If there’s any developer worth choosing for a retro revival these days, it’s WayForward Technologies. I’ve already sung my praises for the studio in my Mighty Switch Force! Collection review, but while not without some duds, they really are masters at understanding what makes certain classic genres so great, and they do a great job at modernising beloved retro titles. Upon hearing that they would be teaming up with Arc System Works for a new Kunio-kun/River City title, I was excited to see how the team would tackle it considering their last dip into the beat-’em-up genre was the divisive Double Dragon Neon back in 2012, which ultimately did not deserve the reputation it received one bit. Judging by the promotional material released, it was clear that Arc System Works had let WayForward go crazy with their take on the River City franchise, but the big question was how it would be received as it seems traditional beat-’em-ups have built some sort of bad rep in the years prior to and following Double Dragon Neon. But to put it simply, no matter which way you look at it, it’s almost impossible to not love River City Girls.
River City Girls flips the original story of the series on its head. Whereas typically the usual series protagonists, Kunio and Riki, have to fight their way through the city to save their kidnapped girlfriends, Kyoko and Misako, this time it’s up to Kyoko and Misako to save their boyfriends following their mysterious kidnapping. Punching and kicking their way through the city, they bump into a whole cast of charming characters with some downright hilariously written encounters between River City locals and creative bosses. The game’s story really features some of the best character writing of the year, with Misako and Kyoko making for wonderful and surprisingly engaging protagonists, along with excellent chemistry in both writing and performance and just enough backstory on how they became friends to make you care for them. Unfortunately, my love of the story is massively overshadowed by my complete hatred for the game’s ending, or more specifically, its final cutscene. The final moments of River City Girls make what has been a delightful 6 hours of gameplay and storytelling feel utterly meaningless and undermine the whole experience of playing the game, offering a shallow, cop-out conclusion that is painfully unsatisfying. It’s only so frustrating because the game spends so much time justifying the better ending that it deserved, only to result in a somewhat mean-spirited conclusion.
Where River City Girls does keep within series traditions through is its core gameplay. Misako and Kyoko control very similarly to each other, offering the usual light and heavy attacks one can expect from beat-’em-ups of this nature. The two can buy special moves at a dojo, which is where the two characters really become their own. Fundamentally, the two play the same; however, Misako is the more aggressive of the two, and as such, a bulk of the abilities that can be purchased for her are very violent and heavy looking, while Kyoko is more quirky, so a lot of her attacks display her more bombastic personality, such as a hurricane kick akin to Chun-Li from Street Fighter that looks as if Kyoko is pulling it off by complete accident. The two can also level up after gaining experience from defeating enemies, which increases the power of some attacks, and they are also able to equip items to provide stat bonuses during combat. It’s because of mechanics like this, along with the perfectly appropriate run time and brilliantly refreshing boss encounters, that River City Girls never feels repetitive or outstays its welcome. I won’t deny though that sometimes combat was a chore as there are many times near the end of the game where the player is locked into battles that seem endless.
One of the best aspects of this title, like most other games in the River City and Kunio-kun franchises, is the fully compatible drop-in/drop-out co-op function. Playing this game in full co-op is a blast and makes for a great, destructive time as you mess up River City’s locals. The game’s world is crafted excellently, with each area flowing into the next in a room-based format that lends it an almost open-world quality similar to Obsidian’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, making for what feels like a very well mapped out and constructed city. This is the city that all future depictions of River City should be built off of. Be it traversing the high school, the slums, the yakuza-run downtown or even the beach, River City has never felt so fleshed out.
Accompanying this are gorgeous pixel-art visuals, showcasing WayForward’s artists at the top of their game with beautifully animated characters and brilliantly dynamic settings. WayForward has a history of impressive looking games, but River City Girls might just be their best looking pixel-styled game yet, or at least it’s up there with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse as one of the best. That isn’t even to compliment the wonderful character designs, especially on the protagonists and bosses, some incredible animated cutscenes from studio Yotta and fun FLCL-like manga sequences used for flashbacks. WayForward’s artists had an absolute blast with this title, and noticing this is absolutely unavoidable. That is also to include their musicians as River City Girls also contains a great pop-rock soundtrack, with artists such as Chipzel and Christina Vee (also known for voicing WayForward’s Shantae) lending their talents to it.
Kayli Mills and Kira Buckland provide perfect performances for Misako and Kyoko, respectively, bringing their delightful chemistry to life; however, there are a strangely obnoxious number of influencer cameos that offer very little in the way of quality voice acting. A certain recurring character voiced by a YouTube star offers a rather painful performance that really pales in contrast to the talents of the professionals. Thankfully, most of this is contained to merchants and one-off characters, so it didn’t have me cringing too much, but trust me, when it’s bad – it’s bad.
River City Girls is an excellent dive back into the beat-’em-up genre from developer WayForward Technologies and Arc System Works, freshening up a now thirty-year-old series with a brand new perspective. With surprisingly nuanced gameplay design, an excellent overworld, beautiful artwork and catchy music, the game only really falters with some dull, amateur voice acting for the sake of cameos and an ending that feels like a direct contradiction and unappreciation of the game’s largely wonderful storytelling. Don’t let those be the reasons you skip River City Girls, however, as it is still one of WayForward’s best games yet and one of the best arcade style beat-’em-ups ever made.
Developer: Arc System Works
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 5th September 2019
Do you agree with our review of River City Girls? What are your thoughts? Tell us in the comments below.