Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons PS5 review. From Double Dragon Neon to the more recently risible Double Dragon IV, I don’t think it’s an especially controversial thing to suggest that the Double Dragon franchise has fallen short of its legendary status as of late. Seemingly manifested into existence to address this very fact, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons doesn’t just refine the quintessential essence of the series at large, but it thoughtfully augments that beating, thumping heart of the series with roguelite mechanics to not only create the best Double Dragon game in absolute years, but one of the best side-scrolling brawlers of the year, too.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons PS5 Review
The Best Series Entry In Years And It Isn’t Even Close
From the jump, Double Dragon Gaiden impresses duly – both seemingly familiar like settling into a warm bath while also feeling unexpectedly fresh at the same time. The basic gist of things remains the same. You progress across a 2D world, putting fist/foot to face and smashing your way through a veritable army of goons en route to the final battle at the end of the game. Side scrolling brawler 101, right? Well yes, but just peer slightly beneath the apparently traditional veneer of Double Dragon Gaiden and something quite unexpected reveals itself.
Sure enough, the building blocks of violence that provide structure and rigour to any side-scrolling brawler worth its salt are present and accounted for here. You can punch, kick, grapple, throw, juggle enemies, fire off special moves, use weapons and combine all of that to orchestrate a symphony of violence to send your foes to the shadow realm post haste. The first of the wrinkles to the traditional formula that Double Dragon Gaiden offers up is a tag system and if you think you’ve seen it all before, I have some news for you.
Firstly yes, the tag system works as you might expect on the surface of things in that you can take a kicking, tag out and a mate with (hopefully) much more health hops in to take over the business of smashing dudes up. Unlike other fighters that employ the tag system however, Double Dragon Gaiden implements a sizable chunk of strategy into this mechanic to make the use of it and is thoughtfully tactical in a way that you might not expect. Rather than existing in a vacuum, the tag system shares the same energy reserves as your special bar does, making you choose between unleashing a special technique to save your bacon at the last second, or tag in a partner to keep the fight going.
Rather than just having a partner sitting idly on the side-lines, whichever character has been tagged out slowly regains a small portion of their health while not in combat as well. Put simply, success in Double Dragon Gaiden can only be reliably assured if you look at the health bars of each of your fighters as balancing on a sort of scale, always making sure to tag out at just the right time so that one fighter doesn’t have a much lower health bar than another, so that when you do need to tag out in a pinch, you aren’t tagging in someone who is half-dead already. Double Dragon Gaiden makes great use of the tag mechanic then, but its cleverness doesn’t end there.
Wrapped around the core of Double Dragon Gaiden is a roguelite coating that works because it incentivises players to finely hone their fistic pursuits. Money is something that you’ll want to be scooping up in Double Dragon Gaiden, because after every round you get the opportunity to spend your hard won cash on various randomised buffs and upgrades to improve your combo power, bolster the amount of health the tagged out fighter receives and more besides. One of the most compelling (and expensive) things to shell out for are poker chips that can be traded in for all manner of cool things from music and art, through to more enticing fare such as unlockable characters. Naturally, when its game over so too do your acquired buffs disappear – though you do keep the poker chips at the end of every run.
Much like the tag system, there’s a deceptive amount of strategy embedded here as well. While you might want to save up those precious coins for some butt-kicking buffs or those tremendously tempting tokens, you might also want to save some for the grim reaper, because each time both of your fighters fall in battle (and this is something that happens a lot in the later levels – more on that in a bit), you’ll have to hand over a minimum of $1000 that increases each time your duo end up with their collective faces planted in the dirt. While the notion of roguelite mechanics is hardly an entirely fresh one in 2023, Double Dragon Gaiden’s implementation works because it directly leans on and never forgets the side-scrolling brawling fundamentals that sit at the centre of the experience.
The best example of this is the crowd control and bonus objectives that the game offers up to provide additional opportunities for earning those sweet stacks. Playing directly into Double Dragon Gaiden’s veritable kaleidoscope of violence, eager face-smashers can earn extra coinage by fulfilling special crowd objectives by using various weapons to vanquish more than three enemies in quick succession. Whether that’s by going on homerun frenzy with a baseball bat or throwing lit sticks of dynamite back to its sender, Double Dragon Gaiden always provides you with a plethora of different ways to top up your cash reserves and as such, it feels satisfying because it really rewards you for being brutally creative.
Of course all of this innovation would be for naught if Double Dragon Gaiden wasn’t satisfying to play on a fundamental level and thankfully, it very much is. The meat and potatoes of Double Dragon Gaiden’s combat is palpably crunchy, with all manner of strikes and special moves landing with the sort of vigour that you would expect, while the super responsive controls (aided by a buttery smooth 60 frames per second frame rate) all make wrecking dumb evil dudes a whole heap of fun to say the least. And naturally, like just about every other genre offering since the year dot, Double Dragon Gaiden is expectedly more entertaining when you’ve got a nearby friend to partake in some local co-op shenanigans (online co-op play won’t be available on day one but is tipped to arrive in a post release update).
Elsewhere, the character designs in Double Dragon Gaiden are especially appealing, with the various cartoonish goons looking comically pained when they’re dropped on their skulls, punched in the mush and batted in the face with a solid wooden slugger. Another nice visual touch is that unlike other side-scrolling scrappers, the shaded lifeless forms of your vanquished foes remain where they fell, creating an unexpectedly grim scene where the screen can be filled to the brim with the broken husks of your enemies. Grim, but unexpectedly impressive stuff for sure. Also worthy of note is the soundtrack which is full of foot-tapping chiptune beats and heavier guitar rhythms that deftly underscore the on-screen scrapping with due aplomb.
Between its smart roguelite elements, tag team tactics and a wealth of unlockables, not to mention the ability to tailor a number of difficulty sliders to provide more or less extra money depending on how risky you’re feeling, Double Dragon Gaiden provides ample incentive for players to return to it. Where perhaps Double Dragon Gaiden doesn’t quite so well is in the combat itself. Now, while we’ve established its perfectly satisfying stuff, the choice of combos and moves available certainly feel a notch below the likes of Streets of Rage and the River City Girls games when it comes to sophistication and overall variety. Equally, late game difficulty spikes where boss encounters flood the screen with mobs isn’t especially great either and feels both cheap and uninspiring for a game in which every other part of its design is anything but.
The most interesting part of Double Dragon Gaiden’s legacy is that it arguably shows there is a whole lot of untapped creative latitude when it comes to freshening up traditional concepts and mechanics. Most commendably of all, late game difficulty spikes notwithstanding, Double Dragon Gaiden manages that rarest of feats by fashioning an irresistibly engaging genre effort that cribs both from the old and the new to give wannabe brawlers one of the best genre entries since Streets of Rage 4 punched its way into our hearts.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is out now for PS4 and PS5.