, there’s 2 lanes, one in the foreground and one in the background which can be navigated to with a push up or down on the thumb stick. Each lane has lane edges too which, if you hold up or down, will bring you to either periphery of the play area. It’s a fluid system that sticks you to the middle of the closest lane when you’re not navigating but allows you to bob and weave between lanes when you need too. Having these lanes means that levels are multi-tiered, being as vertical as they are horizontal as well having branching paths, taking you through different routes in the level. This is coupled with directional change which is mapped to a single button. At the start of each level, you’ll always be looking right with the R2 trigger button acting as the throttle to propel you forward, but a tap on the Circle button and you’ll turn around to look left, the speed of which is determined at how fast you’re travelling at the time. You can turn on a dime when still but when going full pelt, the turning circle is larger, owing to the physics of the game. This isn’t an instantly intuitive system, taking some time to get used to and will likely cause you to fall off high platforms and die early on in the game. Through experience though, this system starts to make a whole lot of sense. Tate Multimedia have built upon everything they learnt with Urban Trial Freestyle to really nail the feeling here.
The best aspect of Steel Rats though, are the bikes. Any decent biker gang needs meaty choppers to ride (and die?) on and this group of misfits are no different. The kicker is that each of the bikes have the front wheel replaced with a circular saw blade. Yes, you read that right. A Saw Blade. This is your main weapon during combat, as you press a button and the blade spins into action, causing damage to almost everything you drive into. This saw blade can chop up environmental blockers too, sawing cars, roadblocks, fallen trees and a load of other obstacles in two. The saw blade is also used during traversal. At times, one or both of the lanes in the levels are made of pipes. Ride into these pipes with your blade active and your bike with saw into them and drag you along their path doing straight up, down and even along the ceiling. This mechanic informs a lot of the level design too (more on that in a second). In Steel Rats, you can play as 4 different riders, changed on the fly with a held button press, all of which have their own special combat skills. These skills all relate to the personalities of the Steel Rat too, which I thought was a nice touch. The tech nerd has a flying bot which shoots out a bolt of electricity, the grizzled no-nonsense boss has a forceful (and incredibly useful) forward blast, the flamboyant stylish Rat has a glowing chain which locks junkbot’s in place and the fastest member leaves flames in her wake which do damage to anything that cross them. These are all joined by similar but even bigger attacks that use more power and do more damage. There’s a nuance to the combat in Steel Rats that, once you’ve got the hang of it, is beautiful. Juggling bots into the air using a special attack then jumping followed by a full spin parry (a double press on Circle) bats them out of the air. Finish this off by landing saw blade first into another enemy and you’ll feel like a real badass. Add on a flourish of hot lead from a collectable gun (which you can fire until they’re empty) and you’ll feel like Ghost Rider. The exception here is during boss battles at the end of each chapter which, despite how good you think you are, prove to be stiff competition.
Defeating junkbots and completing optional tasks and objectives during levels (like completing certain sections within a time limit or by defeating X number of junkbots) and you’ll be awarded with junk, the currency in the game. This can then be used to upgrade the skills of each of the Steel Rats, making their attacks more powerful or by giving them more health. That last aspect, the health, is all important because once all of your Steel Rats are out of health (the game lets you swap to any alive gang member once one gets KO’d) your run is over and you’ll have to restart the level again. It’s smart, tying the health bar to the Rats themselves because some more fragile members of the team are better at combat against some types of Junkbots (of which there are tonnes) so later in the game, you’re best weighing up your options rather than just going in all wheels blazing with whichever character you have at the time.
As for level design, Steel Rats does some interesting stuff. None of it is revolutionary, but because of the unique traversal, lanes and mode of transport, it feels rather fresh. Tate Multimedia have managed to squeeze a lot out of what is in essence just a horizontal and vertical 2 lane cut through a 3D world using lifts, obstacles, set pieces, slick platforming involving those aforementioned pipes and some mild visual puzzle solving. The issue here is the camera angle. Gravity is just as deadly as the junkbots in Steel Rats and if you fall a distance that the game judges to be too great, your health takes a hit and are respawned at the last checkpoint. Unfortunately, the camera angles aren’t always a help in this regard, feeling too tight to the action to be able to judge if a drop is large or just the correct way forward. This happens often and could have maybe been alleviated if there was a way to zoom out to take a look at the wider level structure. The other issue I had with Steel Rats in terms of design is that it throws some pretty complex platforming sections at you early in the game, without easing you in gently enough. The control scheme, as I mentioned, isn’t initially intuitive and there’s a set piece within the first chapter which requires intimate knowledge of the bike manoeuvring to overcome. It’s a terrifically tense set piece, don’t get wrong, but it felt like there should have been more player training on turning and lane changing quickly before that point.
Performance wise, Steel Rats runs smoothly. There’s the occasional frame rate drop when the screen gets really crowded or you end up steaming past a lot of enemies at high speed but they’re barely noticeable. Visually, it’s lovely too with retina pleasing effects during destruction and some lovely fire effects too.
Despite some initially awkward controls, a few difficulty spikes and some fool hardy camera angles, Steel Rats is a wheelie good time. An excellent art style, nuanced and enjoyable combat, testing platforming, metroidvania-esque level design, meaty audio and some unique traversal mechanics combine to make this game feel much bigger than the sum of its unoriginal parts. While it’s not going to win any Game of the Year awards, this is a game that’ll keep you highly entertained for a week or so.
Steel Rats is available now on PC, PS4 (reviewed on a base PS4) and Xbox One.
Developer: Tate Multimedia
Publisher: Tate Multimedia
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a code for the game from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.