Since its inception, the platforming genre has generally been a family-friendly style of game. Sunset Overdrive is looking to change all of that with a far more aggressive, punk rock tone. But ignore the guns and violence, and you'll find a game not too dissimilar from the 3D mascot platformers of the past. Developed by Insomniac Games, (Spyro, Ratchet And Clank, Resistance) Sunset blends the studio's 20 years of development experience into a single title that, while far from perfect, delivers a fun, chaotic, and vibrant game.
Mutant monsters, looters, and evil robots dominating a city isn't exactly an original concept, but Sunset Overdrive certainly has a unique take. The year is 2027 and the evil conglomerate, FizzCo, has released a brand new energy drink, OverCharge Delirium XT. During a late night première party, a large audience gets a first taste and quickly turn from party monsters to, well, real monsters. Now, the city is overrun with horrific creatures with a thirst for OverCharge and human blood. FizzCo quickly locks down the city with a literal invisible wall to prevent the news from reaching the media. It's up to you and a band of LARPERs, trust fund babies, and ninja cheerleaders to survive and hopefully escape Sunset City.
As you can probably tell from the synopsis, Sunset doesn't take itself too seriously. Fourth-wall-breaking jokes and pop culture references are strewn throughout the missions and cutscenes. While there are a few chuckles to be had, the overall snarky attitude weighs down the narrative. There are a few moments when the user interface (heath bars and weapon wheels) are acknowledge by the characters, and that works well. But the constant references to Breaking Bad and internet memes quickly grate. Stranger yet is the gratuitous amount of swearing, which just comes off as forced. Whenever I felt engaged by Sunset's story, a jarring inside joke would take me right out.
The main protagonist of Sunset Overdrive is "you," or at least someone you want to be. The robust character creation system leans heavily on a punk rock theme. My character was a skinny, jean-jacket-wearing, kid with an afro. One side of his afro was bright red and the other was a cool blue. That's what makes designing your avatar so much fun. No matter how hard I tried, my creation always came off as cool. As the game goes on, more costumes and accessories are unlocked. Though I never altered my original design too much, each additional outfit was well designed.
Traversal is easily the highlight of Sunset Overdrive. By throwing out the laws of physics in favor of fun, your character can grind on power lines and ledges, bounce from abandoned cars and trees, and wall run from building to building. Though the initial set of available moves can feel limited, Overdrive quickly introduces a series of advanced techniques. With the speed boost, air-dash, and ground-pound moves unlocked, 30+ move combos are commonplace and highly exhilarating. Going from one side of Sunset City to the other without touching the ground is highly satisfying and the best reason to play Sunset Overdrive.
Simply running on the ground is strongly discouraged from the get-go, as it will often result in heavy damage from multiple enemies within a few seconds. Combat heavily relies on the diverse parkour system. Simply grinding on a single rail or bouncing on one umbrella will allow you to only briefly avoid attacks. But by quickly switching from ledges, to cars, to walls while firing you a weapon or preparing a devastating melee attack is really what Sunset is all about. Yes, the action can become so fast that button mashing becomes necessary (and encouraged). But this design risk pays off, creating chaotic and fun experience. It's an experience you'll only find in Sunset Overdrive.
Sadly, the same can't be said for the weapons. A bowling ball bazooka and teddy bear grenade launcher may sound exciting, but the execution feels uninspired. Pistols, shotguns, and rifles come wrapped in original packages, but none of those characteristics make any difference in use. Each weapon can be leveled up 5 times, increasing the amount of ammunition and damage. But this further removes the strategy when dealing with different enemy types. Rather than switching weapons to adapt, I would simply use to my most powerful weapon. Despite a large selection of projectiles, not one stands out. Considering the game's emphasis on combat, that's a serious problem.
In an attempt to encourage stylistic play, Sunset implements a perk system called Amps. Amps are special abilities that can be attached to the character or weapons. The weapon Amps add effects such as fire and ice, but also include more surreal powers such as a grim reaper who will help you in the fight. Character Amps are based around your style meter. As your combos build, your character will unlock advanced effects such as an announcer who compliments your play, or lightning that will strike enemies for you. The weapon Amps work well, but the Hero/Epic Amps are a bit underwhelming. One in particular gives you the ability to crack open the earth as you walk. For the game that discourages walking, this Amp shouldn't exist. Sunset is at it's best when it embraces it's fast, stylish gameplay, but adjusting Amps feels slow and confusing. It's a system that feels overly complicated and mostly unnecessary.
Sunset Overdrive's 11-hour campaign includes dozens of missions, but unfortunately, not many mission types. The majority of missions involve fighting a number of common enemies and collecting items. While none of them are bad per say, few stand out either. In fact, there's hardly any difference between the side and main missions. Occasionally new mechanics such as a wrecking ball and large catapults are introduced, but they often feel broken and overly simplistic. There are exceptions though. One particularly inspired missions involved protecting a slow moving boat from flying creatures while leaping from ledges to collect and throw fuel into the boat. Another is a boss fight that requires players to grind up a dragon's back and bash its brains in. It's a shame these flashes of brilliance are so rare.
Online play also feels uninspired. In both the single and multiplayer there's a timer-based horde defense mode. Here, players place a series of traps in between waves of enemies. The traps do little to prevent the invading forces from infiltrating and it's up to your shooting and style ability to keep them at bay. The problem is the limited area and obvious choke points of these maps. In single player, it's far too easy to overcome the odds, let alone with 7 other friends. Between matches, you and a gang of 7 more players will roam from goal to goal in Sunset City. But the missions are overly simplistic, ranging from killing monsters to shooting barriers. It's simple fun but nothing I'll be going back to.
Thankfully, Sunset makes up for its lackluster story and mission structure with its presentation. Sunset City is bursting with color and creativity. Original graffiti, cartoon mascots, and a Japanese museum give the sense of an adult playground. Color motifs are carefully placed in different areas of the town to great effect. If there is one problem, it's that it can be overly colorful. Some missions require to you find certain objects in a small radius, but with such a diverse palette, it can be easy to miss the goal. Besides those small nitpicks, Sunset Overdrive's art style is a huge success and easily one of the best looking games of 2014. This is all complimented by the awesome punk rock soundtrack. The music fits the mood of Sunset Overdrive brilliantly
For a game with such an alternative attitude, it's a shame Sunset Overdrive's missions are so bland. The lame jokes and forgettable story don't help either. But the incredible art, thrilling traversal, and explosive combat create a unique sense of fun. It might not be for everyone, but anyone looking for a more adult-oriented take on the platformer will find a lot to like about Sunset Overdrive.