There are many different ways I could frame this review. A revival of the beat-’em-up genre in the public sphere; Arc System Works doing what they do best; WayForward making quality games outside Shantae. All of these points and more could serve to make use of what River City Girls provides to potential players, but the truth to it is that it is a combination of all and more. What River City Girls achieves through its existence is exemplifying the desire for the old in the style of the new. Considering the place of nostalgia in just about every generation, it’s something expected, albeit in differing ways.
In some regard, I’ve often found myself wondering upon the possibility of remastering various older titles to update them for modern audiences. Many companies have already planned accordingly—Nintendo has made multiple remasters in recent years, and the upcoming Trials of Mana is a large-scale process of doing just that. Thinking back to other retro titles, such as Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts, I can’t help but desire the experience of playing games more simplistic in design, paralleled with my own capacity for learning in my childhood stages. More than anything, River City Girls plays like an ode to those days, with all the necessary conveniences that make things more tolerable. Even still, simplicity as an execution provides some liability to underlying negative constitutions.
River City Girls is available on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PS4 for your regional pricing.
Misako and Kyoko are high school delinquents who are used to spending their time in detention. When Kyoko receives an anonymous text showing their boyfriends—franchise mainstays Kunio and Riki—being kidnapped, the two break out of the confines of discipline and wreak havoc upon the town in search of their lost loves. A general storyline is something that’s expected with a beat-’em-up title, though it’s the finer details that make something special.
For those unfamiliar with WayForward’s footprint, the company’s style of writing can be summarized with one word: meta. A distinct aura of self-awareness shows through the dialogue of most characters, along with the events that transpire. Would you believe me if I told you that zombies become a combatable baddie at some point? While I have some history with WayForward, I don’t have much regarding the River City or Kunio-kun franchise. I can’t say whether this absurdist foray is either good or bad for the state of the franchise. Regarding its place, River City Girls is more of a spin-off than anything, so many may excuse its liberties (assuming they’re much different) by isolating it from other titles.
On its own, the dialogue found here can be humorous mostly, while too over-the-top occasionally. Some measure of vocal performances embellish these qualities, though that is for a later section. If one finds themselves in a position where they enter the game taking it seriously, the first few rooms should quell that expectation. Jokes fly, situations get awkward, and everyone outside Misako and (to some extent) Kyoko have a running gag. Creating an atmosphere of tomfoolery, it makes the experience easier to take lightly. Again, part of me feels this could turn some off, especially considering the general seriousness attributed to beat-’em-up titles and their machismo merriment. Still, I find myself more comfortable with the unpredictable nature of the story that comes with the zaniness. I also just prefer chaos.
Without spoiling anything, I wish to note the drawback to having such an aloof presentation of story. Not only is the ending anticlimactic, it outright doesn’t even feel like an ending. Leading up to the final boss of River City Girls, on the girls’ quest to save their boyfriends, it just feels like another stage. There’s no real significance, whether emotionally or otherwise, to the area one visits or whom is encountered. (Assuming my ignorance of the franchise hasn’t doomed me.) Finishing the campaign for the first time, I was left with an empty gut. “…Oh, that’s… that’s it?” Area after area, with bosses trampled and new characters met, the story dragged me along the premise of finding Kunio and Riki, only to throw another joke to top it all off. Build-up amounts to little, and the situation which should probably feel a little more grim doesn’t. Like a homogeneous blob of satire and wit, the story lives and dies by its own tongue, and the enjoyment the audience derives from it.
Misako and Kyoko are two characters that one follows throughout the entire game, with their dialogue prevalent throughout. Usually, they act as “straight men” to the awkward, creepy, or weird personalities they interact with. What they also bring are a couple fleshed-out characters with their own distinct personas. Misako is cool, collected, and really stubborn and rowdy. Kyoko’s an airhead, but nicer and simultaneously impish. Their interactions with each other, along with strangers, makes a lot of the game worth playing outside its main fighting shtick. I enjoyed their exploits and their almost insane dedication to their boyfriends. Most other characters don’t fare quite as well, though only a few are recurring, so it’s understandable. So long as Misako and Kyoko were front and center, I didn’t mind following along.
This is a beat-’em-up. What is the objective? Beat ’em up. River City Girls means nothing if it can’t live up to the expectations set by its predecessors. Prior to playing it, one of my earliest expectations was how long the combat would suit me until it got dull. It had to get dull eventually. It didn’t. Through a series of little tweaks and a solid foundation of punch-and-crunch, there was never a point where I got tired of fighting. If a game’s base appeal remains transfixed in blissful entertainment for the entirety of its run, that’s already a glowing compliment. Don’t even bother reading the rest of the review. That’s your recommendation.
And to go from one spectrum to another, there is one aspect of gameplay that is borderline inexcusable. In general combat (using an Xbox 360 controller), the X button is used for light attacks… and progressing to other areas, and picking up items, and other miscellaneous inputs. One cannot map buttons in River City Girls. So, with the X button used to perform light attacks, which are necessary to chain most combos and keep yourself in check, there are multiple chances to accidentally do something else, based on one’s position. If this were to trip me up only occasionally, I wouldn’t bother pointing it out. But I am, so feel free to imagine all the times where I was close to clearing a room of enemies, only to accidentally enter another room and reset it. That wasn’t fun.
Veering back to the base combat, one is given the opportunity to pound enemies in a variety of ways. When one levels up and progresses farther, one can access a dojo to learn more moves for each character, which opens more complexity to individual battles. As noted earlier, light attacks make for quick and reliable HP-dousers, heavy attacks are slower, but are more powerful, and one can even perform aerial attacks, rushing attacks, and can grab enemies when they’re stunned. A lot of Misako’s/Kyoko’s capabilities feel more restricting early on, but being able to expand that moveset makes for a more profitable fighting experience. So should one take the plunge, I would highly recommend spending a bunch of money at the dojo. It makes the game more fun.
Fighting takes up a large majority of the game, however it isn’t all that River City Girls offers. Some occasional platforming sequences, multiple fetch quests, and shopping make up the latter end of the adventure’s bulk. Fetch quests specifically are catalysts for interacting with characters and returning to other portions of an area. Largely, though, this is a fighting game for fighting fans, only simmered down to incorporate as large a reach as possible. Veterans may be a tad disappointed by a lack of in-depth fighting mechanics or combos, as most are relegated to spamming the light attack and finishing with a heavy or special move. Despite my never tiring of it, those looking for a more fleshed out fighting experience are due to look elsewhere. River City Girls is, generally, pretty simplified in most categories. It works for the retro aesthetic, but perhaps it works against its genre’s history.
Around the third stage or area, one gets a feel for how the rest of the game is to progress. One enters an area, finds a source of information, performs a fetch quest to appease them, then either face a boss or the process repeats for a bit longer before the boss. All of this is in-between beating up a bunch of people in each room entered, of course. With the kooky dialogue and memorable situations, the dull moments were few through each stage. Nevertheless, hindsight allows for the rather repetitive nature of the game to come through looking back. If not for the better qualities of River City Girls, this may have been more of an issue. The ending was tainted by it, though, as noted before.
On the topic of bosses, they were both a fun and frustrating portion of the game. Some were as straightforward as “Hit them and dodge their attacks,” others consisted of “They have superpowers and can fly around and can’t be hit outside a certain timeframe.” The latter portion was likely pitched by Satan. Regardless of some difficulty, most required some situational strategy that didn’t come with the rest of the game, which was interesting. Boss fights were always a place to test what abilities worked and didn’t, and made for realizing different manners of attack. Some can be cheesed, like the first boss, but most provided an exhilarating process of elimination, along with flexible pattern-memorization. And it wasn’t until the penultimate boss that I took advantage of buying and storing healing items in my inventory so that I wouldn’t have to duke it out all in one health bar. Because I am an idiot.
Graphics & Audio
I mention I have some history with WayForward. I know their games pretty well and am aware of what they’re capable of appearance-wise. With that said, I think River City Girls is the best a game by them has ever looked, from the pixel design to the more traditional character portraits. An aficionado as I am for pixel art, the quality of production is tremendously high here. Vibrant, lively, varied, detailed, and other superlatives apply to the overall look of the game. I never tired of exploring just to see what kind of things were hiding in the backdrop. Many areas in the game (shown by the images implemented thus far) are gorgeously neon and settle into an immersive barrier of delight.
Variety is the spice of life, and WayForward seems to embody this. Pixel art aside, there are all sorts of ways used to elaborate on the story. Flashbacks, manga sheet spreads, satirical educational videos, and loads of different characters. There are many little references to internet culture and memes and whatever else found out in the open, waiting to be appreciated by those aware. Looking at River City Girls was never a tiring ambition. The developers and animators did a fantastic job at bringing the game’s world to life. Retro splendor with a modern touch of detail from hindsight.
I didn’t realize it beforehand (before browsing Twitter, anyway), but River City Girls has a lot of internet talent associated with the game. Names like the Game Grumps, Jacksepticeye, ProZD, and Nathan Sharp are all associated with the game in some form, with Jack and Nathan being more notable for their role’s repetition throughout. One of few recurring characters in the game is voiced by Jack, who does a decent, albeit very over-the-top job with his character. Nathan composed the game’s intro and outro songs, which are rambunctiously rocking. It would seem WayForward’s commitment to internet culture is best exemplified when portions of internet culture provide their support. Not a large commitment to the game’s quality, but a neat thing to consider.
General soundtrack is solid, though not spectacular. I found myself strangely soothed by the softer, synthier tracks featuring lyrics that don’t necessarily vibe well with the constant action. It was a different pace that settled strangely well, though others may find it off-putting. Otherwise, the music is a mix of pop-like rock and battle tunes that mesh with the combat well, though it’s hard to say whether I’d care for them outside the game. Voice acting is another area of interest, especially with some newcomers on center stage. Kyoko and Misako were good, but the rest felt a tad uneven. Again, with the zany nature of the game, it provided opportunity for actors to be grandiose and absurd, which occasionally struck me as too much. Some voices felt a little too jarring against the professional look of the game, exacerbated by stiff line delivery. Some enemy types were also fairly annoying to hear constantly cry, as well. Considering a majority of the game is fighting these enemies, it should do well to not have them be irritating to listen to.