A good brawler game is always good for a few mindless hours of button mashing. Whether it’s classics like Double Dragon or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the PS2 or brand new entries like a smashy Lego game, it’s a gameplay formula that’s hard to get wrong. Unfortunately, there’s a trend for the stories of some of these games to focus on heroic police officers taking the law into their own hands by beating everyone around them into a bloody pulp. It… doesn’t feel great.
Mayhem Brawler falls squarely into both of those trends. It's a pretty straightforward and fun game that has heroes that are maybe just a little bit fascist. Through a branching storyline and cutscenes featuring an in-universe social-media feed, it seems like it's at least trying to grapple with whether or not the force employed is excessive.
Brawl, Brawl Again
The basic gameplay of Mayhem Brawler is immediately familiar to anyone who has played a beat 'em up game before. You play as either a big beefy guy or a fast girl or a well-rounded dude. You can punch, block, grapple, pick up weapons, and eat food you find in oil drums just like any other brawler game. The bold lines around the characters and general comic book feel made Mayhem Brawler feel especially reminiscent of last year's Streets of Rage 4.
There's nothing at all wrong with the gameplay here, but it doesn't do much to stand out, either. The combat all feels fine, but it also feels a little bit routine. When I hopped into multiplayer with my wife, I definitely had a lot more fun. Just like the most recent Battletoads game, Mayhem Brawler supports up to three players at a time. Also like Battletoads, there is no online mode, so you're friends will have to be within punching distance in order for them to join in on the fun.
A City Full of Magic, Mutations, and Multiple Choices
Along with its comic book style, Mayhem Brawler boasts a pretty fun story setting. Instead of just beating up waves and waves of gangsters and goons, you'll find yourself matched up against vampires, mages, zombies, and all sorts of interesting character designs. Even the player characters all have one foot in the otherworldly. The variety of weird characters you come up against reminded me a lot of how Shadowrun manages to incorporate fantasy and the real world, but with a bright, comic book sheen.
Some of the boss battles that you come up against are especially exemplary. One level had me facing off against a video game-obsessed wereboar, while the next had a scantily clad rat queen.
After each mission, you are presented with a choice on how you proceed. Sometimes this is a decision on whether to arrest the boss you just beat, while other times it's deciding which lead to follow up on. This is a great way to add replayability to the game, since the choices you make influence which levels, bosses, and ending you'll see. Letting the player choose whether to arrest or release perpetrators also gives the player some ownership over how the police operate.
All of the fantastical character designs in Mayhem Brawler don't take away from the core of the story, which is that you are playing as police officers who are absolutely beating the heck out of a massive number of private citizens. I know that this genre kind of necessitates that amount of violence, but ever since I played Super Punch Patrol last year, games where you play as a cop have felt a bit iffy to me.
Within the confines of the game, I think that Mayhem Brawler has a reasonably nuanced approach to social commentary. Each level starts with a comic book stylized cutscene, which includes a running social media feed on the side of the screen. Having this running alongside “footage” of the cops interrogating the boss they just defeated does an okay job of showing how public reception and response to policing happens, and how it can be exaggerated or taken out of context. Unfortunately, the player characters sometimes chime in on the social media app with things like “You should have gone for the eyes”, which really undermines their heroic depictions.
Ultimately, the game does seem to be erring on the side of the police. I understand why since that is who the players are operating as, but it still feels a bit weird to me that these folks are presented as being beyond reproach as they beat up werewolves and other “others” when the real world has such a problem with overly enthusiastic police brutalizing minority populations.
So here's the thing about this game. Within the game itself, I have very little to complain about. It's a perfectly competent beat 'em up with solid gameplay, a cool art style, and a branching storyline. Looking at it in a broader, worldview, I think there are a lot of problems with any story that celebrates police brutality the way that this game and many games in this genre tend to do.
My absolute biggest problem with this game actually comes from its marketing. When you look this game up on storefronts, one of the paragraph headers it has listed in all capital letters as a major selling point is “EXCESSIVE FORCE”, and that is horrifyingly tone-deaf in today's world.