The Saints Row series has seen truly transformed since the first game released in 2006. The core tenet of open-world fun may still exist in the recent release, Gat out of Hell, but it’s clear that the Saints have transcended beyond their street gang roots — and they know it. But where can the Saints go after they have already conquered the streets, the merchandising world, alien simulations, and Hell? Quite simply, back to the streets.
Note: spoilers for the Saints Row series follow.
When the original Saints Row was first released, it was clear that it was gunning for the upper echelon of open-world games occupied by Grand Theft Auto. The first Saints Row made that impression, with its similar balance of story missions and open-world activities and an attempt at satire, but it wasn’t the same impression Saints Row: The Third would make five years later. It’s clear that Saints Row: The Third was the game that put the series on the map in a big way, in spite of the previous two games’ relatively respectable commercial and critical achievements. The reason why? Big, purple dildo bats; or, at least, the strangeness and over-the-top design they represented.
To be fair, Saints Row never treated itself like an ultra-serious, powerful narrative that just happens to be facilitated by a game that allows you to run into traffic and shoot a rocket launcher like a madman — at least not fully. The first two Saints Row games especially had a number of dramatic plot beats that were given weight not seen later in the series. Still, Saints Row 2 was seemingly confused about its identity. At the very least, it was unaware of the inconsistencies that were created by its rote plot and goofy diversions. For some reason, it feels a little strange that the same game that contains an affecting death scene also allows you to spew feces from a septic tank across the city of Stilwater. Saints Row IV, by comparison, treats the destruction of Earth by the advanced alien race the Zin much like it treats every event that takes place in the game: with relative wit and morbid humor.
In any event, Saints Row: The Third introduced the Saints, previously a street gang, as a large media empire/crime syndicate with brand deals and notable celebrities. The story elements finally aligned with the more extreme aspects of the gameplay, which were made even more extreme this time around. Saints Row: The Third bucked the accusations that the series was simply a GTA clone. It may sound strange, but it’s hard to underestimate the importance of the game’s recognizable dildo bat weapons in changing the discussion about a Saints Row game. The shock value of such an item attracted attention to the game and led to players realizing that developer Volition was taking the Saints in a very different direction, which coincided with the change in scenery. Saints Row: The Third moved the action from the fictional city of Stilwater to the equally fictional city of Steelport, and introduced more silliness in the process. The Saints take on a military department, infiltrate cyberspace, utilize jets and drones, and do it all with little to no concern. Saints Row: The Third is an incredibly irreverent sandbox game that emphasizes strange mayhem in the recognizable element of a metropolitan area.
Saints Row IV essentially plays like a fan-made mod of Saints Row: The Third. Aliens take over Earth, kidnap most of the Saints, destroy the planet, and then the Saints are placed in an identical yet simulated version of Steelport. Well, the simulation’s Steelport is near-identical; there are crazy alien structures spread throughout the city and hacking into the simulation grants the Boss, the player-controlled leader of the Saints, and his allies superpowers. Being able to jump to incredible heights, run faster than any car, and glide great distances effectively negates much of the open world traversal mechanics of previous games. Fireballs and telekinesis quickly overshadow gunplay, as well.
When Saints Row IV was first released in 2013, many asked the same question that is being pondered now: what will the next Saints Row game even be like? They couldn’t very well return to the normal way of doing things, could they? Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, a standalone expansion to Saints Row IV, released in January, proves that they can’t, at least not yet. Gat out of Hell takes away player control of the customizable Boss and instead gives control of Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington as they travel through Hell, which really dashed the hopes or idea that Saints Row would return to a more predictable premise or formula. Truthfully, it’s a perfect premise for a Saints Row expansion, standalone as it may be, but the team at Volition has quite a task on its hands if it wants to top Hell.
The progression of Saints Row’s over-the-top nature has only increased with each installment, and in the process, some of the elements that made the first few games so much fun have been lost. Nobody could now claim Saints Row is a GTA clone; it’s doing something entirely different, even if the open-world gameplay is inherently supplemented by the impact of GTA. But if the superpowered fun of Saints Row IV was unique to the series, so too was the marginalization of grand theft auto (not a proper noun) and gunplay, two elements that previously defined Saints Row. Gat out of Hell, as an expansion to Saints Row IV, fittingly continues this trend, but that doesn’t mean that the Saints’ newfound abilities will be around for much longer.
Saints Row 5, or the next full-fledged iteration in the series, will likely put the Saints back on solid ground with solid guns in their hands. How could that ever come to pass, after the Earth was destroyed in Saints Row IV? Volition surely has an equally outrageous plot device in the works that would return things to relative normalcy. Said plot device is even one of the five alternate endings to Gat out of Hell. But the question of whether or not incredible abilities will be involved is still up in the air. In spite of the ever-increasing wackiness the series is known for, Saints Row 5 could very well eschew the conceit of Saints Row IV in favor of expanding upon the possibilities for mayhem within a grounded reality, such as an earthly city. Saints Row IV, after all, was originally intended to be an expansion to Saints Row: The Third, and it looks like it, along with Gat out of Hell, will be seen as the somehow more outrageous outliers in the exaggerated series.