Shortly after Rockstar Games’ open-world crime spree GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 took the world by storm, there were a lot of copycats. Volition Studio’s SAINTS ROW 1 & SAINTS ROW 2 certainly were two of them. The two games were grim and gritty crime-centric open-world games and I personally had no interest in playing them.
SAINTS ROW 3 changed all of that. While it retained the open-world driving-and-shooting staples, it dispensed with the grime and replaced it with levity and silliness and genuine camaraderie between characters. Additionally, it injected brightness and vivd colors, including the Saint’s signature purple.
It took me a while to get around to playing it simply because, well, it looked juvenile. I didn’t believe I wanted anything to do with a game that allowed you to bash thugs with giant dildos.
I admit: I was wrong. SAINTS ROW 3 was a genuine joy to play. It’s centered around a gang of misbehaving misfits as they try to make their mark on the world while having fun doing so, and each member has their own very distinct and expressive, vivid personalities. (They also swear a lot, which I can’t help but fucking relate to.)
There’s nothing more emblematic of this oddly heartfelt approach than — I shit you not — a sing-a-long to SUBLIME’s What I Got between yourself and Saint member Pierce as they drive towards a mission.
They’re terrible singers! (I’ll note: I imagine those behind the game directed them to do so because all of the voice actors here are amazing.) However they laugh and riff and are clearly having fun and it’s one of the few extremely joyful moments I’ve experienced in a video game. It is an effortless depiction of friendship, which is so goddamn rare in video games, and it comes out of left field, deep into the game and you do not expect it. It’s worth playing solely for that moment.
“I don’t get angry when my mom smokes pot
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fucking and fighting; it’s all the same
Living with Louie Dog’s the only way to stay sane
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me.”
SAINTS ROW 4 takes the irreverence and bonding to a whole other level. The opening is one of the greatest in gaming history. It’s a gigantic silly spectacle that heavily leans on Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON, even down to weaving in AEROSMITHS’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. Oh, and then you become the President of the United States and motherfucking Keith David is your VP.
It is absolutely bonkers and I love it.
“More fun. Less mercy killing.”
The entire sequence is worth watching, but if you want to skip to the extravagance, jump to 9:50.
If you’re wondering why you don’t see your character’s face or hear them speak in that scene, it’s because Volition wanted to launch you into the game without having to create your character first. It is worth noting that the SAINTS ROW games are exceptional about character creation, and still are one of the few games that allow you to define practically every representation you can think of, including trans and non-binary characters.
(Also, I love how svelte the undefined character is.)
It helps that at this point, SAINTS ROW 4 felt quite polished, instead of the somewhat rickety gameplay nature of the prior games. (Again, I’ll note: I did not play the first two and I have absolutely no interest in doing so, but they did have a reputation of feeling rather slapdash.)
Unfortunately, those two are the peak of the series. There was a SAINTS ROW 4 expansion — GAT OUT OF HELL — that took the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel approach of throwing everyone into Hell, which felt like a bridge too far but it is still entertaining and if you enjoyed SAINTS ROW 4, well, why the fuck not.
What followed was a hard reboot of the franchise with SAINTS ROW (2022), which sadly was not well-accepted by fans or critics and resulted in Volition being dissolved after 30 years of game development.
Despite Volition’s dissolution, SAINTS ROW 3 & 4 exemplifies the fucking sort of trashfire of a person I am, and I absolutely embrace that and love them for those experiences.
If you only have modern consoles, it’s pretty difficult to play SAINTS ROW 3, but SAINTS ROW 4 is readily available. If you can seek either of them out, they are worth your time.