Double Dragon Neon only has some basic similarities to the original game, as it's more of an homage to beat-'em-ups in general rather than a new Double Dragon game. That won't mean a lot to most people, but the die-hard faithful will be disappointed. The basic flow and structure are pretty different, with far less grappling and more emphasis on dodging and special moves. It's not a bad game, but it is more akin to River City Ransom than Double Dragon.
From its aesthetic to its soundtrack, humor and style, Double Dragon Neon is a love letter to the late '80s and early '90s, though it's still a fun game if you're not the target audience. It evokes the decades in a way that few games have managed. It's a parody, but it's never bitter or angry. It hits nostalgia buttons like a guided missile, and the Double Dragon elements merely serve as a backdrop. One boss, for example, is an homage to the NES Mega Man — down to your ability to jump through the boss room doors. Another sequence has you fighting a mutant clone named "Bimmy," an obscure joke that may be incomprehensible to anyone under 25.
The combat is very methodical, so there's not much in the way of canceling or breaking out of attacks. When you attack, you commit to it. It doesn't matter if a behemoth is charging at you; you're going to finish the punch or kick. You have to be methodical, as random button-mashing will get your skull pounded into the ground, but carefully considered combos pay huge dividends. Among the two basic attacks, punching is quicker but does significantly less damage, while kicks do more damage but are slower and require more commitment. Learning when and where to use each form of attack is a big part of being successful. A few punches can stun an enemy, leaving him vulnerable to a kick or other follow-up attack, while kicks can be more useful when you face enemies who can't be easily stunned.
Punching and kicking is only a small part of the combat. One big change from the usual DD beat-'em-up gameplay is the ability to dodge and weave. Your dodge button (L2 by default) allows you to avoid enemy attacks. You can stand in place and duck to avoid an attack, or you can roll to the side. When you narrowly dodge an attack, you're surrounded by a temporary red glow called Gleam, and during this, you'll do double damage. If you can keep dodging enemy attacks by a narrow margin, you'll maintain Gleam and tear through enemies like a hot knife through butter. It's a neat mechanic that encourages staying close to the enemies and remaining aggressive.
The game wouldn't be Double Dragon without a co-op mode, which is called "bro-op" mode here. The most important mechanic is the high five. At any time, you can ask your partner to give you a high five. There are multiple kinds of high fives, each with its own effect. One shares your Gleam with your co-op partner. You can also pull a "psych" when your partner comes in for that high five and steal some of his health. The high fives encourage good teamwork and the old beat-'em-up pastime of screwing over the other player.
Mixtapes and styles are equippable items that can be found in stores or dropped by enemies. Mixtapes are special moves that can range from a simple drop kick to a Golden Axe-style giant dragon summon, so equip one and tap R1. Using these special moves takes a chunk of your super meter, which you replenish over time, but finding batteries will instantly recover a chunk of it. You can switch your mixtape at any time, although you'll probably find one or two that work for you and stick with those. Styles are passive boosts, so the equipped style determines your stats. The Rage style, for example, increases the length of Gleam. The Absorb style allows each of your hits to steal a bit of an enemy's HP. The Stunner style makes it easier to stun enemies.
You can increase the levels of your mixtapes and styles by finding or buying more copies of them. The Fireball mixtape, for example, starts out damaging a single enemy for relatively weak damage. As it powers up, it hits multiple enemies and does ridiculous amounts of damage. The trick is that you're slightly limited in how much you can level up. Each ability begins with a max level of 10, and to further level it up, you have to find a tapesmith (no, seriously) and have it use the rare material Mythril to upgrade your tapes (no, seriously!). Mythril is dropped by any defeated boss, and you can upgrade any skill up to level 50.
The balance in Double Dragon Neon is a bit unfairly weighted toward leveling up. If you don't invest in your mixtapes and styles, you'll take a bunch of damage, but if you do, you'll be the one dealing a bunch of damage. Players who have trouble may need to go back to stage 1-2 and grind for Mythril and mixtapes. Enemies do a lot of damage, and hitting them with Gleam-powered attacks is the best way to take them down. If you're a more casual player, you may feel obligated to grind levels instead of simply getting through on your own merit — especially since there are no continues. If you run out of lives, you're sent back to the start of the stage. Going back and replaying a stage is often enough to give you a boost to upgrade your mixtapes and styles. The hardest difficulty, Double Dragon, will still be a challenge for those with maxed-out skills.
The really cool thing about Double Dragon Neon is that you can play it in a number of ways. I chose to forgo punching and kicking almost entirely, focusing my leveling on the Fireball and Dragon Swarm mixtapes and the Magic Gambit style. This decreased my defenses but let me cast powerful magical spells. I focused primarily on getting Gleams while spamming fireballs. If I got hit, it hurt a lot, but I was doing 999 damage with fireballs — even to bosses. You can focus on Gleams on defense, stun enemies on offense, or various other factors that change the game flow. It's still a pretty simple beat-'em-up, but you can customize it to suit your play style. You can even play as a cleric and focus on healing your bro-op partner and smiting the undead.
Double Dragon Neon is a short game that you can finish in an hour or two. There are two higher difficulty modes, but they don't add much to the game time. Going through the game in bro-op adds some extra time, but the lack of an online mode limits that to on-the-couch fun only. There is a lot to like in Double Dragon, but even a moderately talented gamer will do everything in the game in less than six hours. If your friends often come over to play games, there's a lot of value here. It's worth noting that PlayStation Plus members can currently get Double Dragon Neon for free.
WayForward is well known for its beautiful sprite work, so it's a bit of a disappointment that Double Dragon Neon uses 3-D graphics. The character models are well animated and vividly colored, and they're delightful to watch in motion. Screenshots don't do the game justice, and earlier videos painted a much worse picture than the final product. The heart of the game is the soundtrack. Composer Jack Kaufman put together a perfect blend of cheesy '80s nostalgia and awesome remixes that perfectly set the tone of the game. The soundtrack is available for free on his website. There is voice acting, but it is intentionally of the cheesy Saturday Morning Cartoon variety, bringing to mind the voice acting from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games without feeling overly self-aware.
It's very easy for a developer to use nostalgia as an excuse to put out a half-baked product, but Double Dragon Neon is a well-crafted love letter to the beat-'em-up genre. It may not be a long game, but it is a complete delight while it lasts. It's funny, clever, and easy to pick up and play on your own or with a bro-op partner. The only things going against it are the length and overreliance on grinding for stats. Despite that, the unmistakable love and care shine through at all times. PlayStation Plus members should grab the game, like, yesterday. If you're remotely a fan of beat-'em-ups, try the demo. The game may only be a few hours long, but it's still worth the $9.99 purchase price.
More articles about Double Dragon: Neon