It’s been a pretty good time recently if you are a retro gaming fan on the PS4. There has been a ton of great content coming out, what with the excellent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, Cotton Fantasy with all its charm and a myriad of retro collection releases, including the Wonder Boy Collection. With this and more coming on the horizon, us older folks will have plenty to do in between our ibuprofen doses for the back and reflecting on those bygone days of the nineties, where the future was rain-soaked neon and not nearly as awful as what our version of the 20’s is turning out to be.
It’s a good place to be in, as we are not only getting the usual ton or so of the retro collections, but we are also getting honest efforts to bring retro gaming sensibilities back to online and digital stores. While I have bemoaned some of these attempts as being somewhat formulaic in the past, particularly in the platforming genre, Especially anything with ‘bit’ or ‘pixel’ in the title. There are some developers out there that are not only making a good effort, but they are also demonstrating that enforcement of limitations on games, as they were done in the old days is still a solid way to make games. Chief among these is a small team from Southampton, UK called Bitmap Bureau, who have been making waves in the retro scene with excellent titles like Xenocrisis and Battle Axe. Both games that were delivered on their crowdfunding promises and provided a slice of authenticity with their nostalgic approach.
Latest in Bitmap Bureau’s arsenal of retro delights comes Final Vendetta. A side-scrolling beat-em-up created in a similar mould to Capcom’s arcade classic, Final Fight. Much like the developer’s other efforts, this is an honest-to-goodness attempt to recreate the look, feel and sound, while offering their spin on things. To briefly summarise whether BB have been successful in doing so, I would say that it is a standard that has been achieved. However, there are some areas in which the classic rules are followed too stringently. By this, I mean that the game unapologetically emulates the retro arcade brawlers. So, this of course includes limited credits, no checkpointing and a short duration that has been extended by difficulty spikes that are designed specifically to rinse money credits out of unsuspecting arcade punters.
This creates a bit of a dichotomy in 2022, as the industry is getting older, the inconveniences of the past have mostly been removed in the name of accessibility. With the advent of save states, unlimited credit modes and online multiplayer offering ways for even the most inexperienced players a chance to see the ending. None of these things are bad in my humble opinion. Ultimately, we all want to see the end of a piece of media we have purchased, if only to enjoy the story. However, it is somewhat refreshing to see a game that utterly refuses the benefits of modernisation and forces players down a path where if they want to see those credits, they must earn it.
This sensibility of gating out the modern benefits goes so far in fact, that out of all the unlockable modes, from the ultra-hardcore difficulty to survival, is the training mode. It is dumbfounding in a way to have this locked behind something that for some will not be achievable without it. This feels like some sort of cruel joke, which I’ll admit is actually pretty funny. Nevertheless, it is a sign that BB are doubling down on that old-school mentality, where the real training mode is the game itself.
Onto the game then. As you have likely ascertained at this point, this is a side-scrolling beat-em-up that takes place in an alternative, post-apocalyptic London that is drenched in nineties referencing. I say post-apocalyptic, if anything, it is not too removed from reality if you have ever ventured there. The criminal gang Syndic8 have taken protagonist Claire’s sister hostage and is doing so to force Claire to do a job for them. As a result of this transgression, Claire, her ex-pro wrestler pal Miller, and boxing legend “Duke” Sancho take to the streets to save her sister. As you can imagine, there is little else to the setup other than the many thugs that get in your way for a good facial rearrangement by way of fist and various improvised melee weaponry.
If you have ever played Final Fight or Streets of Rage before, then you know exactly how this game plays. You have your standard attack four string combo on the square button, triangle is used for some heavier attacks, cross to jump and circle to block. There isn’t much to learn to get started. What does take time, is figuring out some of the button combinations and directions that can alter attacks for more potency that differ for each character. For example, with Miller, if you press down and Square while jumping then you change the typical wrestler flying kick into a satisfying elbow drop. Mash the circle and cross button together while grappling and you get an overhead backbreaker throw as opposed to the standard hold and punch combo etc. Learning these and when to use them is the trick to survival on the streets of Final Vendetta, as you need every trick in your arsenal to get through this one.
Even when you do however, it can often feel like it is not enough. The enemies in Final Vendetta are relentless, with some having minimal attack windups or wake up attacks that take a lot of getting used to. While these foes do not need to take much punishment to put down, some can completely throw the player off balance just with a simple light punch that puts the character into a stun position as other enemies can take advantage of this and simply chip the player to death. The player can counter these surround moments with the special attack. However, like Streets of Rage 2, if the special meter is not full then these attacks take away some of the player’s energy to perform and with health pickups being few and far between, this becomes a serious test of resource management.
Couple this character aggression with the beat-em-up genre’s trademark stage obstacles and you have a recipe for frustration. Some stages feature barrels that are flung at the player with no warning given, meaning that if you find yourself at the right of the screen when they trigger, then you take unforeseen damage that can end a run. The more telegraphed obstacles, like the dropping containers and swinging hooks of the dockyard level are not much better. With only a warning triangle flashing in the middle of the screen warning you of the incoming hit, but with no indication as to what you need to do. Contrast this to Streets of Rage 4’s train level where you get a “JUMP!” prompt and it’s easy to see why Final Vendetta’s approach is harder to appreciate.
The cherry on top of this is the lives system. As stated before, this is unapologetically retro. Meaning that you play Final Vendetta as if you are on limited pocket money in the local arcade. Easy mode simulating the richer kids, hard mode representing the youngest of multiple siblings that must make do with what they can get. If at any point you lose all these lives, you go back to the beginning of the game. No continues, no rewinds, just start again. This is fine to a degree, especially if you have played games from the era that this game pays tribute to. However, the old school feeling of trial and error comes back as a result, which isn’t nearly as fun as people make it out to be. With some of the game ending hazards coming later in the title, you can imagine that despite your best efforts to memorise everything, some of these will still get you. That is until you have played it enough to be burned into the brain.
So, gameplay wise, it’s a tough one. Not a deal breaker, but some of those modern conveniences would have been appreciated. Even if the training mode unlocked after a few rounds of failure or something. Of course, if you do conquer the game on its terms, then that does have a rewarding feeling, particularly considering the latter bosses which ignore all brawler etiquette when it comes to attack cooldowns. My issue though is that trial and error feeling, victory feels more like remembering an enemy/ obstacle pattern than overcoming and styling on pixelised thugs.
What really sings in Final Vendetta for me, is the overall presentation, including the excellent soundtrack. The pixelated visuals are reminiscent of the finer works from the 16-Bit era, combining those XL sprites from Final Fight with the animation quality of Streets of Rage beautifully. Mashing skulls through the derelict streets of London has looks great as a result. Even better is the music, which was produced in no small part by the UK Electronic music duo, the Utah Saints. This is a welcome addition, with the approach being like that of Yuzo Koshiro’s work for Streets of Rage where the team would investigate the club scenes of the nineties to create that landmark, chiptune soundscape. There are few finer examples of more qualified musicians to put this sound together and they do a fantastic job of emulating their prior work, with what also sounds like nods to the games that inspired Final Vendetta. The first track, sounding like a remix to the classic ‘Go Straight” from Streets of Rage 2. Even if Final Vendetta seems like too much of a challenge at times, the soundtrack is worth seeking out for that blast of nineties electro nostalgia, it’s that good.
There’s been a lot of choice of beat-em-ups recently, but out of the reimagining’s, retro releases and direct sequels to classics, Final Vendetta holds its own thanks to being a new IP that genuinely captures that retro look, sound and feel beautifully. The only real issue within is that it is far less friendly than most of the recent examples of the genre. If you like a challenge, consider Streets of Rage 4 or TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge to be too easy, then this is the game you should try next, it will likely provide the challenge you crave. For anyone else, this is slightly harder to recommend as the trial-and-error loop can be frustrating, especially if not played In small bursts.
+ Superb soundtrack, courtesy of the Utah Saints
+ Captures the movement and feel of Final Fight well
- Frustrating obstacles that create a trial and error atmosphere
- Training mode being locked behind an arcade mode clear is downright odd yet humorous at the same time.