Punch, kick and headbutt your way through a pack of boyfriend stealing thugs with Misako and Kyoko in Wayforward’s latest twist on an old classic, River City Girls!
Alive and Drop-kicking
You know, I’ve probably said this before, but I love seeing developers take a beloved concept, genre or even series and flip it on its head. It spices things up and makes us think a little differently about why we gravitate towards certain aspects of the games we love and what makes them so appealing!
Of course, innovations in this regard don’t always need to be big or ground breaking either. They can be as simple as putting a fresh coat of paint on a classic, or as mischievous as throwing a wrench in a well established formula. The important thing is that it’s hella fun!
Well, River City Girls from Wayforward has all that fun in spades and when it comes to adding charm up the wazoo, I couldn’t think of a better developer. I mean who else could we trust to make a spin-off for a storied franchise like the Kunio-kun series? But the real question is, does River City Girls live up to its bigger brothers?
Once Upon a Dab
Even at 20+ games, Kunio-kun may not sound too familiar to us here in North America, at least by name. That’s because only a few games from the franchise ever made it across the pond and when they did, the games were either rebranded, “Americanized” to be more appealing to a western audience, or both! Which even included changes to the graphics and plot!
Luckily though, of the games we did get, one in particular stood out and became a staple for many NES collections. And that was River City Ransom, the third entry in the Kunio-kun series. Where you follow Kunio and his former rival Riki as they punch and kick their way through River City trying to find their kidnapped girlfriends. However, what really set River City Ransom apart from other beat ’em ups of the time, was how it innovated on the formula by adding non-linear progression and RPG elements!
And that’s where River City Girls comes in! Which is a sort of spiritual successor to River City Ransom! But instead of you playing as Kunio and Riki on a quest to rescue their girlfriends, Wayforward pulled a 180 and now have you playing as a pair of brash and highly motivated highschool girls, Misako and Kyoko! And their mission is to find their kidnapped significant others and lay waste to all who stand before them! In the most kawaii fashion possible of course. Oh, and the boys they’re looking for just so happen to be the infamous Kunio and Riki themselves!
An Uppercut Above the Rest
Now, I just want to put this out there – I don’t typically gravitate toward beat ‘em ups. Not to say I don’t like them, in fact, I’m always up for putting random street thugs and delinquents in their place. But there’s just something about the way that they play that rubs me the wrong way. They’re usually slow paced, attacks can be hard to line up and you’ll occasionally find yourself picking up that dang barrel and bludgeoning your partner over the head instead of unleashing a flurry of punches!
Unfortunately, River City Girls suffers from some of this as well, in the beginning at least . To start, you’ll have a very minimal allotment of abilities at your disposal and the action just feels plodding instead of fluid and exciting! But that’s quickly alleviated once you start leveling up, getting stronger, and unlocking fun new offensive skills to play with! Once that happens you’ll be chaining dabs and donkey kicks together like a pro and dispatching enemies left and right! It also helps that a lot of the monotony you would typically find in a standard beat ‘em up is mitigated by the non-linear exploration of River City and the occasional side quests you can find.
Which leads me to one of my favorite parts of the game, the progression system. As you fight enemies you’ll gain experience toward your player level, and as your levels increase, the stronger you’ll become. That means you’ll be able to take down tougher adversaries with ease. You’ll also be able to collect the money that they drop, and use it to buy items and new abilities from the plethora of shops you’ll encounter along the way. These items can include consumables that’ll heal you and give you permanent stat boosts upon initial consumption. And even equipable accessories that’ll give you various passive buffs, like increased damage to a particular enemy type or stamina regeneration.
The only real issue I encountered was that money didn’t always seem to be easy to come by. You either had to grind for it, or beat the upcoming boss (who will give you a large lump sum) and hope you don’t die before you get to the shop! That’s a problem because if in the off chance you die on your way, your money will be cut in half! I mean, I get that it adds a risk/reward payoff thingamajig, but I just found it made acquiring all of the moves and items difficult. At least in the first playthrough. Nonetheless, if you’re able to make it to the end of the game, a New Game Plus mode will unlock, and you’ll be able to carry your progress forward so you can clean up anything you missed! It’s also fun because if you beat River City Girls in this mode, you’ll uncover the “True Ending”!
What’s the Gut-Punch line?
Despite some of the gameplay quirks I experienced in River City Girls, I still had a ton of fun, and it was made even better by the fact that I could play it cooperatively with my wife! But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the gameplay that drew me in to begin with, it was its presentation! I absolutely love the art direction in River City Girls and its anime aesthetics, which harken back to the Japanese roots of the Kunio-kun series. The sprite work for the environments and characters is whimsical, colorful and wonderfully animated. And that includes the fantastic animated cutscenes and manga-styled flashbacks. It’s also fun seeing many of the characters found throughout the Kunio-kun series making an appearance in one form or another and getting a River City Girls makeover! But the icing on the cake is the Double Dragon cameos like Billy, Jimmy and Skullmageddon!
Frankly, and this comes from a totally unbiased point of view, the overall presentation in River City Girls is phenomenal and I can’t gush enough about it. But it doesn’t stop at its visual presentation either, because it also includes an outstanding soundtrack. It has everything from electronic/techno beats to j-pop and rock. Truly, it sets the tone of the game perfectly and features talented artists such as Chipzel and Megan McDuffee! Many times when soaking it all in, it evoked the spirit of Scott Pilgrim and I’m all the way on board with that. Which I guess was already partly inspired by River City Ransom, so we came full circle!
Of course, a great game just wouldn’t be the same without great characters. I mean, coming from Wayforward you’d expect a wide range of silly and over the top characters with witty dialog. And all that can definitely be found in River City Girls! Kyoko and Misako are polar opposites, so they’re constantly bumping heads, but it adds a lot of levity to each encounter! Then there’s the creepy quest giver, Godai, who happens to pop up at just the right time out of the nearest dumpster! Or even the muscle bound and kidnapper extraordinaire Abobo who you eventually fight as a boss. All these goofy characters just round out the entire experience and make it a game that’ll leave a lasting impression.
Jump Kick on the Bandwagon
Like I said before, I love seeing developers flipping an established and beloved concept on its head. But what makes River City Girls special is that it also leans heavily into what made the games that came before it so great! Gameplay-wise it may not have been perfect, but that’s just a minor gripe when compared to how remarkable the game is when taking it all in as a whole.
And if you’re looking for a cheerful and funny game that’ll put a smile on your face from the moment you press start, then I highly recommend you check out River City Girls. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! You can find it right now on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PCs!