Back in 2011, the press party for Saints Row The Third was one of the last big events I attended for the “old” THQ. They put on a lavish event that mimicked the ego and bombast of the Third Street Saints; fancy hors d'oeuvres, Saints-themed cocktails and some top-notch DJs, all taking place in a gala that was themed with Saints iconography, statues and décor. Earlier in the day and a bunch of other game writers and I had played a 5-hour stint of the game, digging into the campaign missions, experiencing the upgraded engine and generally causing the kind of havoc that the Saints Row series was known for.
It was definitely…an experience, and honestly it made me feel a little embarrassed. Our review policy prohibited (and still does) anyone who attends any kind of preview event from writing the final review of the game, to avoid conflict of interest. Honestly it was a relief at the time, but my main takeaway was the passion of the team at Volition. What I enjoyed most was playing this massive game alongside the people that made it, interviewing them and just nerding out over all their hard work. You could tell they were all strung out from crunch time but immensely proud of the project they had completed.
Eight years later, it’s a little surreal to finally be reviewing the game, albeit on a new platform. Saints 3 is an odd release on Switch, starting in the latter half of the series, but I think it evokes the spirit of the “reborn” THQ Nordic: remind fans of their strong publishing legacy, and breathe new life into some of their most popular IPs. Saints 3 certainly does that on Switch, but for a longtime fan like me, who Platinum’d the game on PS3 back in 2011, is it even worth the double-dip?
Well…that’s a complicated question. Saints 3 on Switch is undoubtedly the complete experience; the “Full Package” release that arrived a year after the initial release, with all the DLC in tow. The Full Package on Switch has everything except a few minor pieces of DLC, which were omitted for completely wrecking the difficulty balance, so you get the best overall experience.
As I said, Saints 3 is an odd place to enter the series. After starting as a rising thug in the Xbox 360-exclusive original game and then wresting control of Stillwater from the nefarious Ultor Corporation in Saints Row 2, your character “the Boss” and the Saints are riding high. They’ve inked numerous sponsorship deals and they are major celebrities, even with the Stillwater PD. This arrogance quickly gets the better of the Boss and the Saints. They try to pull off an insane stunt by robbing a bank. This starts as a typical heist, but the game kicks off with the Saints blasting the bank’s roof off with dynamite and then attempting to airlift the vault out of the building.
The Saints are subdued by the owners of the bank, a shadowy criminal organization known as the Syndicate. After an insane shootout on the Syndicate’s airliner, the Boss and his surviving team parachute down to Steelport, home turf of the Syndicate. With their weapons confiscated and their bank accounts hacked and drained dry, the Boss and the Saints have to basically start from scratch, retake their former glory, and prove that all those energy drink sponsorships haven’t made them soft.
At first I wondered why THQ Nordic didn’t start with Saints Row 2 on Switch, but then I reconsidered. Saints 2 is indeed where the series took off, went multi-platform and established its signature over-the-top attitude, but in a lot of ways it’s pretty rough and unbalanced. Saints 3 meanwhile is where Volition polished a lot of the good ideas from Saints 2, removed some of the chuff and then established all of it in a much more stable engine. While a few of the goofier features got removed and there isn’t quite the insane amount of character customization as in Saints 2, the third game is still incredibly robust and feels quite solid.
You can still build a positively insane looking Boss, with full facial customization, six voice options and a silly number of hair, scar and makeup options. What’s more you can change this anytime you want at one of Steelport’s plastic surgery clinics. I started as a copy of the Doom marine, changed him to look like the Joker from the 90's Batman animated series, and finally settled on a deranged John Wick lookalike with a growly cockney accent. That said you can just as easily make the Boss an obese woman with a combover, chrome green skin and a penchant for running around completely naked. That’s Saints Row in a nutshell.
On Switch you get the same habit-forming gameplay loop as on the 7th generation consoles. You seize territory from the Syndicate and their associated gangs by taking part in the signature Saints Row “activities,” which are madcap minigames based on organized crime. This can involve anything from destroying property to drug trafficking to rescuing prostitutes from abusive pimps, all while the rival gangs get increasingly angry with you and throw more and nastier enemies at you. Completing these activities gains you respect (XP), cash and increased revenue from the area you are trying to control.
Saints 3 also adds a gang upgrade system. Once you reach a certain level of respect, you can drop large chunks of cash to gain permanent stat bonuses, more powerful weapons and improve any strongholds you’ve wrangled away from the other gangs. The side content in Saints 3 might sound like so much busywork, but like hunting for Adam in Bioshock or unlocking all of Manhattan in last year’s Spider Man, there is something inexplicably addictive about it. It helps that, like most of Saints 3, a lot of this extra content is pants-on-head insane. One of the more memorable activities sees the Boss participating in Professor Genki’s Super-Ethical Reality Climax, a thunderdome-style game show murderbox hosted by a man in a giant pink cat helmet. Another has you testing your courage by peeling around in a convertible while a surly tiger sits next to you in the passenger seat.
There’s a very organic interplay between these activities and the main story missions. Early on you’ll unlock a very colorful cast of supporting characters who join the already colorful Saints lieutenants, and these new players will introduce you to Steelport by running you through the tutorial levels of the activities. Once you’ve done them a few favors, they’ll start sending you story missions. These can be hit or miss, but the highs are undeniably memorable. An early mission has you crashing an enemy gang’s penthouse party by parachuting down into the pool while Kanye’s “Power” blares in the background. It leaves an early impression: this is Saints Row back to basics and retaking their crown. The rest of the game has its highs and lows, with each character’s missions flowing into the occasional big event that pushes the story forward. Most of the time the plot doesn’t take itself too seriously, but there are stark moments that shock you back to just how much carnage and murder takes place.
So, Saints 3 is just as addictive, compelling and shamelessly fun as it’s always been. But the most important question is how it fares on Switch. After all, we’re talking about a massive open world game previously bound to a home console being ported pretty much as-is to a portable device. During my extensive playthrough of the original version, the PS3 struggled to maintain 30 frames per second and as enjoyable as the game was, it came off feeling a touch rough and shaky. Surely 8 years of technological advancement will have smoothed off the rough edges, right?
Well…yes and no. On Switch, Saints 3 certainly performs better than the last-gen console versions. It sticks closer to 30fps, draw distance is better and the bump in resolution helps. That said, it’s still disappointingly shaky. This game can get chaotic, and it tends to chug when too many gangsters and vehicles clutter up the screen. Extremely fast driving, especially on a motorcycle, is smeared out with excessive motion blur to disguise frame drops, and blasting over the city in a low-flying VTOL jet produces worrying amounts of lag.
Paradoxically, this is one of those Switch games that actually plays better in portable mode. Locking the Switch to uniformly lower spec and a native 720p evens everything out and produces a much more consistent, albeit occasionally juddery, framerate. This is a good thing, because Saints 3 is an absolute blast to play in portable mode. I know Switch has other open world games—Breath of the Wild and Skyrim spring to mind—but there really isn’t anything like having an over-the-top, GTA-style city sandbox in your pocket.
And to be completely honest, that’s the one thing that clinches this as a purchase for me. If Saints 3 came out on PS4, I doubt I’d even give it a second thought; I’d just go play it on Steam again. However, as with so many last-gen games that have shown up on Switch, it’s the portability that really makes this game. What’s even better is that it has a local co-op feature, so if you and a friend both have the game, you can cause some insanity together. Yes, Saints 3’s performance on Switch is disappointing, considering it’s an 8 year old game running on relatively new hardware. But at the same time, it takes the distant dream promised by the small but ambitious GTA Chinatown Wars on the DS, or the framey, janky GTA Liberty City Stories on PSP, and makes it a reality.
You can experience a grand adventure of self-discovery in Zelda while chilling at a Starbucks. You can trek across Tamriel and ascend the Throat of the World in Skyrim while waiting for the dryer to finish at the laundromat. But Saints Row The Third is the only portable game that lets you get up to the kind of guilty pleasure nonsense that makes the Saints Row series so memorable in the first place. Saints Row has always been the anti-Grand Theft Auto; it’s GTA without the pretense, and a “why the hell not?” attitude squarely in its place, and that’s why it’s stuck with me for so long. If I fire up a Saints Row game, I know I’m going to have a good time, particularly with Saints 3. And with any luck, the promised day 1 patch will iron out those troublesome framerate issues. For now, I’m going to give this one my tentative recommendation. It’s great game, but carrying it with you takes it to a whole new level.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile