Video games have a funny way of identifying different scales of productions. You’ve got triple-A and double-A, and now there’s even some unsightly speak of ‘triple-I’, indie games with lavish production values of their own. Sometimes, you’ve just got to keep it simple though, as is the case with Steel Rats. This is an unabashed B movie of a game, a William Castle schlockathon of disparate parts that developer Tate Multimedia can’t always get to hang together. But good lord is it fun to see them try.
Steel Rats – which is out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is a little bit Trials, a pseudo-2D scroller in which you balance your bike through various courses. It’s also a little bit Limbo and Inside, a narrative told in beautiful dioramas that pass by in the background, glimpses of recently abandoned cityscapes or industrialised outskirts. Then you’ve got to factor in an aesthetic that’s part 50s biker cool, part 40s art deco and a fair slick of steampunk to try and grease it all together.
And then, when you play it, you realise there’s also a little Sonic the Hedgehog in the way it hurtles you through stages, a little Streets of Rage in how you’re rinsing mobs of robots (oh, I forgot to say – Steel Rats is a little bit post-apocalypse, too, with a tale of alien invasion that’s told as if the Hell’s Angels had deposited themselves in Orson Welles’ radio drama War of the Worlds).
Steel Rats is a little bit of a lot of things, so it’s impressive that it carries through on a good number of its influences so well. This isn’t quite Trials when it comes to the intricacy of the handling, physics or the challenges you face, but Steel Rats has a personality all of its own. The bikes feel pure Hollywood, languid long things that rear up under acceleration and spin around on their axis like a Harley with Arnie in the saddle.
They’ve got a remarkably large vocabulary, too, with primary and secondary attacks, specials and a jump, a melange of abilities that can feel a bit incongruous in an otherwise straightforward game. Scratch beneath that and there’s a web of upgrades for the four characters you acquire over the first few levels of the story, but at least there’s a decent variety of enemies to pit all that against – spinning mechs that will chase you down as you race through a level, or sentient depth charges that plummet as you speed under them.
So many ideas, so it’s small wonder they don’t always gel. There’s a disconnect between a game that wants you to race along at speed and one that wants to impress you with its combat, and the two disparate parts struggle to find peace with one another; a disconnect you’ll also find in level design that promises the momentum of a speedy platformer like Sonic at one moment before sapping you of it all in a frustrating instant. Steel Rats can’t find much by way of harmony, though that doesn’t ever really get in the way of it being fun.
Steel Rats is a messy, mad grab-bag of concepts, with more ideas than it seemingly knows what to do with. But that’s what you expect when you’re reaching away from the blockbusters and towards something a little rougher around the edges, and a lot freer in spirit. It’s the B movie brought to life as a video game, for better and for worse, and I’m so grateful that something like this exists.