Does the name River City ring any bells? Some of you might be familiar with 1990’s NES cult classic River City Ransom, but odds are most of you are probably scratching your heads right now. River City is a popular beat ‘em up series in Japan, known as Kunio-kun in its country of origin, that historically hasn’t broken into western markets for a variety of reasons which I will spare you the details of in the interest of time. Ever since the publishing rights were bought by Arc System Works however, River City has been getting a bigger push internationally. I for one started taking notice of the franchise when my brother purchased a shiny new spin-off title back in 2019. You can probably guess what I’m about to review.
River City Girls is an action packed beat ‘em up mixed with elements of roleplaying games developed by renowned independent game studio WayForward. The game’s story follows Misako and Kyoko, the girlfriends of the River City franchise’s main protagonists Kunio and Riki. Misako and Kyoko break out of detention after receiving a mysterious text message telling them their boyfriends have been kidnapped. From there the story is more or less a wild goose chase across River City to find Kunio and Riki while beating up anyone who stands in Misako and Kyoko’s way. Honestly the whole ordeal is a nothingburger of a plot with no grand character arcs, shocking revelations, or even heavy-handed attempts at social commentary(actually that last one is a blessing in disguise). All that being said, the game doesn’t take itself seriously at all; it frequently dips into absurdist meta-humor that takes jabs at literally everything and everyone. If that style of comedy sounds appealing you’ll probably have a fun time with it, heck it even got a chuckle out of me every once in a while. Even so, I definitely do not recommend River City Girls for its story.
Visually, River City Girls is a very cartoony looking game that makes extensive use of exaggeration and bright colors (especially pink). In the spirit of its predecessors, the game utilizes a pixelated artstyle to render its world and characters. The animations are top-notch. The way characters move and fight exhibits their wacky personalities, be it Misako’s bad-temper, Kyoko’s bubbliness, or the mischievous dispositions of their many adversaries. While inside menus or shops the game uses artwork to tell a one-picture story which adds a lot of charm to otherwise mundane activities. From a visual perspective River City Girls is as polished as they come.
The sounds of the game aren’t far behind the sights. The game’s voice acting is an all around solid showing, though most characters don’t get a ton of screen time to work with. The soundtrack uses a mixture of old school chiptunes and synth-pop to keep things fresh. The results are songs with very catchy beats and memorable melodies which always pair well in video games. My only issue with the audio design is that the sound effects were oddly subdued. In a game with lots of punching and kicking, I expected there to be more “oomph” in each impact, though the animations pick up most of the slack in this area.
At its core, River City Girls is a beat ‘em up very much in line with the rest of the franchise. Players have access to a large array of combat abilities such as light attacks, heavy attacks, special attacks, grab attacks, aerial attacks, and a block button. It’s a fairly standard arsenal for a beat ‘em up game, but once the onslaught of juvenile delinquents, corrupt cops, pro wrestlers, time-traveling androids, and yakuza enforcers shows up, you’ll be thankful for every tool at your disposal. Boss enemies in particular can be quite difficult if challenged recklessly, but by studying their attack patterns and waiting for openings they can be made more manageable.
This core gameplay is supplemented by elements borrowed from roleplaying games. By defeating enemies the player gains experience points to level up their characters, which increases their base statistics and unlocks new moves. Character statistics can be further increased by equipping accessories and consuming items. Defeated enemies also drop money, which can be spent at shops scattered around River City to procure the above-mentioned stat-boosting items. These RPG elements also provide the basis for the game’s punishment for failure, as getting a game over will cut the character’s acquired resources in half. This can be absolutely brutal if you’re looking to buy a pricey item. The only downside to the game’s RPG aspect is that it can lead to a fair amount of grinding, which obstructs the game’s pacing. The best way to avoid this problem is to bring a friend along for the ride, something my brother and I had a blast doing together when the game first came out.
From the Catholic perspective, due to River City Girls’s relentlessly farcical nature it’s hard to draw out a serious moral message. But if I allow myself to drop the cynicism and extend a bit of charity, I can in fact think of one angle. The driving force throughout the game is Misako and Kyoko’s love for Kunio and Riki, which gives them the strength to overcome all adversaries on their crazy quest. Lots of people think the power of love is a played out trope, but it speaks to a deeper truth anyone can recognize. It was our Lord Jesus’s love for humanity that allowed him to endure the most painful and humiliating execution imaginable and ultimately conquer death itself. Love is powerful beyond even our wildest imaginations, and it is worth celebrating even in the context of a cartoonishly silly video game.
River City Girls is by no means a flawless experience, but it does enough things right for me to come away with an overall positive opinion. The story is hard to take seriously and the RPG elements do introduce a bit of grinding, but in spite of those things the game still has some of the most stylish beat ‘em up action out there (doubly so for the multiplayer). If that all sounds like fun to you, definitely give River City Girls a shot. Unless you have an irreconcilable hatred of the color pink.
Morality & Parental Warnings: River City Girls is an action game where players brawl their way through hordes of enemies primarily using punches and kicks, but also a variety of objects in the environment such as baseball bats and trash cans. In cutscenes, boss characters will often be covered in cuts and bruises after losing a fight, but that’s about as graphic as the game gets. Some enemies wear suggestive outfits, especially the yakuza who flaunt their iconic tattoos, but overall the game’s cast is fairly modest in terms of dress. The game’s accessories include several varieties of women’s undergarments, but equipping them is purely statistical. There are instances of mild language in the game’s dialogue as well as a few jokes involving sexual innuendo. The character Naritaka, a classmate who idolizes Kyoko’s boyfriend Riki, makes an offhand comment about thinking Riki is his boyfriend, implying he is homosexual.