Bomb Rush Cyberfunk Review or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love this Spiritual Successor to Jet Set Radio

Jet Set Radio (or as it was known in North America, Jet Grind Radio) came skating onto the scene in the year 2000. Developed by Sega's in-house studio Smilebit, the flagship Dreamcast release saw players enrol in the rollerblading GGs gang to claim their turf back from their rivals, one graffiti tag at a time, all whilst evading the clutches of the law. A platformer at heart, JSR was fun gameplay-wise, but what kept me and many others coming back for more was undoubtedly its revolutionary cel-shaded graphics, along with its premise, style and music - all a loving tribute to hip-hop and street culture. The exceptional soundtrack, the majority of which was composed by Hideki Naganuma, combined elements of hip-hop, J-pop, funk, electronic dance, rock, acid jazz, and trip-hop, and has been lauded by fans the world over to the point where it's almost taken on a life of its own outside of the game.

North American magazine ad for Jet Grind Radio

In the years following Jet Set Radio's release, Sega stopped making consoles and moved to being a third-party developer. Initially things were pretty good, with a wide range of their IPs receiving new titles or reboots, including Jet Set Radio, which received a beloved sequel/re-imagining on the original Xbox in the form of 2002's Jet Set Radio Future.

But, with series developers Smilebit closing their doors in 2004, and Sega's attention to any IP that wasn’t Sonic slowing to a drip feed over the following decade, the possibility of a new entry into the JSR series became less likely with each passing year. We did see a HD remaster during the seventh generation, which was cool, but the fully fledged third instalment many players have been waiting for just never happened.

The album cover for 2 Mello's "Memories of Tokyo-To"

During the series' absence, a cult community of fans slowly began to form around Jet Set Radio, with its art style and music finally being appreciated for how excellent it really is. A fan developed a whole website to stream JSR tunes 24/7, while artists like 2 Mello made entire albums in the style of the JSR sound. Many new indie titles like Umarangi Generation and Hover aimed to emulate that funky cel-shaded feeling we were sorely missing. Seeing this community of fans and creators blossoming around JSR really got me thinking... with the series' strongest suit undoubtedly being its aesthetic style and music, and with aspects such as the story and character's personalities taking a backseat (with perhaps the exception of DJ Professor K), it made me wonder: could someone else make Jet Set Radio? We'd witnessed it in the indie space for years, with titles like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Shovel Knight and Cities: Skylines filling the void left behind by the neglect of bigger developers. For me, Jet Set Radio’s best asset is not that it was made by Sega. Sure, the genius minds of Dreamcast-era Sega gave it its best assets, but the fact that Jet Set Radio's winning formula has been abandoned for so long, that it hasn't had the chance to be developed further, to become bigger and better with the power of modern systems, to be re-introduced to a new generation of gamers, is criminal, frankly. As long as the right people were involved, Jet Set Radio could come back in style, even if it meant sacrificing the name.

Lethal League Blaze

The answer to my prayers came in 2020, when Dutch indie developer Team Reptile teased Bomb Rush Cyberfunk. Having previously worked on Lethal League, an excellent series of fighting games that feature cel-shading and character designs reminiscent of Jet Set Radio, and with the second game, Lethal League Blaze, even featuring a song from Hideki Naganuma, it was no surprise that Team Reptile were going to attempt a spiritual successor to Jet Set Radio for their next release. From their short teaser alone, I immediately knew they were the right people for the job. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk looked so much like a new Jet Set Radio game that I would've forgiven you for thinking it was made by Sega themselves. The teaser even featured a Naganuma track. It was finally happening!

Despite this, I still saw a fair amount of scepticism online. Some loyalists said they'd just wait for Sega's Jet Set Radio. Some even went as far as to accuse Team Reptile of "plagiarism". C'mon guys, it has been more than 20 years since Sega released an original entry into the Jet Set Radio series. To bastardise that famous lyric from John Lennon:

"All we are saying is, give Bomb Rush Cyberfunk a chance"

On the day it released, I bought Bomb Rush Cyberfunk for the Nintendo Switch, as that was the only console it was available for initially, and I don’t have a gaming PC, so that option was out. From the outset, the game's cel-shaded look, music and sound effects all felt familiar to me. It was great to jump back into that grinding and tagging gameplay I loved so much, to be transported right back to those special moments of playing the original JSR and Future for the first time. But Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is quick to remind you that while it remains incredibly faithful to its source material, it isn't completely derivative of it. Instead, Team Reptile are here to build and improve, which is exactly what I wanted to see from a spiritual successor to Jet Set Radio. I've always sung the praises of the gameplay refinements that Jet Set Radio Future introduced to the series, and Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is no different, picking up where that game left off but now with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight in its arsenal. Throughout this review, I will be calling back to JSR and Future many times to explain how BRC successfully builds on - or even improves - the formula, but please don't understand this as me disparaging the JSR series at all. Both Jet Set Radio and Jet Set Radio Future will forever remain two of my most favourite games of all time.

Bomb Rush Cyberfunk's plot, while still containing the appropriate dose of hip-hop and street culture references you'd expect, is crazy, and immediately more involved than either of the JSR games. Rather than functioning as stylish avatars for your rollerblading escapades, the main set of characters of the Bomb Rush crew have unique personalities and converse with each other in cutscenes, much of which is humorous and often eccentric. The main character, Red, has a purpose - to get his head, which was chopped clean off his shoulders in the game's prologue, back, while also looking to investigate the past of his replacement head (I said the plot was crazy, didn't I?).

The rival crews, still serving as your opponents throughout the game, also have more purpose in the plot, as Red and his crew not only look to defeat them to become "All City" (to claim all turf in the city), but also to gain information to aid in their hunt for Red's origins. While I won't spoil the plot here, all I'll say is the whole idea of Red being a character patched together from the body and head of two different characters, and the duality that brings, is one of the more refreshing plot ideas I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a video game as of late. There are plenty of surprising twists and turns you may not have been expecting from a game that many will be turning to primarily for its aesthetic qualities, and it is certainly refreshing to see.

Bomb Rush Cyberfunk's cast of characters are all varied in design and dripping with style, with their clothing combining the aesthetics and fashion of not only hip-hop and its b-boy subculture, but also the skate culture of the early 2000s, with some sci-fi flair thrown in for good measure. Characters like Red, with his crimson "cyberhead", and the angel-winged crash dummy Solace stand out as the coolest of the bunch, while story characters like the "oldheads" are more amusing, looking like caricatures of golden age hip-hoppers with their maroon tracksuits and over-sized Kangol-esque hats. One of them even has a cyberhead that looks suspiciously like the mask of the late MF DOOM. DJ Cyber's cold cybernetic mask and long stylised lab coat really set him apart as the menacing antagonist he is and the Dot EXE crew just look fresh as hell with their pool ball cyberheads and two stripe tracksuits. Team Reptile really knocked it out of the park when it came to matching the imaginative character design seen in the games BRC takes influence from, so much so that you will undoubtedly be searching around the game's city to track down more peeps to add to your posse.

Depending on how you look at it, one potential flaw of BRC's playable characters could be that none of them have any stats, meaning that your decision on who to play as solely comes down to how cool you think they look. Jet Set Radio did assign stats to each character, which meant there was a bit of strategy involved when making your choice of whom to tackle a particular level with, but I suppose ultimately it's probably better to be able to play as your favourite character without their weaker stats holding back your enjoyment, and it does feel great to be able to constantly switch between BRC's aesthetically pleasing cast of characters just 'cause.

Credit: JREEL on YouTube

So we've got a great storyline and some cool characters, but how's the gameplay?

Let's start with the graffiti tagging. Any JSR-like game needs a competent tagging system or it's going to fail at the first hurdle. Well, I can happily confirm that tagging in Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is an absolute pleasure. For starters, paint cans are unlimited, with the only meter-filling collectibles being blue and greenish-yellow orbs that give you boost power (more on this shortly). Having unlimited paint cans is a welcome feature which finally makes tagging that rush of instant gratification it should be, without you being stopped dead in your tracks because you forgot to pick up sufficient paint earlier.

When tagging a spot, you are presented with an intuitive quicktime sequence that has you linking up dots, the amount of which differs dependent on the size of the piece you're trying to paint. This system looks to build and improve on the first Jet Set Radio's directional prompts, while also not removing the fun of tagging by over-simplifying it to the point seen in Future, which ditched following quicktime prompts for graffitiing entirely. Also, rather than selecting a loadout of four different-sized tags from an options menu, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk actually lets you tag any of your unlocked tag designs for a specific size at any time, as long as you follow the correct line sequence to paint them.

BRC's tagging feels punchy to perform, fluid to execute, and satisfying to pull off, with the tags you leave in your wake all being nicely varied thanks to the game's emphasis on collecting new graffiti designs, each with their own unique line sequence.

The next important aspect to get right in a game like this is traversal, something which Bomb Rush has executed with flying colours through a combination of parkour (Parkour! Parkour!) and one of three extreme modes of transport. Gone are the days of relying on just rollerblades to get around, as now skateboards and BMX have been added into the mix too, all of which can be switched between in the hideout. Each feels similar, yet differs just enough that it's enjoyable to switch them around from time to time. Transitioning from these rides to parkour and back again mid-combo is seamless too, and true mastery of the game's mechanics relies on being able to use both interchangeably.

BRC's characters all have jetpacks that allow for brief propulsion after a jump, with the aforementioned boost ability enabling you to soar much further in the air if your meter is amply filled. Mid-air movement in BRC feels so damn smooth, especially because you're able to perform a horizontal manoeuvre to face back in the direction you were coming from. This ability to correct your character's trajectory mid-fall saved my ass more times than I can tell you!

While tricks in Jet Set Radio and the points they awarded mainly just existed to add some extra radical flair, BRC puts tricking and scoring front and centre. Seemingly taking influence from the Tony Hawk series, three buttons (X, Y and B on the Switch), can be used to perform and modify tricks, and combos can easily be strung together with manuals and parkour slides. Performing tricks within a single combo fills up the boost meter and brings the ability to pull off special tricks, while a points multiplier also increases every time you execute very specialised manoeuvres like wallrides and grinding around sharp corners for the first time within a combo. You are required to "get gud" fast if you want to progress in the story, and by that I mean spend two minutes learning how it works and you'll be winning turf wars in no time.

With movement and graffiti feeling snappier and more fast-paced, the police chases of BRC are a little more aggressive as a result. At a specific point in each chapter the police are called, after which tagging in the open-world raises your "heat" rating, a la Grand Theft Auto. Like GTA, with each additional star on your heat meter, the police become more challenging, with different types of units from turrets to snipers to helicopters being deployed to put an end to your troublemaking. The turrets shoot chains that grab hold of you and try and pull you towards them, requiring you to mash a button to shake them off. If the cops get to you, they will attack you, but luckily the speed at which health recovers is forgiving if you can make an escape. Pressing the game's three trick buttons while on foot also allows you to throw some attacks of your own right back at them (an act of which can also increase your heat rating). Some have criticised this fighting system, but personally I have no issue with it. It's nothing to write home about, but I found it was consistently easy to spam kicks when in a pinch, which is all I need from it really, although I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say I'm glad it took a backseat within the gameplay.

To eliminate that heat rating entirely, and in turn, the cops, porta potties are dotted around each area which allow you to change your character's costume and get the law off your tail. Travelling back to the hideout also does this. While I do love the variety in police units, and the idea in theory of being able to shake them off at a moment's notice, these police chases fast become a hindrance to story progression rather than an exciting opportunity for virtual tension. With your aim being to tag everything in sight, a heat rating is inevitable, and with a heat rating comes a constant barrage of cops slowing you down. You can't rid yourself of these pursuers by hiding out-of-sight or defeating them in combat, only by getting inside a porta potty. The problem with this is the porta potties become inaccessible temporarily after use, and as the levels get bigger and complex later in the game's story, they become more spread out or are placed in harder to reach places. Of course, you can always return back to the hideout, but this just wastes way more time than is needed, especially when it only takes a single tag to have the cops on your back again.

New Amsterdam, the city of Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, is the perfect canvas for your graffiti spraying hijinks. This magnificent futuristic metropolis is teeming with Y2K aesthetic, and each of its seven boroughs are fresh and exciting as you move between them with the game's storyline.

The areas seen earlier in the game do appear to take a fair amount of inspiration from those of Jet Set Radio Future. The team's hideout is instantly indicative of the one found in that game, with its central elevated platform, scattered chill out spots and surrounding grinding zones. Versum Hill clearly draws inspiration from Dogenzaka Hill, with its long downhill stretches of road and winding backstreets. Brink Terminal is Bomb Rush's nod to Shibuya Terminal, however other than the bus terminal that gives it its namesake, the humongous skyscrapers that surround it give it a whole new identity and really offer players their first taste of verticality as you climb them in search of your next turf war. The vivid green Millennium Mall is a total Y2K overload, delivering an idealist yet oddly nostalgic take on the classic shopping centre.

Probably the game's best levels come later in its campaign. Pyramid Island really takes verticality to another level, with clusters of rails littering the sky being your means to make it all the way to the top. Traversing to the summit of this level almost felt like a puzzle in itself, but I enjoyed every second of the journey. Finally, the absolutely gigantic Mattan is this game's take on the obligatory city-at-night-with-lots-of-neon-lights level but with its own twist of being a floating city in the sky, with canal-like pits and huge animal statues.

Throughout the game's story, Red tries to piece together a flashback that eventually leads to you finding out his origin. During these flashback sequences, you are placed in a dreamlike assault course that gets more complex with each iteration, with the final one really testing all the movement skills you've learnt throughout the game. These abstract worlds are not only a great deviation from the cityscapes of the main game, but also an excellent means of getting your skillz up, yo.

Navigating the game's seven levels can be aided somewhat by your flip phone, which is accessed by pressing up on the directional pad (on the Switch version, at least). No matter where you are or what you're doing, you can pull out your flip phone and check your map, change the music that's playing (an option I always wanted to see from a JSR spiritual successor), check out the graffiti tags you've unlocked or even take a photo. In the middle of pulling off the hottest trick imaginable? No bother, you can still pull that phone out at the same time and do some shit. This simultaneous access to the map makes it super easy to navigate around the city to your next mission marker, although it was definitely a missed opportunity to not have other reoccurring points of interest highlighted on this map too.

These aforementioned "points of interest" include taxi signs that summon a very crazy looking futuristic taxi that can whisk you away to any level you have already unlocked. Then you've got cypher spots, which are chequered dancefloors that, when danced on, summon everyone from your crew so you can switch character. Not only is this a really stylish way to change character, but after you have chosen one, the rest of the crew sticks around to strut their stuff, taking turns to move to the centre of the cypher and bust a move. It's a minor bit of detail, but one that I love so much, and a loving nod to the hip-hop culture that BRC (and JSR before it) draws so much of its inspiration from.

There are also plenty of unlockable items hidden throughout these boroughs. These can include graffiti tags, music, outfits and even designs of skateboards, rollerblades or BMXs. Once I got a taste of these collectibles I wanted to seek them all out. Some require complex manoeuvres to reach, while others are relegated to areas that are blocked off until you meet a requirement to unlock them.

In many levels, Oldheads will block off paths with a stack of boomboxes until you gain enough rep, which are point accumulated by the amount of spots you've tagged. Then you've got Robo Post booths, which require you to high five a number of little robot signs that are dotted around BRC's levels in one combo. Once you've done that, the door to the booth will open, leading to a special room with collectible goodies inside.

These collectibles can also be found by activating ride-specific spots. The first one I encountered in my playthrough was a garage with a bike symbol on it. Roll up to it on a BMX, wait a second, and it opens, revealing your prize. Simple enough. It turned out that there were also spots like this for skateboards and rollerblades, but I only found out about these after looking online, as nothing in the game explains how to activate them. The skateboard can spin on red fire hydrant-like poles to raise them higher and provide access to hard-to-reach places. Furthermore, cess sliding on glass floors with rollerblades can shatter them to reveal secret areas below. Once I knew how to interact with these spots, I had a lot of fun hunting them down, but prior to looking online, I just assumed they were part of the scenery. Nothing in the game explains how they work, and unlike the garage doors with a huge bike symbol on them, nothing indicates their interactivity with skateboards or rollerblades. Without any prior knowledge, even the most discerning player is likely to just skate past them.

Finally, we can't discuss a spiritual successor to Jet Set Radio and not analyse the music. While Bomb Rush Cyberfunk's soundtrack is mostly curated from already existing songs, with only an assortment being wholly original works, it still scratches all the necessary sonic itches to make it a worthy JSR-like soundtrack, with plenty of sample use, futuristic production and J-pop vocals. Some more contemporary styles are even thrown into the mix, such as trap, dubstep and hyperpop to round the playlist out nicely.

While the soundtrack has many good moments, plenty of which are from artists I'd never heard of before, the standout tracks are of course the few composed by Hideki Naganuma, which shine with the energetic production style he's so renowned for. 2 Mello also makes an appearance, and is a great placement by Team Reptile as it shows that they've clearly had their eye on the wider Jet Set Radio community.

Sadly, a fair few tracks, while enjoyable enough, fail to match the boisterous energy many players may be expecting from a spiritual successor like this, with some even becoming a bit repetitive after repeated listens. This audio fatigue isn't helped by the fact that you initially spend quite a long time in the game's open-world with only limited mixes on loop, although this does improve as you unlock more songs.

While the soundtrack of Bomb Rush Cyberfunk perhaps doesn't boast the same longevity as those of the previous two Jet Set Radio games, I do appreciate that they are both incredibly tough acts to follow, and Team Reptile won’t have been working with the same budget as a Sega that managed to wrangle song licenses from Jurassic 5 and Rob Zombie. To me, it is incredibly noteworthy that, while supplying a fair few tunes to satisfy the core JSR fans, Team Reptile actually branched out and experimented with new ideas, potentially setting the stage for a whole new era of what people refer to as “the JSR sound” (or I guess "the BRC sound"?). And for that, I tip my hat to them.

Bomb Rush Cyberfunk performs well, even on the Switch, which is obviously the weakest platform of the bunch it has released on. While the game is capped at 30 frames per second by default (on the Switch, at least), the settings menu has an option to turn on "beast mode", which ups the frame rate to 60. I turned this on at the beginning of my playthrough, and have experienced approximately zero issues with slowdown in the many hours I have sunk into this game, even in docked mode.

As I got the game on release, it was only natural that I encountered some quirks and issues that subsequent players may not experience now the game has received multiple update patches. I had problems with the first set of cutscenes going black, and, once or twice, I clipped through scenery I shouldn't have been able to. I also noticed quite a few instances of text that could've benefited from more attentive copyediting, such as when a character says "make a picture" when they want you to take a picture with your phone. Despite these problems, Team Reptile are very active in their Discord community, and are taking into account any issues or suggested improvements, such as putting a cypher spot in the hideout, a change which fans really wanted and that became a reality in the game's first patch.

I absolutely loved the many hours I spent with Bomb Rush Cyberfunk. Every second I spent traversing and tagging its vibrant Y2K-influenced world took me right back to those precious moments I spent with the GGs in Jet Set Radio's Tokyo-To. It may have a different name and development team behind it, but everything Team Reptile has created here is a wholehearted love letter to Jet Set Radio, and essentially functions as a reboot of JSR's established legacy. In some cases, it is even already in the process of writing its own path forward. Any fans of JSR owe it to themselves to give it a try, and also to keep a close eye on what Team Reptile brings out next.

Bomb Rush Cyberfunk can be purchased digitally for PC and Nintendo Switch, as well as PlayStation and Xbox platforms. iam8bit have physical versions available for pre-order also.


Dreamcast Enjoyer said...

Absolutely fantastic article, Lewis - I couldn't agree more!

When I got this one, I pulled an all-nighter playing through the whole story and it's the most nostalgic I've felt in years!

DCGX said...

Yay! I'm waiting on my physical Xbox copy to ship from iam8bit.

Tom Charnock said...

Excellent review, can see the passion you have for the original and now this homage. I had honestly totally forgotten about BRC but I may now investigate further on the back of this review. Nice one Lewis!

Le Rowe said...

Supper bummed that all those lovely character don't have any characterful stats. I'd spend ages comparing everyones stats in JSR+F and what that meant for their personality. And it wasn't just window dressing too. Every level was a sort of 3D puzzle and the range of characters provided various ways to tackle it.

Very sad that they didn't go there but I understand how the stats may have been underrated for gameplay.