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‘River City Girls’ Review: Brawling with the Best

In a generation defined by massive open world experiences, there’s something decidedly cozy and cathartic about settling down with a well-made beat ’em up. The prospect of Wayforward (the lauded developers behind the Shantae series, A Boy and His Blob, and Ducktales: Remastered, among others) working on a modern take on the Kunio-kun franchise was a delightful surprise when it was revealed this past spring. Several months later, River City Girls has largely exceeded its lofty expectations.

Revenge Never Tasted so Sweet

Best friends and high school ruffians Kyoko and Misako are lazing about in detention when Kyoko suddenly gets a text showing their boyfriends (series mainstays Kunio and Riki) being kidnapped. Enraged and worried, the girls set out across the expansive River City to track down the kidnappers and get their beloved boyfriends back.

It’s a fun twist on the classic series premise, and River City Girls has an absolute blast playing off of that. Though the personalities of the girls are a bit one-note (the classic “sweet and sour” archetypes are alive and present here), the stellar writing elevates the colorful cast of modern day River City. Just like with Wayforward’s beloved Shantae series, the studio absolutely nails bringing major and minor characters to life in the most endearing of ways. This is only exemplified by top-notch voice acting across the board, especially in the case of Kyoko and Misako. Chatter between the girls is natural and entertaining, and their interactions with the other whacky characters in River City are a treat.

The search for Kunio and Riki spans across six large sections of the city ranging from the high school to the docks to the skeezy streets of downtown. Every location is segmented into roughly 15 screens that can often be explored via branching routes, with some inaccessible until a certain quest or story requirement is met. There’s plenty of creativity in the level design here; though screens never feature drastically different layouts, they’re all visually distinct and flow together to paint a full picture of everything the city has to offer.

No Punches Pulled

Story, characters, and level design are all well and good, but beat ’em ups are nothing without tight, addictive combat. Luckily, River City Girls has this in spades, and demands quite a bit of arcade-smart skill from players even on Normal difficulty. Kyoko and Misako boast the same base movesets with unique animations: light attacks, heavy attacks, and aerial attacks with ground attacks and a basic block thrown in for good measure. The repertoire is concise but offers a variety of ways to string together fluid combos that feel great to execute. A laundry list of unlockable moves can also be learned in the Dojo, providing plenty of depth to those who want to fully customize their fighter.

Be it with the base moveset or more advanced maneuvers, taking the time to master the combat is a must. Though running into enemies and light attacking them to death might work for a bit, it doesn’t take long to learn that River City’s hooligans are no mere punching bags. Bouts require less focus than a 1v1 fighter, but mindlessly spamming moves won’t get anyone anywhere on their first run. This is essentially ensured by brutal boss battles that bookend progress between sections of the city.

As one might expect, it’s these boss encounters that are the real highlights. Some require proficiency of certain mechanics (side-stepping, wall-jumping, etc.), and have patterns complex enough to warrant several attempts before succeeding. Each boss encounter also feels like an event, featuring beautiful introduction cutscenes and Vs. screens before the showdown. The only downside to these is that they have to be manually skipped upon every subsequent attempt; the game doesn’t remember that they’ve already occurred.

Another issue is that anything bought in the game and used during a boss fight completely disappears after losing. While most games would load in the player’s inventory from before the battle, River City Girls punishes item usage when it counts the most. Having to grind enemies for cash isn’t particularly difficult, but that coupled with needing to backtrack to a shop (since there’s never one right before the boss encounter) is unnecessarily tedious and slows momentum down considerably.

A Cloudy Diamond

This string of minor yet gradually grating issues extends beyond boss battles. The menu system is needlessly cumbersome, requiring players to cycle through six screens to find the right options. Story and quest-specific NPCs are easy to miss because they don’t have any kind of outline or indicator making them stand out. Furthermore, items in shops are marked with “???” until after they’re bought and used or looked up in the inventory menu. This makes it easy to waste tons of cash on items only to be disappointed by their luck-of-the-draw effects.

And yet, for all those niggling design flaws, River City Girls is simply a blast to play. It especially excels as a handheld experience. Feeling the impact of every hit with HD rumble made fights more engaging, and the classic beat-em-up structure makes it perfect for whipping out in short bursts. There’s a good amount of content here, with the main game running about six and a half to seven hours before New Game+, which adds additional playable characters with their own unique movesets and animations (albeit with no new dialogue, making character interactions and cutscenes rather awkward).

If you’re looking for tight beat ’em up action with some truly impressive production values and lovable characters, you can’t go wrong with River City Girls.

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