If you've been playing video games for a long time, the opening for Treachery in Beatdown City instantly evokes feelings. There are open homages to the "Winners Don't Use Drugs" screens that were plastered over 90s arcade games, beat 'em ups like Bad Dudes and Final Fight, and the glut of ninja-focused NES titles. As you dive a little further, a number of sprites look to be inspired by Double Dragon and the overworld map of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Layered over these visual homages is what I would call Mad Magazine-style satire. The blunt kind that's only a single step away from direct references, rooted in our reality from early 2010s. Ninja terrorists have kidnapped the President of the United States, Blake Orama, and the police force is doing nothing because mayor Mike Moneybags doesn't care. You'll get into fights with gym rats, folks hocking mixtapes, and rich kids trying to score drugs. Treachery in Beatdown City is clearly coming from a specific perspective, with things to say about race and other social issues.
You'll trudge across the city on the overworld map, getting into fights and grudge matches that play out like a normal side-scrolling beat 'em up. Many of the same rules apply, like how it behooves you to approach enemies at an angle above or below, instead of walking directly at them, or trying to time attacks to hit multiple enemies at once. You can just pound the punch button to wail on enemies, but you probably won't get far.
Underneath the beat 'em up presentation is a deeper, more strategic combat system. (It recalls the Nintendo 64 title Hybrid Heaven.) You step into the bare knuckle world of three protagonists: Lisa Santiago, daughter of the local police chief; former wrestler Brad Steele, and Bruce Maxwell, a sometimes day trader who's just as good with his feet. Each brawler has a series of unique strikes and grapples; hit a button and time stops, showing you a menu with all of your characters' abilities.
Every attack has a Fight Point (FP) cost and costs one Action Bar, out of the three total you have. You start every encounter with only a portion of your maximum FP. It builds at a consistent rate, but if you successfully pull off combos, you'll gain bonus FP. Your aim is to build momentum in combat, with smaller combos leading to larger, more powerful ones. Once you've gotten going, you'll thrash enemy after enemy, tossing out uppercuts, roundhouses, and knee strikes like Tony Jaa. Combos are love, combos are life.
Treachery in Beatdown City what combos can be used depends on the enemies you're facing. The faster Sneaky type enemies have a higher evade, meaning basic strikes will likely miss. Instead, you have to use grapple moves to start your combos. Grapplers on the other hand will counter you if you try to open up with a grapple move, forcing you to start with strikes instead. You only control one of the three characters at a time, with each having a focus: Lisa is your all-rounder, Bruce leans on strike combos that can unlock buffs and debuffs, and Brad on grapples. Treachery in Beatdown City relies heavily on the player knowing exactly what they're up against, and choosing the right attacks to exploit their weaknesses.
This additional tactical layer is the strength of Treachery in Beatdown City. It's a rarity compared to other straight retro-style beat 'em ups. It feels great once you get into the rhythm of a fight and move from enemy to enemy, dishing out huge, punishing combos.
The problem is that across the two chapters available at launch—with a promise of a future, free chapter—is that the combat settles into a rut of familiarity. You'll gain further moves and combos as you play, but you don't really need them. Many of your stronger moves can be randomly countered by certain enemies, whereas your basic strikes cannot. It's easier to stick with basic strikes, even once you unlock weapons and revenge attacks later on. Some tuning to make your standard attacks weaker and make your later attacks more useful would help. (It's worth noting that Hybrid Heaven, which I mentioned before, also had this issue of settling into a repetitive pattern.)
The composition of Treachery in Beatdown City also blunts some of the immediacy of other story-light beat 'em ups. After walking to the next point on the overworld map, you'll usually get a brief cutscene, followed by a fight, and then you walk off the screen. If the fighting sections were longer it would go a long way to preserve the rhythm of the game. Instead, you're left with a staccato stutter step of combat and cutscenes.
Treachery in Beatdown City is an ambitious project, largely the work and vision of a single developer. There's moments where you hit the right combos, hopping from enemy to enemy, throwing out haymakers and body slams; that's when Treachery is at its best. Yet it's lacking something to give the overall experience some longevity and flow. It's a solid city to visit, but it's missing the landmarks to make it a place you want to live.