"Is that all hell's got?" Johnny Gat, main character of Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell, would often taunt as I mowed down Satan's demonic hordes. As the game went on, I couldn't help but find myself asking the same question.
It's not that Gat Out Of Hell is particularly bad in the grand scheme of things; it's just kinda perfunctory. The standalone Saints Row IV expansion has the series' trademark wise-cracking tongue, but — disappointingly fitting for an open-world adventure set in hell — it has no soul. Or rather, what little soul there is in the main story finds itself sandwiched between thick, flavourless slabs of filler. A lot of Gat Out Of Hell feels like filler, to be honest.
Moment-to-moment, this standalone expansion doesn't stray far from its source. A few nifty gameplay additions aside, it's more Saints Row IV. You've got a big (new) city, high-flying, hard-stomping superpowers, and a stockpile of guns and vehicles if the whole "motherf**king superpowers" thing isn't doing it for you. Difference is, this time you don't play as your custom character from previous Saints Row games. He/she/they have been dragged to hell to marry Satan's daughter, Jezebel (named after our sister site, obviously), and you — as no-nonsense murderfiend Johnny Gat or computer whiz turned no-nonsense murderfiend Kinzie Kensington — have to save them. Also, in addition to jumping really high and gliding, you can now fly. That part is pretty rad, but more on that in a bit.
Now it's time for some pros and cons. Pro: Saints Row in hell? Yes please. It sounds like a match made in heaven — a simmering cauldron one part silliness and one part blasphemy — and I really think it could have been. Con: while hell looks pretty damn cool in Gat Out Of Hell, there's not really much that sets it apart from a typical Saints Row city. Hapless citizens are replaced by soulless husks, buildings are replaced by towering spires, and cars are replaced by, er, different cars. Also there's a lot of lava everywhere, because hell.
It's a solid city with some pretty fun activities. I'm especially partial to challenges that had me paddle soulless frat bros, though there were only a few of those. I also dug the heck out of this one's variation on previous Saints Row games' fraud missions, wherein you send a character ragdolling through traffic in a glorious tangle of flailing limbs and hilarity to collect insurance money. In Gat Out Of Hell, the insurance money gag is replaced with the fate of husks' very souls, and you might recognise a few of the folks whose bones you're pulverising into dust. It's a clever way to continue the stories of certain side characters, even if their final time in the spotlight is brief.
I also got a kick out of zany new weapons based on the Seven Deadly Sins, which found me — not the other way around — after I'd committed their respective sins in the most heinous way possible. I don't want to spoil them, but let's just say the one for sloth is one of Saints Row's funniest weapons ever. Another weapon spends its time a) indiscriminately reducing everything Satan loves to ash, b) talking to you and c) cackling softly to itself in a way that's equal parts badass and creepy.
If you want more Saints Row IV-style lightspeed dashing, side-questing, and power-up orb-collecting, Gat Out Of Hell is a decent enough playground. But that's about all it is. There's a smattering of side missions, unlockable elemental powers, and secret weapons to find, but the glue holding those things together is as dull as an elevator music convention. The main campaign is mostly a drag, despite a somewhat innovative structure. The majority of the storyline is comprised of missions where you meet your Satan-loathing comrades-in-arms/the arts (one of them is, no joke, Shakespeare) and then a second set of missions where you earn their loyalty — all in the name of filling a "Satan's Wrath" meter to get the giant red arsehole's attention.
The problem with these central missions is that they're not really tailored to the matter at hand. Unlike Saints Row IV's brilliantly heartfelt, personality-packed loyalty missions — each of which focused on a crew member's greatest fear or fantasy or whatever that thing with the giant soda can was — Gat Out Of Hell's quests are just side missions standing on each other's shoulders to impersonate something Big and Important.
Wanna get in Vlad The Impaler's good graces after Satan made him in general in his army only to stab him the back? OK, well, instead of coming along for the ride and adding some character to the proceedings, good ol' Vladdy is gonna hang back at his castle while you… do one garden variety survival mission, one garden variety flying obstacle course, one garden variety point capture-and-hold thing, and one garden variety battle against a garden variety big demon.
Afterward you return to Vlad, he says a couple sentences, and that's pretty much it. Much of Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell feels less like a proper Saints Row story and more like doing unrelated quests in an MMO. It's all side missions, things relegated to minor diversions in other Saints Row games. This is true of every major ally in your plot against Satan, of whom there are only four (five if you count both of The Twins, but they function as a single entity mission-wise).
Heck, Gat Out Of Hell even pokes fun at itself for this with a bit where [MILD SPOILER ALERT] Jezebel hatches a plan and Gat and co. don't understand why they have to do more arbitrary missions before going through with it. "Johnny frowned at the seemingly arbitrary amount of time it took her," said the game's narrator, "but without traditional missions, this was the best way to further the story." I love fourth-wall-breaking gags as much as the next guy, but when your game has an obvious issue and all you can do is crack jokes about it, it feels a little like adding insult to injury.
Now, that's not to say these missions aren't sometimes fun. It's just that you're literally doing side missions to complete the main story. That's it. There are a couple pivotal moments that get actual cut-scene, dialogue, and objective treatments ala the best bits of Saints Row IV, but they're few and far between. Instead, most of these glorified side missions are tied together by storybook cut-scenes that have clever moments, but are largely expository rambling with very little pop, substance, or character interaction.
But at least there's the much-advertised musical element, right? Wrong. That is one cut-scene in the entire game, and if you've watched the trailer about it, you've already seen the entire thing.
I will give Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell some credit. While the constant repetition of similar missions was tedious, I never outright snoozed through any of them. Gat Out Of Hell isn't so much a low point for the series as it is a vast expanse of middling "meh" punctuated by the occasional sky-high high point. If nothing else, I think the ability to fly should be in future Saints Row games, if only because it's both exhilarating and efficient.
I mean, look at this:
It's hardly the best flight has ever felt in a video game, but swooping down to gain speed and rocketing back up to snatch a precariously placed power-up orb is one of those simple, infinitely enjoyable motions that your fingers crave for days after you've finished a game. It's a lot like Saints Row IV's jumping (which was shamelessly borrowed from Crackdown); you can feel the motion in your stomach. It's dizzying, electrifying, and satisfying — forward motion at its purest and most intoxicating.
My biggest issue with Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell is that, for all its flighty flirtations with brilliance, it largely feels like the bare minimum developers Volition and High Voltage could do with this concept. I guess that's to be expected with an expansion (as opposed to a full-fledged sequel), but seeing the seams, the limitations of this thing time and time again was disheartening. My time with it was a series of frustrating "almost… there!" moments. The city is a grand carnival of hellacious delights, but it's rotten with side missions and little else. The musical gag and other honest-to-goodness story moments are great on the rare occasions they happen, but I couldn't stop noticing cut corners, their edges practically mounted on spikes as a warning that I should lower my expectations.
At one point, the game even failed to recognise that I was playing as Kinzie, not Gat. A character called her "he" and "him" without batting an eyelash. It felt like such a slap in the face to this excellent character to be so thoroughly playing second fiddle, but after every cut-scene also starred Gat, I wasn't really surprised the game flubbed some throwaway dialogue. More than anything, that moment drove home my feelings about Gat Out Of Hell. It was like watching the rehearsal for something better, a play where the sets aren't quite finished, the script needs more work, and everyone's a little shaky on their lines.
If you're a big Saints Row fan, you'll probably dig it even as you stave off pangs of disappointment from what could've been. And if not? Well then, there's probably no reason for you to Gat into hell in the first place, let alone out of it.