Many works of crime fiction focus on the downside of a life lived outside the law — the betrayals, paranoia, and sacrifices that come with the expensive clothes, fast cars, and stacks of cash. Champaign-based video game developer Deep Silver Volition’s Saints Row (2022) chooses instead to explore just how cool such a lifestyle could be, depicting the anti-heroes as working-class Robin Hoods determined to walk their own path. The plot follows an unnamed young protagonist (referred to in-game as “Boss”) and their roommates Eli, Kevin, and Neenah struggling to make ends meet in the desert metropolis of Santo Ileso. The Boss has just started a job at a private military company, while Kevin and Neenah are loyal to two rival gangs, but these are treated as minor conflicts of interest akin to roommates working for different coffee chains. When their respective sources of income are threatened, the four band together to start a criminal empire known as the Saints. Think of it as The Social Network meets The Fast and the Furious with a little Breaking Bad thrown in for good measure.
Saints Row (2022) is a reboot of the Saints Row series that began back in 2006, with the first game also following an unnamed protagonist joining a gang called the Third Street Saints and rising through its ranks. Subsequent installments amped up the action to the eleventh degree, with the Saints evolving from a street gang to celebrities to a political party fighting an alien invasion with simulated superpowers. Saints Row (2022) dials things back considerably, as the Boss and their roommates are petty criminals who eventually form their own gang.
Like previous installments, Saints Row (2022) is the kind of game known as a wide-open sandbox, which gives the player free reign over a massive environment. You can advance the main story, participate in various activities on the side for rewards, or just wreak havoc to your heart’s content. As a fan of the more grounded Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, Saints Row (2022) met and exceeded my expectations — while it repeats the plot structure of previous installments by putting the Boss and their allies at war with three enemy factions, the new cast, setting, and gameplay mechanics keep it from being too formulaic.
It is difficult to describe Saints Row (2022) without mentioning just how much fun it is — although it is not devoid of dramatic moments, it never takes itself too seriously and overall maintains a lighthearted tone throughout. It helps that the Boss and their roommates are such affable characters, cheerfully cooking brunch and binging telenovelas when they aren’t committing crimes together. Several delightfully silly story missions involve the four participating in a live-action role-playing game as post-apocalyptic medieval knights — duct tape armor, souped-up cars, and hammy Shakespearean acting abound.
The game retains some of the most entertaining activities from previous installments, including Insurance Fraud (throwing the Boss in front of cars and watching them bounce around the city) and Mayhem (causing chaos and destruction with powerful weapons). It also adds new ones like Wingsuit Saboteur (gliding between rooftops blowing up satellite dishes) and @tcha (leaving negative reviews of enemy-owned businesses to start fights).
Saints Row (2022) uses music to great effect, with radio stations that appeal to a wide variety of listening preferences. One particularly memorable scene is the player’s first drive through Santo Illeso, which is accompanied by A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” in a relaxing introduction to the sandy city. Honorable mention goes to the player’s first encounter with law enforcement, appropriately set to KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police.”
Like its predecessors, the greatest strength of Saints Row (2022) is the amount of customization it has to offer. The Boss starts off as a blank virtual canvas whose gender, race, and personality are entirely up to the player, and that’s not even getting into the clothes, tattoos, cars, and weapons available for purchase. One thoughtful addition even lets you fit the Boss with a sizable selection of prostheses. You can play through the game as a character who looks like yourself, your favorite actor, or a green-skinned alien, all of which are treated as valid choices. The phrase “be your own boss” is repeated multiple times over the course of the story, and it seems directed at the player as much as the characters. The game itself can be customized as well, with accessibility settings that allow players to adjust challenges to their individual needs. As a person with low vision, I appreciated the option to automatically track enemies while aiming a weapon at them. Whether one is new to the franchise or a longtime fan, Saints Row (2022) has a little something for every Boss.
Saints Row (2022) is available for online purchase from the Epic Games Store.