Volition’s newest title in the Saints Row series has been out for a few days on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, PC and Google Stadia. Suffice it to say that the reception has been pretty mixed. Our review was positive while noting areas that it could improve, like enemy AI, visual quality and the side activities. And while there have been other positive reviews, the open world reboot has an overall score of 63 on Metacritic. Not exactly what one was expecting for the Saints’ big comeback (and their biggest adventure in nearly nine years).
The reviews caused stocks for the Embracer Group, the parent company for Deep Silver which publishes the game, to take a tumble. Which is not great, especially since it considers the reboot as one of its more important releases for the quarter. One could look at the reviews and believe that critics aren’t too high on the game – and truth be told, the number of mixed and negative reviews on Metacritic outweigh the positives, 42 to 18.
However, if you look at the reaction from gamers, whether it’s in the comments on videos or the limited user scores on Metacritic, you’d think this is one of the worst games ever made. So what gives? Why do some gamers hate Saints Row so much?
The amount of hate actually goes back to the reboot’s initial reveal and announcement. At the time, Saints Row garnered hate for a variety of reasons. These include a setting that opted for more realism, but still stretched credulity as the series usually does (just not as organically as a “real” Saints Row title would); a new cast of characters that didn’t resonate in the few minutes they were showcased; visual quality that wasn’t quite up to par; being a reboot in general; and of course, for being “woke.” Such was the backlash that the developer had to come out and say that it wasn’t backing down, even as it acknowledged the “knee jerk reaction” and how “no one has rebooted like this before.”
First off, it’s worth asking – why did Volition opt for a reboot? After the events of Saints Row 4 and Gat Out of Hell – not to mention Agents of Mayhem with its own universe – some people felt it was necessary to start with a clean slate. Furthermore, sticking with a more grounded approach made sense in many ways. There were complaints that Saints Row 4, despite being a blast, had jumped the shark by a massive degree. How does one even go back to the days of Stilwater after all of that?
But another angle to the discussion is just adapting to the times. Principal designer Damien Allen told GamesRadar, “It is a balancing act, between what’s old and what’s new, but at the end of the day we have to keep moving forward with the times. If we stay the exact same, then it’s not going to do well. We are creating a game that we love, and we are creating something that we think is Saints Row.
“And even if there are some older fans who are vehemently against it, I think there’s going to be so many players that will end up falling in love with it – whether they’re old fans, new fans, or just happen to stumble upon our game on one of the various stores that it’ll be available on. I think there’s something that’s really cool about that.”
Once Volition started showing off more of the game, it became obvious that certain things fans loved about the series were still in place. You could still create your own character and go crazy with the customization. The combat was still over-the-top and explosive, even though it was using new systems like Flow and Perks (and mostly sticks to more realistic weapons). Santo Ileso looked a lot bigger than one initially thought and while there were no powers, it was possible to Wingsuit around at high speeds and assault NPCs indiscriminately.
However, these aspects being in place weren’t enough when the characters that one liked weren’t present. In that sense, I can empathize with those who dislike the game. Not seeing Kinzie, Shaundi, Pierce, Matt, Asha and Keith David return was a shame, especially after everything we had been through together.
In the same GamesRadar interview, UX designer Kenzie Lindgren said that while creating new characters with no strings attached was “really freeing,” the process was daunting because “are people going to love these characters?” For some, the first impression is usually the last and they weren’t impressed with what Neenah, Kevin and Eli had to offer.
The visual quality is another pain point. Even though Volition delayed the game and improved its fidelity, it’s still a major step behind contemporary open world greats like Horizon Forbidden West, Ghost of Tsushima, Red Dead Redemption 2 and so on. Not that the previous Saints Row series were known for their visual brilliance either, but I don’t fault some fans for expecting a much bigger visual leap nine years later.
There are also reports of bugs and glitches, some players facing way more than others. Though a part and parcel of nearly every game, especially open world titles, these added further fuel to the fire. Of course, if I faced such a significant number of bugs when paying full price for the game, I’d be annoyed too.
But the main reason I believe that Saints Row is going down well with some fans and absolutely reviled by others goes back to that “balancing act” that Allen spoke of. The cast is subject to long-standing life issues like struggling with rent or just finding the motivation to get out of bed. Instead of delving deeper into those and fully satirizing US culture like GTA, it embraces the more lighthearted, zany style of Saints Row and its depiction of the underworld.
And while it doesn’t stay “the exact same” as older games, many critics have pointed out how dated it feels in the controls and overall gameplay, whether it’s the shooting, movement or design of side activities. However, for some fans, it could serve as a classic throwback to the older games, just with some tweaks and changes. This is one of the problems with “balancing” the old and new since satisfying everyone rarely goes well. The range of review scores is an indication of that.
At the end of the day, the reasons that one hates Saints Row for could very well be the same reasons that someone else likes it. I may not find the main cast endearing due to my connection with previous games’ characters. Others have found the new characters quite enjoyable and fleshed out, even if the overall story is somewhat lacking given its initial setup.
I may want a game with extensive side quests and painstaking attention to detail. Others probably like the arcadey nature of Saints Row’s gameplay, whether it’s playing Insurance Fraud or just going out and blowing stuff up on the streets. I’m not a huge stickler for visual fidelity but others may feel that a game should achieve a certain visual benchmark when it’s priced for $60.
Everyone has different expectations. As Allen noted, “Sometimes I hear from fans and they love different aspects of the franchise, and that doesn’t resonate with me in the same way. So as much as possible we focus on breadth, on variety, and on making sure that we are really asking ourselves ‘does this add to the player’s enjoyment, and is it something that’s worth their time?'”
With the sheer amount of ideas that the franchise has had since its inception, the question of whether the development team has truly plucked “all the best ones and put them together into a cohesive story, game, and world” will have many different answers. You may agree with some or disagree with others, and it probably wouldn’t be a Saints Row title otherwise. However, if the reboot proves anything, it’s that you can’t please everyone, no matter how many explosions, wingsuits, vehicles, crazy missions and set pieces your game has.
More importantly, even if someone likes your game, they won’t always like everything about it (and will oftentimes let you know). So it goes, until the end of time.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.