Oh, Those Days?
Days when the air was heavy with the scent of brut pilfered from parental medicine cabinets, the walls tacky with the residue of panda-brand cola? When mullets collided with flattops, double denim was everywhere, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke and hairspray was part of the experience. The arcades of the late 80’s little resembled their by-then antediluvian forebears; the neon signs skipped letters, floor tiles had yellowed, and the undersides of tables were textured with middens of long-forgotten gum. The old favourites could still be found, aged cabinets tucked away in quiet corners: Galaga, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, et al. They were there, but mastery of them earned you precisely zero minus infinity cred in the eyes of your peers.
One genre reigned supreme as the 80s was dragged kicking and screaming into the 90s. This was the age of the beat-em-up.
Ah, to go back to those days.
Not literally, of course; that would be hideous. The 80s – surprising no one -- gave way to the 90s without so much a shrug of its shoulders. An era of urban renewal (thanks, neoliberalism, I guess?) was thrust upon a population that had grown used to endless depreciation. Local authorities cleaned up city centres, home consoles suddenly weren’t shit, and games featuring wave upon wave of punks ‘n’ thugs hitting people in the face with crowbars gave way to more gentlemanly pursuits. That those pursuits included kicking an opponent until their energy bar made like a theology student discovering Robert Hume was neither here nor there. The scrolling beat 'em up was out; the fighting game was in; a skilled battle of wits and reflexes reminiscent of the gladiatorial combat of old save for the pecs, veganism, and hideous, life-changing dismemberment.
Fight Club 18-30
Osprey Game’s Urban Decay pits players against the machinations of your usual collection of city-dwelling ne'er-do-wells: gang bosses, property tycoons, drug lords and pimps. The game’s focus on fast-paced combat is the main draw here. The familiar D&D tropes of hitting something until either you – or it – falls down is entirely absent. Here, the ‘Clash System’ provides players dynamic back-and-forth battles split between actions, reactions, and special moves. Did some punk swing a baseball bat at you? Spend a clash point to sweep his legs from under him before he connects. Dive for cover to avoid a spray of bullets, ‘glass’ a would-be crime boss as he lunges at you with a knife or kick a gun out of an assassin's hand before he can ‘plug you good’. The pool of clash points available to player characters is a finite resource, but it resets at the end of each round, ensuring that the action never really lets up.
It’s all so deliciously vicious.
Still, the game's tone is left to the GM and players. Set in a fictional city stitched together from generic parts (docklands, dredges, midtown, warehouses and so on), GMs can create a game that is more John Wick than Street of Rage or perhaps even blend the two into a gritty, full-throated game of neon destruction. Players roll D100 to decide upon the success of any action they wish to perform, attempting to roll under their skill whilst somewhat perversely still trying to roll higher than any opponent they happen to be facing.
Rules for constructing your city are included, although sans an actual supplement, expect to either put in some serious work or settle for a somewhat bare-bones backdrop. Not that anything is stopping you from playing in a real-world setting; the game lends itself well to a shadowed version of reality, supra neon Tokyo’s 70’s blight New York, modern-day Detroit.
That sort of thing.
The book also provides the tools needed to create the hordes of opponents your player’s crew inevitably find themselves wading through. These come in four flavours ‘Mooks,’ Elites, Lieutenants and Bosses. Mooks represent the rank-and-file cannon fodder one might expect from this genre; solo, they are little threat to a well-disciplined crew, and in most cases, they roam the city in packs. Lieutenants up the ante with special moves, a self-contained pool of clash points (Mooks have to share theirs) and the ability to flee the scene to provide an encore moment further down the line. Sandwiched between these two are the elites, more formidable opponents who can go toe to toe with a player – though not so tough that they can take down a whole crew. Lastly, there are the bosses, the main villains of the game. Often larger-than-life characters and powerful in their own right, they are elusive figures who make their presence known via perfidious schemes, rumours, and the confessions of vanquished lieutenants. Crew members will have to fight their way through an entire organisation of bad guys to get a crack at them, and when they do, it is inevitably the dramatic showdown at the end of a protracted story beat.
Illustrations are a strong point here, with full-colour splash panels depicting a pastel, Manga punk aesthetic that suits the game's mood down to a tee. The book is also well written, but the included adventure disappointingly cuts off halfway through, at the ‘confront the Lieutenant, stage of the arc. Still, the book retails well below the buy-in cost for most new RPGS, and the sense that Osprey is trying to give you the tools to create whatever kind of fighting game you desire is palpable. The sandbox works, and that’s what counts.
What works less well is the construction of the campaigns themselves. Drawing from the story beats of Streets of Rage or John Wicke is like trying to draw water from a frozen well. The focus of the game rests squarely on the clashes that take place within the narrative. Osprey seems to understand this and has split gaming sessions into ‘levels’, each building towards a climatic showdown of epic proportions. And then? The default position is that it is very much ‘Game Over’ with the tantalising prospect of a sequel left to box office – or, in this case, player – reception.
All of which leaves us with a game that is easy to pick up and fun to play but also sorely lacking in longevity. The endless fights, the waves of enemies, and the three-colour villains are fun to battle.
Until they aren’t.
Urban Decay is one of those games you’ll want to dive into from time to time, a filler game for those moments when your regular players can’t make it to the table one Friday night. The exhilaration of the clash is enough to keep players coming back for more, but a targeted game packed full of nuance, storytelling, and subtlety, it most assuredly is not.