Throughout the 90s we saw the side scrolling brawler explode as a genre as nearly every franchise wanted a piece of the arcade fueled pie, whether it was an X-Men game, Simpsons, and many more the beat-’em ups flocked to arcades and still live on as fond memories since most of these games have moved on from the genre. That isn’t to say that it has been forgotten however and the Kunio-kun series, best known as River City in the West, was there at the beginning and has returned with a new spin-off focusing on the girls this time around in the form of River City Girls. After taking a few years off and now developed by WayForward, is River City Girls a beat-em up that scratches that classic arcade itch?
Misako and Kyoko aren’t really having a great day as the pair spend their time sleeping through a lesson in detention, which is odd because Kyoko doesn’t even attend that school. Things get worse however when the pair receive a text message that shows their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki (the standard heroes of the River City games) being kidnapped. Not ones to be held down by things like rules, gangs of other rebellious students, and especially the teachers, the pair bust out of detention and hit the streets to track down their boyfriends.
WayForward has crafted an excellent and humorous tale that sees this pair of girls traveling through numerous areas in the city all while brawling against enemies ranging from standard school thugs, corrupt cops, and even masked wrestlers though there are some even stranger enemies that appear as well. The two girls, even while playing solo, make various remarks about the things they see throughout the story as the game progresses and interact with numerous characters that are both new to the franchise as well as some old returning faces. These familiar faces are great callbacks to past games in the Kunio-kun series and even a couple of guest characters are here as well.
This creates a fun and entertaining storyline that holds together rather well partly due to how humorous and charming the cast of characters are, though be prepared for a rather sudden feeling ending that doesn’t feel like it works the best.
While at its heart River City Girls is a side-scrolling brawler, it is actually a bit of a blend of that plus some light RPG mechanics and adventure as well. This is primarily due to the fact that while players will still need to travel through various screens to progress, any previous level in the game can be revisited at any time and progress is generally only halted behind a boss battle before allowing players to progress to the next section of the city. This includes allowing various shortcuts to be opened up between areas and the ability to use a bus stop to travel to other locales in a form of fast travel.
At its heart however this brawler still sticks true to its roots as both Kyoko and Misako boast a strong arsenal of moves that grow the longer the player keeps going through the game. In fact, thanks to both characters having their own fighting style players will have a blast playing through the game as either fighter and being able to swap any time you load into the game again is a nice touch, though character levels are independent from one another. Initially both characters start with a fairly limited set of moves and move a bit on the slower side but as they defeat enemies they gain experience as well as money. Leveling up provides a stat boost and can unlock additional moves right off the bat while other moves can then be learned from dojos scattered around the city.
Along those lines, it does mean that players can grind a little bit to either help make their fighter stronger or to pick up a piece of equipment they might find useful. This is where the aforementioned adventure style comes in a bit as there are numerous side-quests that the girls can accept that reward them with a bit of cash and experience when completed and simply retreading old areas respawns enemies so the more the player puts into River City Girls the more they end up getting back as the true combo potential for these fighters, including their special moves, really start to shine once a few of these moves are learned. Combat is also fleshed out a bit more by being able to pick up various weapons and use them until they break and occasionally enemies will beg for mercy. In this case that foe can then be recruited as a temporary ally that can be called in to perform a special attack until their health runs out.
Purchasing moves at these dojos requires money, which can also be used to purchase various bits of equipment ranging from different types of underwear that boost various weapon abilities or make-up to deal extra damage to certain foes, to pepper spray that earns the player additional rewards, and more as well as food that can either be used at the store for an immediate heal or carried in an inventory that grows larger as the girls level up.
It is worth noting that getting beaten down allows players to continue but does cost them some money, so investing some into carrying a few healing items around is a nice touch, especially against some tougher bosses. Speaking of bosses, players will encounter a wide array of unique enemies here and while we won’t get into any of their exact details to keep things a surprise, every fight has a unique mechanic built into it aside from simply punching/kicking the foe in the face.
Although the combat can feel fluid with some blows really packing a punch, especially when smashing enemies into a locked screen and causing it to vibrate, River City Girls can be a bit rough at times as it can be difficult to properly gauge a jump at times when there is the threat of fall damage and the game has a real habit for swapping maps during combat. This is due to the fact that the standard light attack button is the same as the button used to both pick up items as well as transition to the next stage. This means that if you happen to be brawling against enemies that either rush the girls when they enter the screen or near an exit, fighting with standard attacks will almost always throw you into another stage and reset any damage done to the foes. This is an annoyance that can be avoided by relying on heavy attacks or special moves when unlocked but the use of a seperate button would have been preferred here. It is also worth noting that while there is a New Game Plus mode once the game is completed that offers some fun bonuses, there is no actual side content outside of the core game, not even a gallery of cutscenes or a way to re-listen to the soundtrack, which is disappointing simply due to how high quality both of these are.
Visuals & Audio
River City Girls features a great blend of pixel art and anime/manga styled artwork. Standard gameplay sees the girls exploring through a variety of gorgeously detailed areas of the city, all of which have their own unique feeling, battling against a solid variety of enemies. Each environment is filled with various NPCs and the bosses are quite unique both in design and their aforementioned fights. The design of every in-game character is quite detailed though there does seem to be a bit of an issue with their models vanishing a bit when certain grab moves are performed on them. It is also interesting to note that even though many enemy types feature alternate color schemes, the aforementioned mercy recruitment system often contains a few extra tidbits of information regarding some of the palette swaps.
When looking to purchase items Kyoko and Misako will encounter a wide-variety of eclectic shop owners all featuring unique background art and designs while the actual story segments are told through beautiful anime cut-scenes. All of this is accompanied by some very solid voice acting featuring a great voice cast and an absolutely amazing soundtrack. Generally a brawler could get away with standard background music but River City Girls goes that extra mile by not only featuring some great pieces of standard background music but also a large collection of tunes that feature full vocals, allowing players to beat down enemies to a great collection of music.
River City Girls puts a new spin on the Kunio-kun series of brawlers and delivers an amazing example of what the brawler genre is capable of when given plenty of love and given enough room to deliver solid humor alongside its great cast of characters. The story may falter a bit at the end and the screen transitioning can be an issue but River City Girls’ solid combat makes the game an absolute blast when played with a friend and just as great solo.