Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review

Jimmy and Bimmy are back to bust heads!

By Paul Hunter

Back in 2015, Arc System Works bought the rights to Double Dragon and the franchise honestly couldn't have landed in better hands. Arc specializes in 2D fighting games and is the creative mind behind Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. When I heard that the company was teaming up with Modus Games and Secret Base, makers of Streets of Red, to reboot Dragon Dragon I instantly took notice.

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons reinvents the legendary fighting game franchise will all-new Chibi-style characters and a fresh visual look, along with new roguelite elements that I know will be controversial, but actually end up being great additions.

Is Double Dragon Gaiden the knockout entry we've been hoping for or does it fall flat on its face? Let's venture into New York City in the year 199X to find out, here are three things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Roguelite Elements

Double Dragon Gaiden brings back the post-apocalyptic New York City setting, with young Billy and Jimmy practicing to become Sou-Setsu-Ken experts under a new master Uncle Matin, who's sort of like their Master Splinter trainer and caretaker. Marian also returns and instead of being a damsel in distress, this time she's a badass fighter who brings a whole new style of fighting to a Double Dragon game.

The squad of four gets enlisted by the NYC Mayor to rid the city of four gangs that have engulfed place and taken over various areas. First up, we have the Killers, a pistol-toting bunch of ruthless punks led by a foe fans should recognize, Machine Gun Willy.

Next, there's the Royals gang that fans of Super Double Dragon will know as the game's final boss. The third gang is Triangle and they're all about worshipping ancient Egypt and are led by Anubis who's convinced his followers that he has mystic powers. Lastly, there's the Okada Clan headed up by Lady Okada following the death of her husband.

Double Dragon Gaiden begins by having you choose your team of two from the four available characters: Billy and Jimmy Lee, Marian, and newcomer Uncle Matin. Next, you'll select which gang to battle first and it actually makes a huge difference in how your run plays out.

The way progression works is the first gang you choose will have a rather straightforward one-stage battle that culminates in the gang leader boss battle. It's the shortest and easiest stage of the bunch. After defeating the boss, the remaining three gangs will be alerted to your actions and will beef up their forces and take control of new areas. The second gang you choose will have multiple stages to clear before fighting the leader, typically in a much bigger set piece area than if you chose to battle them first. Each subsequent gang you choose will further boost their forces and you'll need to fight your way through bigger and tougher stages.

What this ultimately means is runs can feel completely different from one another depending on the order you take on the gangs. Each stage has three very different variants and encourages replayability to see them all. For example, if you challenge the Killers first, you'll battle through a single stage with basic enemies before a fight with Machine Gun Willy. But if you choose the Killers last, you'll need to brawl through three large stages and then face off with Machine Gun atop a skyscraper with new dangers to contend with.

Once you've defeated all four gangs, the Mayor will present you with two ways to proceed, one of which involves a brutally difficult fifth stage that will provide the ultimate challenge.

The roguelite elements don't end there though as at the end of each stage you can opt to purchase random power-ups for both of your characters. There are a ton of potential upgrades that could show up, from buffing the health regen rate for the partner you've currently tagged out, to increasing how fast your special bar recharges. You can also choose to not buy upgrades and instead bank more coins that could come in useful later on.

Another way you can use coins is by trading some in to continue your current run after you die. Doing so will revive your characters right where they died to continue battling through the level. There is another currency called tokens, which you can acquire by completing special feats, and you can also trade these in to continue after dying—but there's a catch. Using tokens will revive your team at the last stage checkpoint which means some of your progress gets reset. Tokens are also used to unlock new characters and other bonuses within the main menu, so you really need to think carefully about how to spend your coins and tokens.

I saw the unease with some fans online when Double Dragon Gaiden was announced to have roguelite elements, but there's really nothing to worry about given how natural the implementation feels. I found myself replaying the campaign many times over to see all the different stage variations, and the end of level power-ups you can buy can impact the gameplay in interesting ways. This is the first time I've played a beat 'em up with roguelite elements and after the success of this game, I hope we see more of this.

Liked: The Combat

Now great level design is one thing but what about the gameplay? I thought at first that combat was a little slow but that feeling quickly faded as I got into the game's rhythm. What really stands out is just how punchy your moves are, whether you're doing Billy Lee's spin kick or Uncle Matin's powerbomb. Every move feels grounded and satisfying with real weight behind your actions.

Each character has a bunch of regular attacks, three special moves and a grab action that deals significant damage. Combat is heavily focused on combos, and what's cool is you can you tag in your partner mid-combo to extend your attack string even further. If you manage to take out three or more enemies with a single special attack you'll get awarded with a bonus health item, ranging from hotdogs to hamburgers and full-life restoring turkeys.

I was particularly impressed with the range of attack styles the starter characters have. While you'd think Billy and Jimmy Lee would play similarly, they have very different movesets with the former focused on fast kicks while the latter fights with his fists and hands. Uncle Matin is the heavy fighter of the team and deals big damage with his riot shield and power slam attacks. And then there's Marian, who has the lowest hit points but makes it up with mid-range gunfire and a devastating rocket launcher that kills most common enemies in one hit.

Beyond the initial cast of playable heroes, there are nine villains you can unlock by trading in tokens, some of them requiring 25 or more and can take a while to unlock. You can purchase sub-bosses including Abobo, Burnov, Linda and Chin Tai Mei who all surprisingly have very different playstyles from the rest of the cast. For instance, Abobo can turn enemies to dust with his jumping piledriver or clear out a zone quickly with his two-hit ground pound with AOE damage. Linda is a weapons master and can do a knife spin while reeling enemies in Scorpion-style, and she can also dive kick to zone enemies and keep her distance.

All characters vary in their health, damage and speed for even more variety. For example, Abobo and Burnov start with more health but are also slower than other characters. Linda and Chin Tai Mei have lower starting health but are much faster and have aggressive combos. You can also unlock the game's bosses and while they cost the most tokens they're also the most powerful.

Overall, I found the combat Double Dragon Gaiden to be extremely fun and even better, highly replayable. With the roguelite elements mixing up the experience and with 13 playable characters in all, this is a game you replay over and over again without the combat getting stale.

Liked: The Graphics and Soundtrack

Visually, I thought Double Dragon Gaiden delivered. While it might take a little while to get accustomed to the Chibi-style characters, I began to appreciate how Secret Base took a risk to evolve the franchise instead of going back to the tried-and-true classic Double Dragon look. Moreover, I liked how every stage has its own identity and unique set pieces. Whether you're going through Okada's casino hideout or the subways and warehouses of the Royals, each gang has its own flavour.

Turning our attention to the game's soundtrack, it's seriously great with a range of remixed Double Dragon tunes that bring energy and excitement to each stage. There are also entirely new riffs on classic tunes from the franchise, plus completely new tracks that keep the beat 'em up action going strong.

Didn't Like: Story Stays in the Background

While Double Dragon Gaiden excels where it counts, namely top-notch combat, a wide range of playable characters and a fantastic presentation, I was personally a bit underwhelmed with the story. You get a nice introduction with plenty of banter, plus another segment after you beat all four gangs, but beyond that, there's not much story to speak up. Bosses will speak two or three forgettable lines before combat starts and that's pretty much it. I do recognize that probably for most players a solid story for a beat 'em up game isn't a must, so it's very much my personal preference.

The Verdict

Double Dragon Gaiden is the breath of fresh air this franchise needed. It does just enough to modernize the graphics and gameplay while preserving many of the best elements that make Double Dragon the revered fighting game series it is today. It's impressive how unique the playable cast is and the roguelite elements add some major replay value. Double Dragon is back and I think better than ever.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Secret Base
Publisher: Modus Games
Genre: Beat 'Em Up
Modes: Single-player, Multiplayer
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)

A key was provided by the publisher.