My favorite musical pieces over the last decade have been the annual “best of” mashups that deejays throw together, mixing snippets of the top songs of the year regardless of genre. When they’re handled by a great producer, these mashups can expertly mix Hip Hop, Country, Pop, and more into enjoyable arrangements. A lot is thrown in there, but it ultimately, somehow, works. I often find myself thinking “what the hell is coming up next?”
That’s what happens when I play Treachery in Beatdown City. I share that very same phrase: “What the hell is coming up next?”
Whatever is, I’m fairly certain it’s going to be pretty fucking crazy.
Like those musical mashups, Nuchallenger’s Treachery crams together a seemingly endless wave of ideas and genres. On the surface it looks like a standard beat’em up brawler from the late Eighties, and the game both starts and stops at that initial glance. (We do beat up people. A lot of people.) But that’s really where the comparison to Double Dragon stops. The rest is truly a fascinating mix of completely different concepts that somehow magically work.
Instead of trying to explain it all at once, perhaps it’s best to describe it by going era by era and letting those influences peel back like onion skin.
The golden age of video games, the late 1980s did their best to replicate the arcade experience, which was quickly outpacing home consoles in terms of technology. Arcades featured brawlers, early cinematics were being added to tell stories, and movies and games had a lot of forced cross-sections of society. And a lot of fucking bricks and neon. Treachery revels in this. It looks like a brawler that’s pushing the limits of the NES’s graphical and processor capabilities. It uses repeating tiles, repeating enemies, and a lot (a LOT!) of stereotypes of the era. Punk mohawks? Check. White preppies? Check. Bicycles? CHECK. The President has even been kidnapped by Ninja Dragon Assassins and it’s up to us to rescue him. It all feels very New York, in a way.
The game cadence takes place by first walking around an overworld map tile-by-tile and then engaging in a short, seemingly poorly-written, non-animated (and slightly too long) squabble between one of the protagonists and an enemy. The scene shifts to a single-screen 2-D street brawl where we are able to run up and punch a bad dude or try to bust open a mailbox for health.
Standard homage, or so it seems.
It’s not until we peel back that initial retro layer that we start to find the real values of the game. The Nineties gave us enhanced JRPG mechanics and amazing fighting game combos, and Treachery takes both of those to heart. Quick attacks may allow us to run up to an enemy, punch off one hit point and run back away, but they don’t do much when our foe has 175 HP in tow. The game’s “special sauce” is its shift towards a turn-based experience. As we build up stamina over time, we can engage an enemy and select a sequence of attacks as a part of a combo set. What those attacks are is based on A) how much stamina bars we’ve built up, and B) how many attack points we have. Some lighter attacks only require 8 or 10 attack points, but more powerful ones obviously need more. These attacks can be blocked or countered, depending on how lucky we are.
Much like characters in Final Fantasy games of the time, the three protagonists are quite unique in their battle styles. Grapplers focus on close attacks and require an initial grab, some use knees and kicks, some are better off of counters, some are right down the middle, or have high health, or are extremely fast. It’s much more than just “harder punchers, slower speed” and actually does force us to balance our use of who we want to take on a fight.
This is where the thematic ideas of the game are put into play, so to speak. The modern era of our culture really pushes for equality, breaking stereotypes, and pop culture adoration. Treachery takes these themes and applies them to those trashy Eighties stereotypes. In one scene, one of the protagonists (Bruce Maxwell, an African American man) is involved in an argument with a white, condescending dude who spouts all of his phrases with a Jamaican accent. As he alludes to drugs and underground culture, Bruce fires back with a comment about the only trading he does is on the stock market as his day job, the glass of the fourth wall sort of shatters around us. There are modern references sprinkled throughout, too, from the President being named Blake Orama, to Los Angeles Insta-culture focused on social likes.
We want to believe that the game is purely a nostalgic experience, but in reality it’s a sort of subliminal attack on our preconceived notions. The brawling is much more focused than just button mashing (a disclaimer pops up to warn us that “winners don’t mash buttons”), the storytelling is nuanced rather than an homage, and the bad guys (and gals) are more like reflections of modern issues set to a Miami Vice beat.
There’s a lot to experience and like in Beatdown City. It has a ham-fisted plot that gets crazier and cazier, it has characters that we come up against that we really do want to punch in the face, and it keeps us entertained with its enjoyable turn-based mechanic. It does have some drag in scope and aesthetic (how often do I have to beat up that same guy AGAIN?) but the overall package keeps a good click moving. I honestly never know what’s going to happen next in the game, and I do like that feeling.
Under the veneer of nostalgia, Treachery in Beatdown City may strangely be more of a “thinking person’s” brawler, but it’s still stupid fun and worth checking out for everything it throws into the pot. Maybe instead of a “beat’em up” we have the first entry for the “mash’em up” genre.
It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.
An eShop review code for the game was provided by the publisher.