Agents of Mayhem seems desperate to prove it’s a standalone franchise, unfettered by the Saints Row series it was (very loosely) spun off from. Where the Saints offered irreverent, stylish lunacy that celebrated chaos with surprising doses of humanity, Agents of Mayhem offers something far more buttoned up, more controlled.
While forging its own path, Agents of Mayhem has discarded a few key components from its predecessor. Namely: humor, coherence and charm.
In this new reality (as suggested by one of a few alternate endings in standalone expansion Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell) the Saints gang is no more, and in its place are world-policing super cops, the titular Agents of Mayhem. The game plays out in a similar fashion to the open-world, third-person shooting of the Saints Row series, except now you control multiple characters. Your chosen squad of three agents descend from their hover fortress and try in G.I. Joe-esque fashion to thwart the evil Legion’s plans for world domination.
The team is comprised of a wildly diverse crew, each with their own weapons and special abilities. The roster is easily the strongest point of Agents of Mayhem, full of characters that are paper thin, but clearly drawn, which helps to instantly establish their identity.
There’s a former yakuza enforcer, a gatling gun-wielding, hungover roller derby star, a cigar chomping sergeant who’s been betrayed by her squad and many more characters that all feel equally novel. A handful of characters are alternate-dimension versions of Saints stalwarts, one of the few tangible connections to that series.
You can swap between the three agents you bring into the field instantly, letting you chain their different special attacks together for maximum impact. There are some clever choices here too. Derby star Daisy, for example, has to cool off her minigun by dashing through enemies, which turns a typically boring weapon cooldown mechanic into a renewable power resource.
Everybody on the squad also has their own “Mayhem” abilities that lets you turn the tables on a huge group of enemies (accompanied by a killer music cue specific to each hero). In my personal favorite, Scheherazade, the Snake Eyes of the team, turns invisible and starts insta-killing enemies from the shadows.
The stage would appear to be set for hours of brainless fun, but Agents of Mayhem manages to take a perfectly lovely setup and then botch its execution in almost every conceivable fashion.
Remember those great characters? Well, practically all their dialogue is bland beyond belief. Much of the writing in Agents of Mayhem is “joke adjacent,” meaning it’s delivered with the tone, pacing and structure of a joke, but is not, in actuality, funny in any way.
The following is a representative exchange while tracking down Justin Bieber clone August Gaunt (might I say, so relieved someone’s finally making fun of Justin Bieber):
“I recognize that stench,” says a member of your team, “it’s Douche Cologne.”
“Uhh, it’s French,” Gaunt replies “it’s pronounced Dou-che.”
[pause for laughs, wait eternally]
Saints Row was no Algonquin Round Table, but at least it cobbled together the occasional belly laugh, if only through sheer audacity. Agents of Mayhem has all the wit and verve of an Abercrombie model gargling Axe Body Spray.
Remember all those cool powers? You’re sadly going to be using them in the same dull scenarios over, and over, and over again. Drive to the waypoint, hack a terminal using the same boring minigame, then clear out a cookie cutter underground lair, which appear to differ only in the order their component rooms are assembled.
Even when the game dips briefly into VR (a concept that has been put to great effect in the Saints Row games), the best gameplay twist Agents of Mayhem can cook up is “Jump around on these platforms and open some chests.”
There are plenty of different types of enemies, but the only way you’ll need to vary your strategy is using agents that can drain shields on shielded enemies and armor-draining heroes on armored enemies. (Agents of Mayhem can’t even trust you with that, it prompts you to switch characters if you’re ever mismatched.) Even the Mayhem powers, which vary so wildly in concept, boil down to “Activate and shoot everybody.”
You unlock ability-altering gadgets which, in theory, should keep things fresh, but you get them at such a fast pace, it’s nearly impossible to get comfortable with any of them. Besides, the action is so frantic that tracking the impact of each is nearly impossible.
The team is also able to equip consumable tools, but since there’s one that instantly revives your team after a wipe if you have it equipped, there was zero incentive to ever experiment with the rest of them, negating the entire mechanic.
Switching between heroes allows non-active characters to refill their health, so the greatest gameplay challenge is the total lack of visual or audio feedback on your character being close to death. Death comes from nowhere, a punishment for not being able to track your health bar in the multicolored, frame-rate killing pyrotechnics.
If things get too hairy, of course, you could always switch between one of the, I kid you not, sixteen different difficulty levels. The game suggests one based (presumably) on the level of your agents, but that many levels of possible variation left me with the uneasy feeling that I was expected to balance the game’s difficulty on my own.
There is no respite to be found Agents of Mayhem’s side activities, thanks in large part to one baffling decision. In the open world, agents are able to take control of four towers from Legion, which let you complete side missions that start automatically generating free cash or unlock warp points. Only Legion will, inexplicably, take these towers back from time to time, forcing you to redo not only the towers but also the associated side missions (none of which were particularly enjoyable the first time). It’s infuriating.
I could go on. In fact, I will. Your talking car repeats dialogue with maddening frequency, begging the question of why the car had to talk in the first place. Missions have set start points, but every one begins with forcing you to drive to a different start point. To unlock cool Agency cars (which are actually fun to drive), you have to drive crappy civilian cars (which are not) to garages while super-powered enemies run you off the road.
Speaking of cars: “Kill everybody” missions are occasionally broken up by street races, but all of them are so poorly balanced, I typically finished with them with literal minutes to spare.
And oh my goodness, the bugs. One time I couldn’t summon my car until I rebooted the game. Tutorial and mission prompts will sometimes remain on screen until you reboot the game. One time my quest marker disappeared in a lair, and my aimless wandering left plenty of time to stew about how terribly designed it was.
This has likely started to feel like a litany of sins rather than cogent critique, but it’s the best way I have of illustrating Agent of Mayhem’s failings. It is not felled by any one thing, but is rather undone by a thousand little cuts. Agents of Mayhem heaps theoretical fun on you. Characters, powers, upgrades, tons of missions — it’s desperate for the player to just have fun. It’s a noble impulse, but one that it’s depressingly incapable of consistently delivering on.
Agents of Mayhem was reviewed using a pre-release final reviewable Steam key provided by Deep Silver. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.