I love brawlers. There’s nothing like marching down a city street with a friend or two and beating the hell out of baddies. Lately we’ve seen several new instant classics in this space, but one series has struggled. Double Dragon Gaiden is a new twist on one of the OGs, a genre hybrid engineered to help Billy and Jimmy stand out again. By leaning hard on roguelike-style mechanics, we have a game that looks familiar but plays with a very different vibe. While some ideas are as frustrating as they are unique, there’s a commendable effort at building a bridge between the classic and the contemporary.
Double Dragon Gaiden’s roguelike trappings are pretty standard. You pick upgrades between stages, earn a meta currency you can trade for unlocks and continues, and start over from the beginning if you lose. What isn’t standard is how the team at Secret Base shaped and molded brawler conventions to accommodate the roguelike stuff. The central idea powering it all is a meter you’ll be constantly managing in order to do just about anything.
Special moves use meter, as well as a tagging mechanic that lets you interrupt enemy attacks to instantly swap characters. Depending on the upgrades you come across in a run the meter can be altered in ways that significantly change your options. Charging speed and skill cost are two examples, with the former eventually letting you string together multiple skills for spectacular combos. Meanwhile if the meter is spent, all you have is your basic attacking and throwing, leaving you noticeably vulnerable.
The central idea powering it all is a meter you’ll be constantly managing in order to do just about anything.
The meter is paired with a novel gimmick called Crowd Control. If you take out at least three enemies in a short time window, you’ll earn bonus money and a healing item. In addition to looking delicious, the items change and grow stronger the more dudes you take down. The action even comes to a halt entirely to reward you, giving a hilarious gravity to one of the oldest, most mundane videogame tropes. Crowd Control is the best option for healing and money, which may as well come with a giant, Looney Tunes-style “Do This Often” sign.
What this does is, essentially, take a foundational aspect of brawlers and smash it, then rebuild it into a dramatically different shape. Positioning has been a crucial element in brawlers since the beginning, but now instead of simply avoiding damage you’ll be working to set up the most efficient meter use possible. And the game does everything it can to make that a huge pain in the ass. On purpose, of course, because roguelike.
It’s a vibe fans of Double Dragon and other old school brawlers wouldn’t expect, and it takes getting used to.
A huge part of the challenge is punishment. While most brawlers move fast and revel in chaos, Double Dragon Gaiden requires an uncanny care and patience. If you mess up you pay for it big time, especially in the game’s latter half. Many attacks have tons of whiff recovery, you can be stuffed out of most moves, and chaining skills together requires timing and again, positioning. Fumbling means taking damage, losing out on Crowd Control bonuses, wasting meter, and maybe costing the whole run.
It’s a vibe fans of Double Dragon and other old school brawlers wouldn’t expect, and it takes getting used to. What gets frustrating is how outclassed you are compared to many enemies throughout the game. They can dodge, they have longer reach, and some have super armor. Being outnumbered is to be expected, but in Gaiden you can get juggled to death even if you try to tag out. Upgrades aren’t literal game-changers like in other roguelikes, so no matter how much money you spend a run can fall to pieces because the game decided you can’t touch the ground.
Double Dragon Gaiden runs out of tricks very fast and leans hard on difficulty as the motivator.
To Gaiden’s credit, there are several methods of getting through the game even for players who aren’t sickos. There’s a modular difficulty system that lets you tweak a surprising number of variables, and you can spend two kinds of currency to retry if you die. One being the regular money you get from punching stuff, two being a resource you also use to unlock characters and goodies outside the game. If you aren’t a completionist or art gallery enthusiast, it’s an easy choice to make.
Even with the mechanical frustrations, I’d probably still have a pretty good time with this game if it weren’t for a bigger problem. Gaiden has four stages, and four bosses. Plus, as you can probably guess, some things that follow. The order you choose the stages changes a few things, such as how long the level is and how the bosses behave. Some of the boss variants have huge differences from the base versions, such as Machine Gun Willy getting a whole-ass helicopter. Wait, that sounds pretty rad, doesn’t it?
It feels rad at first, when you realize what’s going on in your first couple attempts. Then, if you don’t simply breeze through like a Pro Gamer, the vibes go sour. Even with the differences, there’s a tangible lack of variety and that doesn’t mix well with Gaiden’s slow pace. The levels only change so much, and the changes themselves are static. Picking Machine Gun Willy’s stage third (I love typing that name out) gets you the same “you picked Machine Gun Willy’s stage third” level every time. But it isn’t just the level designs.
Like I went over, the pace is slow. Having a Double Dragon challenge you like this is interesting and distinct, but when you factor in the upgrades, that novelty wears off. You can play as several characters, but their abilities don’t change. Just stats and math under the hood. And on the default settings, while Gaiden is hard that difficulty doesn’t really ramp up until the halfway point broadly speaking. So the gameplay doesn’t change much, it’s slow, the levels don’t change much either, and get pretty long.
Roguelikes work because there are so many variables in nearly every part of the game. New weapons or powers, and pools of things like bosses and rooms the games constantly rearrange. You can play The Binding of Isaac a hundred times and each run will be tremendously different. Double Dragon Gaiden runs out of tricks very fast, and leans hard on difficulty as the motivator. So much of my experience was sleepwalking through most of the game, then getting punted around like a hackey sack towards the end. Once I finally won, I was done. I had no reason to keep playing, even though the game clearly wanted me to.
Double Dragon Gaiden is an interesting game with a lot of creative ideas. We’ve seen roguelikes and brawlers mixed before, but not nearly as intricately. I could feel that spark of passion as I played. Unfortunately there are some key drawbacks that betray many of those neat ideas and really hamper the experience. From getting slapped out of defensive tags and juggled to death to subsequent runs feeling more and more like a grind, I had less fun the more I played. I love that Arc System Works has been producing cool, experimental games since snagging the Double Dragon and Kunio-kun/River City licenses. This one has a lot going for it, but stumbles toward the finish line.
Unique gameplay concepts that feel fresh and thoughtful
Lots of unlockable characters are full of cool newcomers and historical greats
Lack of variety/variables weigh down the good parts
Some of the combat mechanics feel unfair and unintuitive
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher and played on Nintendo Switch. Online multiplayer was not available during the review period.
Double Dragon Gaiden launches July 27, 2023 for PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.