Windows Central Verdict
As a longtime fan of beat ‘em ups, I absolutely adored Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. The combat system is extremely in-depth and addictive, the huge roster of characters is fun to play with and the roguelike elements massively improve the replay value. I highly recommend this game if you’re a fan of Double Dragon or beat ‘em ups in general as this is one of the best examples of the genre.
Tag-based combat system with fighting game mechanics
Huge roster to experiment with
Roguelike elements keep playthroughs fresh
Advanced difficulty options
Certain enemies can be annoying in solo mode.
No online multiplayer feature.
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One of my favorite video game genres growing up in the 1990s was the side-scrolling beat ‘em up. I have fond memories of playing brawlers like Streets of Rage 2 and Golden Axe with my friends as we charged through hordes of goons, beating the stuffing out of them to de-stress after a long day at school.
Sadly, over the years, the 2D beat ‘em up genre started to decline in popularity during the early to late 2000’s but they have thankfully made a resurgence over the past decade and a half. We’ve had original modern hits like Castle Crashers and Guacamelee! Not to mention, the return of beloved franchises with new entries such as Streets of Rage 4, Battletoads (2020), River City Girls, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge.
Today’s subject falls under the latter category and that game is Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. This is the newest installment of the Double Dragon franchise, an old series of beat ‘em ups that, along with Capcom’s Final Fight, helped define the gameplay conventions of the genre all the way back in the 1980s. I personally never played the original NES Double Dragons as a kid but I did have fun playing Double Dragon Neon on the Xbox 360 back in 2013.
So, when I first saw Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons’ retro aesthetic, cool-looking combat system, and the introduction of roguelike elements to the series, I just had to check it out. Thankfully with a review code provided by Modus Games (the game’s publisher), I was able to do just that. I’m so grateful that they did because Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragon is one of the best beat ‘em ups I have played in a long time.
Disclaimer: This review was made possible thanks to a review code provided by Modus Games. The company did not see the contents of this review before publishing.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons — The pros
Developer: Secret Base Pte Ltd
Publisher: Modus Games
Genre: Beat ‘em up
Playtime: 18 hours
Release date: July 27, 2023
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC (Steam)
Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
The premise of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is that in the year 199X, New York City has been taken over by four powerful gangs who have been crushing everyone standing in their way, including the police. Unable to stomach this injustice, the famed martial arts brothers, Billy and Jimmy Lee team up with their friends Marian and Uncle Matin taking the law into their own hands to liberate their city from these villains.
Players can choose to tackle the four gangs in any order through a stage selection screen. Once they have chosen a stage, they will have to punch and kick their way through hordes of bad guys in order to reach their leader at the end of the stage and defeat them. Sounds simple at first but you will quickly discover that this game has more to it than meets the eye.
Every time you clear a stage, the other stages will increase their difficulty level by adding extra areas and mini-bosses to challenge you. Also, gang leader bosses will become stronger and use different tactics compared to if you had chosen to run through their stage first.
For example, without delving into spoiler territory, in my first playthrough, the first stage I chose was straightforward and short, with the gang leader at the end having a basic move-set to deal with. Then in my next playthrough, I chose the aforementioned stage last and it became three-times as long by introducing new areas which involved avoiding traps and bottomless pits. Also, the gang leader I defeated in the previous playthrough gained a completely different form with an upgraded move-set and was now accompanied by two mini-bosses.
I like this gameplay structure as it helps to keep repeat playthroughs fresh by letting you experience the bosses and stages in different ways depending on which order you choose.
Punch, kick, and tag-team your way to victory
With such odds stacked against you, it’s a good thing Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons offers a unique combat system to give players a fighting chance. Each character you play has a wide range of attacks, special moves, and combo attacks they can perform to lay the smackdown on bad guys. This is standard beat ‘em up gameplay so far but Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons massively shakes up the formula by allowing the player to control not one but two characters!
That’s right! Unlike most beat ‘em ups where you only play as one character, this game allows you to control two characters that you can switch back and forth with through a tag-mechanic similar to team-based fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom. By spending resources from the special move gauge, you can tag in your secondary character to save your primary character from being overwhelmed by enemies or extend combos by swapping in a character while another is performing a special move.
I absolutely loved the combat system in this game. Each character I played felt unique and fun to play because they each have distinctive move-sets, strengths, and weaknesses. In addition, there are all sorts of secret techniques which are more commonly found in fighting games rather than beat ‘em ups that help elevate the combat system’s complexity. You can cancel moves prematurely to transition into other moves via jump-cancelling, dash-cancelling, or special move-cancelling. You can air-juggle enemies to keep them trapped in the air and even find ways to reset your combos to either extend them or get out of the way of an incoming attack.
Even without the tag-mechanic, this game’s combat system would’ve earned praise from me but with it, the tag-mechanic takes Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons to a whole new level of excitement. The idea of being able to play as multiple characters was a stroke of genius by the developers as it helps prevent the game from getting stale from only playing as one character the entire time during a playthrough. I spent the majority of my playtime just experimenting to see which character’s playstyles synergized the best in terms of damage output and crowd control.
In fact, the game even encourages experimentation as killing multiple enemies at once using special moves or tag-based combo attacks causes them to drop food that can be used to restore your health in a pinch. It was extremely satisfying when the game rewarded me for successfully pulling off tag-team combos, laying waste to crowds of enemies and bosses alike and I never tired of doing this during my repeat playthroughs.
Roguelike elements and endgame rewards galore
Another important piece of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons’ gameplay I need to highlight is the roguelike elements. Throughout each stage, you will find money either on the ground, hidden in boxes, or dropped by enemies upon their demise. When you defeat bosses, you will be given an opportunity to spend your cash on a random selection of upgrades for your characters. These upgrades range from increasing your health, increasing the damage of special moves, increasing your defense stats, reducing the cost of resources special moves require, knocking back enemies when you tag in characters to give them a safe entry, and more.
If there aren’t any upgrades you want, you can choose to save your money for later when you find a more favorable set of upgrades or use your money to give yourself an extra life every time you die in battle. However, be careful when using money for extra lives as this cost will escalate every time you’re defeated.
These roguelike elements are engrossing as they add levels of strategy during playthroughs. Sometimes I would spend my money to give myself a damage boost to kill enemies faster. Other times I would not spend money at all and save it to buy extra lives when dealing with a stage or boss I’m struggling with so I can beat them through a war of attrition. I also love how this game uses money gained by enemies as a means to gain extra lives. It invokes that nostalgic feeling of playing beat ‘em ups on arcade machines back in the 1990s when you had to feed the machine quarters to obtain extra continues if you run out of lives.
The last major component of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons’ gameplay is the acquisition of Tokens as they are the source of the game’s endgame content. Tokens are in-game currency that can be earned by buying them at the upgrade shops using money from enemies or by completing or abandoning a playthrough.
Tokens are used to buy concept art, music, and in-game tips about the game’s mechanics and enemies. Also, most importantly of all – Tokens are used to unlock new playable characters. In addition to Billy, Jimmy, Marian, and Uncle Matin, there are nine characters to unlock for a total roster size of 13 playable characters. This adds a ton of replay value to the game as each of these unlockable characters are just as, if not more enjoyable to play than the base roster and provides a huge incentive for playing the game over and over again.
In addition, you can increase or decrease the number of Tokens you earn at the end of a run by adjusting the game’s difficulty settings when starting a new playthrough. It’s not a simple choice of choosing ‘easy’, ‘normal’, or ‘hard’ either, you can change almost every facet of the game’s difficulty. These options range from adjusting your maximum health, the enemies’ stats, and AI aggression, activating Permadeath mode so you can't use continues, and more.
If you choose to make the game easier, you will earn fewer Tokens upon completing a run but if you adjust the game’s difficulty settings to be harder, you will earn more. Not only are these advanced difficulty options a great way to tweak the game to suit your personal comfort levels without sacrificing too much of the challenge. They also encourage players to push themselves if they wish to earn more Tokens by tackling the game at a harder level of difficulty.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons — The cons
Honestly, I have very little to complain about with Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons as I loved it from start to finish. The only nitpicks I have are that while the majority of regular enemies and bosses are fun to fight, there are some which can be an annoying hassle to take on solo. This is especially true if you don’t have certain upgrades or you are playing at higher difficulty levels. They often employ tactics that involve constantly teleporting away or spamming ranged attacks that can knock you off ledges.
Thankfully, you can avoid certain gang leaders’ more irritating forms if you choose to tackle their stages early so they will be in a weaker state. Otherwise, they are a pesky but minor inconvenience to this amazing game.
Also, it would be nice if this game had an online co-op feature in addition to the local co-op feature. I had so much fun playing this game solo, I can’t imagine how fantastic it would be to play with both friends and even strangers online as we combined our teams’ moves to unleash tag-team pandemonium on our enemies.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons — Should you play it?
In conclusion, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons was a blast to play. The combat system and character playstyles are richly diverse and the retro 16-bit graphics are well-animated and charming to look at. Also, it has a ton of replay value thanks to its ever-evolving stages, engaging roguelike elements, post-game unlockable content, and other surprises to keep you enthralled.
If you’re a long-time fan of Double Dragon or a fan of beat ‘em ups, I wholeheartedly recommend this title when it launches for Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and 5, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam on July 27, 2023.
Not only is Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons one of the best games in the entire Double Dragon series, it's one of the finest modern beat ‘em ups on Xbox. I hope Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons comes to Xbox Game Pass someday as this game deserves to sit among the best games in the Xbox Game Pass library.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons has certainly lived up to its name, ‘rising’ above my expectations and beyond. It is an excellent beat ‘em up which combines old-school arcade action with an advanced tag-based combat system and roguelike elements that keep the gameplay fresh and stimulating.
Alexander Cope is a gaming veteran of 30-plus years, primarily covering PC and Xbox games here on Windows Central. Gaming since the 8-bit era, Alexander's expertise revolves around gaming guides and news, with a particular focus on Japanese titles from the likes of Elden Ring to Final Fantasy. Alexander is always on deck to help our readers conquer the industry's most difficult games — when he can pry himself away from Monster Hunter that is!