With an annual onslaught of sequels, remakes, and derivative copy-cat titles, it’s easy to become cynical during E3. But look past the assurance-promoting pressers or the ostentatious showfloor booths, and you might find the rare indie gem that can renew a sense of enthusiasm. And that’s exactly what happened when I stepped away from the Convention Center to meet with Shawn Alexander Allen and take to the streets of Beatdown City at a nearby hotel lobby.
Initially, screenshots of Treachery in Beatdown City seemed rather unassuming. A number of other indie titles have paid homage to the pixelated urban settings and sprite-based combatants of Technōs Japan’s Double Dragon and Kunio-kun series. Certainly, Beatdown recreates the expressive faces of these bygone brawlers, with flailing foes exposing doe-eyed astonishment as they land on their asses. But if Allen just tried to imitate the button-mashing kicks, punches, and elbow strikes of thirty-year-old games, there would be little reason for excitement.
But instead of focusing solely on real-time action, Beatdown City’s fisticuffs are mostly managed by turn-based commands. When you’re in one of the single-screen fighting arenas, your character moves around like any classic two-dimensional brawler. In keeping with tradition, you can throw simple jabs, which are useful for finishing off a stunned foe or destroying the occasional environmental object that might be hiding a heath-restoring item. When you’re not engaged in combat, you’ll gradually refill your bank of Fighting Points (or FP).
Move into close proximity with a foe, press a button, and time pauses, revealing a myriad of ways to spend your accumulated FP. Like Final Fight, Beatdown City offers a selection of three protagonists, each with their district ability set, with a wrestler, a boxer, and martial artist all ready to give foes a good thrashing. I started off with Brad “The Bull Killer” Steele, a former pro wrestler, that Allen warned might statically miss grappling an opponent, but if he did get a hold of them, there’d be a number of punishing moves that could be dished out.
In execution, Beatdown City’s turns played out almost like X-COM, as I spent my pool of FP. Like any respectable strategy game, it was a bit overwhelming at first, but with Allen’s assistance, I began to see the risk/reward mechanics at play. Sure, Brad could play it safe with low-risk but moderate-yield moves, but he could also play the odds, hoping to pull off an incapacitating suplex or a lariat. But the gratifying strikes weren’t immediately available. In saying true to wrestling form, I’d have to wear down my opponent, back away to store up some FP, before attempting a showy, but heath-depleting showcase move. But within minutes, things clicked, and I was able to defeat a few multiple on-screen foes.
After my success with Brad Steele, I was eager to take control of Bruce Maxwell, a Jeet Kune Do/Capoeira specialist. Like his namesake, Bruce was a lightweight, speedy fighter who had a plethora on moves to draw upon. My initial concern was that Bruce would play too similarly, swapping body splashes for a spinning back kick. But the fighter felt fundamentally different. Adhering to the type of strategies I used with Brad gradually led to defeat. Determined to beat these bullies, I didn’t get to see much of Lisa Santiago repertoire, but from what I did experience, I’m convinced Allen endowed her with distinction as well.
Interestingly, I got a rare peek behind the production curtain, as Allen set up each match on his Switch development kit. Fights were formed on a menu screen, they allowed for a multitude of options, from the backdrop, the type of each foe, as well as NPCs that performed different functions. One set-up had a female who remained on the right side of the screen, periodically cheering, which improved everyone’s stats. Shockingly, when the other enemies were defeated she came after my fighter, resulting in a punishing sucker punch. I took that as a sign that Shawn Alexander Allen likes to keep players on their toes and await more of these surprises.
As someone who appreciates subtext in games, I’m glad there’s more than just imitation of absurd eighties-era storyline. On the surface, the premise of kidnapping US President Blake Orama by the Ninja Dragon Terrorists offers the kind of setup that might have lost some of its luster after years of use. But peer closer, and you’ll glean insight into New York politics with the billionaire mayor, Mike Moneybag’s inaction commenting on former New York City head Michael Bloomberg’s track record. What’s skilled about Allen’s commentary is the subtlety, so even if you don’t agree with his standpoint, it can easy be overlooked as you continue to beat opponents. As someone who’s lived in New York, the developer tosses in gentle nods, and even explained a placard in one backdrop was a refence to a poster from when his father played at one of the clubs in the city.
Arriving on Switch and PC, Treachery in Beatdown City offers an ingenious interpretation of street fighting. Success in strategy-driven games is often contingent on variety, and between a trio of protagonists, and over sixty different foes, and elements that mix up the confrontation, the game seems to have this covered. Beatdown City demonstrates that’s there’s still room for a scrappy underdog to outfight and outthink their opponents, both on-screen and across the larger context.