River City Saga: Three Kingdoms Review (Switch)
We all know those games that are a bit rough around the edges, but are so conceptually ahead of their time that it’s hard not to appreciate them anyway. One of the earliest examples for me was Rings of Power, an open-world isometric RPG from the SEGA Genesis era. Most definitely rough, but impressively unique for its time. A more recent example would be Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama! – a followup to River City Ransom that I beat and reviewed just a couple years ago. Compared to River City Ransom, this game was insanely expansive and had a lot of good ideas that simply weren’t fully fleshed out, whether from design oversights, hardware limitations, or both.
My review even commended the game’s ambitious take on the beat’em-up RPG formula…but it was clear that the concept would never be fully realized in that form; it was a game from 1991, after all. So it certainly came as a surprise when the spiritual successor to Downtown Special Kunio-kun’s Historical Period Drama!, entitled River City Saga: Three Kingdoms, was announced to arrive stateside this summer. And as it turns out, this game would not only be a fully-realized manifestation of its 30-year-old inspiration, but also a love letter to both Kunio-kun fans and classic arcade-style beat’em-up fans alike.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is loosely based on events that transpired during the Three Kingdoms period of China – or its historical novel counterpart, Romance of the Three Kingdoms – with a wide array of Kunio-kun characters donning the roles of notable persons of that time. While the actual historical events that took place were far from pleasant – crime, famine, disease, and warfare en masse, to name a few – the lighthearted Kunio-kun lens certainly does offset what would otherwise be a rather horrific retelling of events. And honestly, what better way to fight wars than with the face-punching master himself, Kunio?
In this case, Kunio (aka Alex) plays the role of Guan Yu, who teams up with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei (portrayed by Ivan and Tex from River City Ransom, respectively) in hopes of rising up for the oppressed and against the overwhelming corruption that rules the lands with an iron fist. The trio, known as the Brothers of the Peach Garden, ultimately punch and kick their way through six chapters in hopes of making a positive impact in the Three Kingdoms period.
While the main beats are easy enough to follow – having a certain recurring villain most definitely helps – the sheer amount of characters and locations may be a bit difficult to keep track of at times. There are dozens of characters, villages, and hostile areas that can be introduced at an almost break-neck pace, though this does relax a bit towards the end of the adventure. Those already familiar with the Three Kingdoms period may fare better, seeing as many names of characters, locations, and events align with their historic counterparts. Either way, the name/point of interest overload doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the more humorous, light-hearted take of Three Kingdoms through the eyes of the Kunio-kun cast.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is a beat’em-up RPG that spans a large, but segmented world. The Brothers of the Peach Garden will travel through a wide array of locales across Three Kingdoms China, beating up the strong and powerful while serving as a bulwark to the downtrodden and oppressed. In story mode, Kunio and his brothers-in-arms will fight their way through six chapters either solo, or later in local or online co-op with another player. There is also a separate bonus mode that is more of an arcade-like experience that allows for up to four local or online co-op companions.
Depending on how much is done, each chapter can last from 2-4 hours, with a 15-25-hour completion rate for the first playthrough (and far more for 100%). Beating the game opens up a new difficulty mode, basically NG+, up to three times, with character progression remaining intact throughout each one. Starting with the first NG+, Kunio’s reputation can steer the story in one of two directions for the latter half of each chapter, revealing new story beats and lots of incentive for multiple playthroughs. Not only that, but NG+ gives a chance for enemies to drop gear with bonus traits that can empower Kunio’s skills even more.
In story mode, Kunio’s combat repertoire is rather basic at first, but he can purchase and discover skill scrolls – aka books in River City Ransom – that will flesh out his capabilities substantially. Individual skills can be allotted to certain movement types, such as punching, kicking, and jumping variations of both, and powerful, potentially screen-clearing abilities aptly named “ultimate attacks” may be discovered upon learning and using certain combinations of skills. Ultimate attacks share a finite resource with another powerful move, known as the hot-blooded dance that temporarily slows down time, opens up a new cleaving ability, and increases damage dealt to enemies for the duration. The aforementioned governing resource can easily be filled back up through dealing damage and guarding attacks, however, so feel free to spam them to your heart’s content.
And spamming attacks you will, as nearly every hostile location in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms houses a mob of enemies that are rearing to pound Kunio and his companions to dust. Fortunately, between skills, ultimate attacks, and the over-the-top tactics commands introduced a bit later, there are many ways to deal with the hordes of foes. That said, River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is very much more on the “arcadey” side of complexity in terms of combat despite featuring many different abilities, much like the original game was. While some may be turned off by this style of play, it does ultimately feel like a modernization of the original combat formula, if a bit safe in its execution.
That said, River City Saga: Three Kingdoms does not allow for many opportunities for all skills to be viable. All it takes to stun Kunio is one hit, and with so many enemies on the screen at once and long vulnerability delays on a lot of attacks, it’s usually best to stick to quick multi-hit attacks to avoid being destroyed. This is truly unfortunate, as there are a ton of sweet looking, iconic skills from the franchise that simply won’t be given a lot of screen time as a result. The exception here may be co-op mode, which might allow for enough breathing room to make some of the more situational abilities and builds shine.
In lieu of permanent stat-boosting food, Kunio instead relies on traditional level ups and equipment for power. Every level provides five stat points that can be allocated to one of the many iconic Kunio-kun RPG stats, like punch, kick, and throwing. Furthermore, many towns feature an equipment shop that sells an assortment of stat-boosting gear. Kunio-kun fans need not completely miss the series staple food fun though, as there are plenty of restaurants and food stalls scattered about that will sell all sorts of delicious food for Kunio to inhale in one bite, some of which will provide temporary boosts to certain stats on top of restoring a portion of health.
With the various villages and surrounding areas in constant turmoil, Kunio can find a lot of side work in addition to the main campaign. While most of these aren’t overly compelling from a narrative perspective (save for building that kid a new house for his dog – that was #1 priority), almost all of them are still worth doing because of their useful rewards. And fortunately, River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is immensely easier to navigate than its historical drama predecessor thanks to a clearly-defined map, quest markers, and a much-needed fast travel system; a godsend for side quests. The outcome of side quests will also either increase or decrease Kunio’s reputation. Although this stat doesn’t seem relevant in the first playthrough, it can be a little frustrating determining what choices are best in adjusting the reputation accordingly.
In terms of gameplay, the game’s biggest flaw lies in how easily exploitable it is – but the same could be said for just about any RPG that allows for endless grinding. Each chapter has a recommended level beside it, but if the player has been going out of their way to beat up everything in sight, chances are, they’ll be way ahead of the intended level. But this is no different than in River City Ransom where one could read all the books and consume all the food before the first boss fight and easily be set for the entirety of the adventure.
All that in mind, the more simplistic (but flashy) combat and lower level of difficulty kind of goes hand-in-hand with the arcade-like approach it’s clearly going for – those not designed to eat your quarters, anyway.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms has a pretty unconventional approach to aesthetics, one that I wasn’t really sure even myself, a fan of the series, would enjoy. Blending pixel art with 3D graphics may sound concerning on paper, but the execution here is great and is really a sight to behold in motion. Through clever use of multiple layers (foreground and background), lighting effects, and highly animated pixel art, River City Saga: Three Kingdoms really comes to life despite being more akin to a 2D sidescroller. Then there’s the iconic Kunio-kun character art that is a proud continuation of the series roots, complete with Kunio eating whole meals in one bite, and making baddies BARF! on the battlefield. The tactics moves are by far some of the most entertaining to see – watching the enemies cry out in fear as they are swept away with rubber duckies in a torrential flood never gets old.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms also features some remixed, thematically appropriate versions of many familiar Kunio-kun songs, as well as a helping of brand-new tracks. And no game in the series would be complete without the unmistakable sound effects that hearken back not only to River City Ransom, but to other series entries like Super Dodge Ball (the elbow drop sound effect gets me every time). On that note, seeing all sorts of characters across the entirety of the Kunio-kun franchise, including some from newer entries like River City Girls and even River City Ransom: Underground, is heartwarming. This franchise is almost 40 years old, after all, and seeing the gang all together for a new adventure is really something special. There are a few slowdowns here and there, but these will generally fix themselves after a few minutes or can be completely cleared by restarting the game.
This love letter to Kunio-kun fans combines the best of classic beat’em-up action and RPG progression with all the charming trappings the series is known for. Whether you’re a fan of the genre, the series, or just a curious passerby, there’s sure to be something for everyone in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms. It’s not spotless – character/location term overload is real, there is a bit of bloat in parts of the campaign, and certain character builds simply aren’t viable due to the game’s design (in single player mode), but the game is ultimately fun to play and there’s plenty of incentive to beat it multiple times over. Kunio and his RPG beat’em-up antics are back, and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last RPG adventure we see from him.