The beat ’em up genre and I go way back – I mean, way back. My first foray into scene – River City Ransom – took place before I began grade school, and I frequented games like of Turtles in Time, Final Fight, Golden Axe, Sonic Blast Man, and even The Tick for many years thereafter. There was just something about how those beat’em ups were built that really clicked with me – the flashy animations certainly helped, as did their easy-to-understand narratives. Although I realize actual, legitimate story modes are more common in fighting games these days, that wasn’t always the case.
But the reason I’ve always been so fond of River City Ransom is because it combined these mechanics with new and interesting concepts- at least, new to me at the time. I can eat food to increase stats in order to power up my character? I can read books that teach me legit ninja moves? I can equip the finest pair of cowboy boots to sprint like a madman? I did not completely understand what these things were at the time, but it wouldn’t be long until I realized it was all I wanted in games.
Although the Kunio-kun series has been going strong for many years in Japan, the West has only received a handful of releases. The most recent title in the series, River City Girls, has you diving back into the mean streets of River City. This time however, the boys have been captured, and the girls must fight to get them back. Having completed the campaign, I can truthfully say that River City Girls, flaws and all, feels like a genuine return to an experience that, three decades prior, played an integral role in kick-starting my love for the RPG genre.
The plot here is simple – River City High attendees Misako and Kyoko receive a disturbing text message during detention. Their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, have been kidnapped, and the only way to get them back is to bust out of detention, laying out anyone who dares to stand in the way. While kidnapping is a major plot device across multiple Kunio-kun games, including River City Girls, this game is considered to be more of a spin-off rather than being completely canon to the sub-series. Characters, settings, and motives present in numerous games are here, but have been tweaked a bit to better suit this latest entry. This is a bit of a non-issue for me, seeing as I’ve always played these games for their gameplay first and story second – but that’s not to say the story isn’t enjoyable, either.
River City Girls is not afraid of having fun with its narrative. In reality, two high schoolers beating up half the city to retrieve their boyfriends is absurd, and the team chose to capitalize on this by providing laughs around every corner. At first glance, Misako and Kyoko may be considered the least likely candidates for cleaning up the streets of River City, but they quickly prove that they’re more than capable for the task. Misako has limited patience, preferring to let her fists do the talking when things aren’t moving along nicely, while Kyoko is the more air-headed of the two, but equally devastating in combat when her love for her boyfriend is mocked, let alone legitimately tested.
River City Girls features a large assortment of bosses, most of which are recurring characters in the series, and their verbal exchanges leading up to the inevitable showdowns are often hilarious. You also have minor characters, such as the dumpster-diving Godai, that provide even more moments of witty banter. All in all, the narrative isn’t going to blow you away, but the playful exchanges do make up for the lack of a truly gripping story.
You need only worry about one thing in River City: beating the snot out of anyone that crosses you. The path ahead will not be easy, as everyone is seemingly out to see you fail in recovering your boyfriends. Initially, the combat in River City Girls follows closely to traditional beat ’em up design – punch, kick, and grapple your way through swaths of enemies, while throwing in the occasional, random weaponry whenever the opportunity presents itself. The girls can also parry attacks to completely avoid some damage, as well as call on the temporary aid of helpful characters after beating them into supporting your cause.
In similar fashion to previous Kunio-kun beat’em up RPGs, River City Girls allows for character progression through purchasable abilities, items, and consumables. Enemies drop money upon defeat, which can be used to buy all sorts of goods found in various shops across River City. Things are a bit slow going at first, though you’ll eventually have more than enough money to buy whatever your heart desires. Filling out your moveset – via the Dojo – is easily the biggest money sink in the game, but you immediately feel the increase in power provided by the expanded moveset, making the grind well worth the effort.
The girls can equip two trinkets, occasionally found off the unconscious husks of enemies and purchased in stores, which grant additional benefits when worn. River City Girls, like River City Ransom before it, embraces gluttony through gating stat bonuses behind ingesting gobs of questionably nutritious food. Unlike its predecessor however, it only provides a permanent stat bonus the first time rather than offering increases each time thereafter. To offset this change, Misako and Kyoko can also level up, improving their stats by a small amount each time.
Although some tweaks have been made here and there, River City Girls very much adheres to the traditions set previously by the franchise, even if that means to its own detriment. Part of the mystery of these games has been gauging the usefulness of items lined on store shelves. In short, there’s no way to tell what items do until after you’ve purchased them once, though River City Girls does list their benefits after the fact, which is at least a minor step-up from its predecessor.
While I’m all for some mystery, the problem lies in the fact that many items, especially trinkets, are not incredibly useful and are immensely expensive. This is a big problem early on when you’re trying to unlock equally expensive moves, as committing to that $150 bra that adds a measly 5% chance of “doing something not that useful” could delay the purchase of things far more beneficial. The River City Ransom fanboy in me does somewhat appreciate the loyalty to the franchise gimmick here, but realistically, the lack of information does more harm than good.
Though the most pressing task is to find Kunio and Riki, the girls can also tackle a few side quests scattered throughout River City. These don’t wear out their welcome as they don’t provide a huge increase to your overall game time, but are usually worth completing for their rewards. You can brave the streets as either Misako or Kyoko, though other recurring characters do become available to play after reaching a certain point in progression.
However, it is worth noting that each character has their own separate progression, meaning that stat bonuses, moves, and even money do not carry over across team members. While this setup can extend your playtime drastically, I found it difficult to go back to the new characters after the fact, as enemies appear to scale to your highest level – at least to a certain extent – and the new additions to the lineup start at level one with minimal stats.
River City Girls can be experienced with one or two players, with the option to allow friendly fire. There are two difficulties – normal and hard – that are available from the beginning, and a seemingly broken new game plus becomes available once you complete the base game. In NG+, progress carries over to a “more difficult version” of the same story mode, but I could not see any difference in difficulty after wiping the floor with the first three bosses.
In the base game though, the early-game difficulty feels more than adequate, though things obviously relax quite a bit as your character grows in power. Although I question the validity of the new game plus implementation, I can totally see myself starting over as a different character and/or committing to the harder difficulty. My only wish is that the additional characters were unlocked permanently after completing the game once on any save file. Gripes aside, River City Girls is still a blast to play.
Simply put – the aesthetic package on display in River City Girls is a work of art. Bannon Rudis, the artist behind 2017’s River City Ransom: Underground, returns alongside Priscilla Hamby to easily impress with stunning pixel art and beautiful animations. The various cutscenes played in between chunks of content are nice as well, many of which are presented in a really cool pop-out manga design that flows well with rest of the aesthetics.
I must admit that I was a bit concerned upon discovering that River City Girls would feature several voiced music tracks – historically not a thing I enjoy. These are done really well, however, and I ended up not minding them whatsoever – in fact, I grew fond of the soundtrack as a whole. It boasts a wide variety of tracks, from the aforementioned voiced compositions to some very catchy techno tunes, as well as some remixes of iconic River City themes. Its eclectic feel goes hand-in-hand with the various artistic expressions utilized in River City Girls.
Overall, River City Girls is a great entry into a franchise that I’ve loved for many years now, and I sincerely hope that it is the first of many new beat’em up RPGs to come in the future. It is loyal to the traditions upheld in several previous Kunio-kun beat’em up RPGs – faults and all. Those that tend to play a game once before setting it aside need to understand that the true value of River City Girls comes from playing it multiple times over in order to experience a new difficulty, new characters, or to play with friends – friendly fire can make for some hilariously epic moments.
A single run can easily be completed in just a few hours, so do keep that in mind. At the end of the day, I’ll take up any chance I can get to induce vomiting in the thugs plaguing the streets of River City, even if it means that I must also deal with some decades-old game design quirks.