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River City Girls

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2019


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PS4 Review - 'River City Girls'

by Redmond Carolipio on April 27, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

River City Girls is a co-op beat-’em-up that stars Kyoko and Misako, two street-tough high-schoolers who must fight their way through the six regions of River City to rescue their kidnapped boyfriends, series mainstays Kunio and Riki.

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Plots don't get much simpler than the one laid before you in River City Girls: The boyfriends of two high school girls have been kidnapped, and the girls take it upon themselves to fight everyone in the city en route to rescue them. The game even starts with a catchy bubblegum-rock song mapping this out. It's beat-'em-up psychology and execution at its most elemental, dating all the way back to the days of Double Dragon, when I witnessed a pixelated dude punch a pixelated lady in the gut, throw her over his shoulder, and carry her off with his friends, setting the tone for the melee odyssey to follow. River City Girls takes this age-old, beat-'em-up concept and slathers layers of anime bounce and some open-world/RPG flavor on it, resulting in a few entertaining hours that even people unfamiliar with the characters can enjoy.

If the venue of River City sounds familiar to you, then you might be of a certain age and remember the release of River City Ransom in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It's one part of what would become the elaborate Kunio-kun multiverse of games, which generally transformed the trials of high-school life into operatic anime/manga tales of combat and rivalry, rich with different characters and story arcs.

In my younger days, I remember RCR feeling like an omni-expanded Double Dragon, but displaying the elements of what would eventually be known to us as "open world." Instead of the typical linear stage-by-stage progression of an action game, RCR let players wander around discoverable parts of a map at will, taking part in quests and discovering different characters and clues that either rolled the story forward or led to a side-quest. RPG players knew what this felt like, but not beat-'em-up fans. I didn't appreciate this at the time, but in my older age, I couldn't help but notice that River City Girls doesn't deviate too much from the original format, and despite its looks, feels right at home in 2020.

Like its predecessors, RCG also exists as a piece of the Kunio-kun galaxy, and I'm sure some uber-hardcore fans might recognize the game's two protagonists, Misako and Kyoko, from previous exploits. As an admitted novice to the lore, I admired how the game splashes the two youngsters' personalities on the screen. Kyoko is the cutesy, friendly one while Misako is the slightly edgier, more direct one. Misako is in detention at River City High, while Kyoko, her BFF and apparently not even a student at the school, is just hanging out with her to pass the time. That's when they get a text from a mystery person showing that their boyfriends Kunio and Riki (two core characters of the Kunio-kun series) have been kidnapped. Enraged, they are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and punch everyone who gets in their way. The battle begins in detention, where whomever you pick has to start fighting off fellow students on the way out of school.

If you're a veteran of beat-'em-ups, you probably have an idea of how the game is structured: As the heroine (or heroines, if you're doing co-op), progress through the game, you'll have to fight through armies of enemies, leveling up and eventually encountering perhaps my favorite part of games like this: classic, retro boss battles. The game hurls a lot of people at you, and it was good fun encountering the different character types: students of varied ethnicities (hooray diversity) and social tiers, security guards with batons, girls with whips, buff dudes in costumes and even random Terminator-type guys who make exaggerated Arnoldian "aaaaoougggh aaaaah" noises.

The two girls are practically equal in their effectiveness as fighters, but they have unique aesthetics to their attacks and get stronger as they level up through a mix of attrition to gain XP as well as buying food, accessories and moves at the stores and dojos scattered around town. The combat itself is diverse. In addition to simple strikes, you can grab people and pummel them with knees or fists in the clinch or hurl them into the air. Some of the moves you can get are radial in nature and whittle down a green "special move" meter, like an attack that has Misako treat her heart-shaped backpack like a pair of nunchaku to knock down surrounding foes. A personal favorite of the special moves I purchased was called the "stungun," which is basically the Stone Cold Stunner finishing move of WWE fame. I did that one a lot. Practically all of the moves you have blend together intuitively and are easy to pull off in the fog of fistic war.

Even with its old-school trappings, the levels of River City are awash with color and identity as the girls journey all over the map. They start at school, but their quest takes them to downtown streets, the beach, the mall, the ritzy areas of town and eventually inside a Yakuza-owned corporate tower. One thing I found interesting is how there's a scattering of instances where players have to stay on a screen and survive a fight, which is indicated by "chains" around the borders of the screen. Otherwise, you can actually run past people and to the next "door" icon that takes you to another part of the map. Your accessories, inventory, map, moves and stats can be accessed with the options button, and I would have liked perhaps a faster, one-click way to access the map, as is done in recent Metroidvania games. A one-click way to use healing items (cutely punctuated by a nom-nom-nom sound) would have been welcome.

My favorite part of the River City Girls experience has to be the character development for both the girls and the oddball characters they encounter. It's not overly deep, but it's direct, funny and tells me just enough to be invested. It also demonstrates surprising social wokeness at times. When the girls unsuccessfully try to secure VIP passes to a concert from a snobby uptown concierge, they hatch a plan to eventually come back to him and try to fool him. Kyoko asks, "Won't he recognize us?" Misako replies, "No. Rich doesn't recognize poor." They also take occasional swings at the fourth wall. Before an encounter with a boss, the screen starts to fade into white, and Misako groans, "Ugh, it's a flashback." Every exchange has a bit of self-aware fun to it, and it was the prospect of the next exchange that helped balance out the inevitable feeling of repetitiveness that comes with games like this.

The boss characters are outstanding and emulate all of my favorite things about boss battles. They range from the burly female security guard at the school to a mystic flying fashion designer to a heavy metal singer named Noize, who attacks you from her stage with Guitar Hero-like button-note indicators scrolling on the floor on which you're standing. Avoid them or get damaged. Each boss has a variety of multi-stage pattern attacks that are worth seeing in person. The game's been out for a while, but I still leave the spirit of discovering these things to you.

The only real gripe I have left is the two occasional attempts in the game at light platforming, where you have to master some precision jumping — except the jumping can be maddeningly imprecise. Both times were unnecessarily difficult and required a few tries, and I was thankful that failure didn't lead to instant death. Otherwise, that would have been a gamebreaker.

I'd classify River City Girls as a fun, anime-inspired romp that's worth the time if you're looking for a balance between the visceral satisfaction you get from pummeling enemies on-screen and some of the off-center humor one can find in pieces like "Scott Pilgrim vs The World." It has that kind of vibe, and it's a great change of pace from the more heavy-handed stuff out there.

Score: 8.5/10

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