River City Girls shakes up the classic River City beat-em-up series (or Kunio-kun as it’s known in Japan) casting you as two unruly but kick-ass school girls ready to beat down anyone in their way in the name of love.
Playing as either the hot-blooded Misako or the somewhat ditzy Kyoko, the story begins with both girls trapped in detention when they get a text message that their boyfriends (Kunio and Riki, the original playable heroes of the series) have been kidnapped. From there, the two decide to bust out of school, kicking the crap out of anyone in their way, from rival students, to mall cops, to pom-pom-bearing cheerleaders, to Arnie lookalikes. Seriously, everyone in town seems to be spoiling for a fight.
Besides that refreshing gender-flip, what comes across immediately is just how awesome the presentation is, right from the anime sequence and theme song that plays at the start of the game. Visually, the pixel art is wonderfully animated while manga cutscenes flesh out some characters’ backstories. There’s also a fantastic synth-pop soundtrack with contributions from artists like NateWantsToBattle, Chipzel and Christina Vee, and Megan McDuffee, while the voice-acting is just as energetic, a great balance between a Saturday morning cartoon and Scott Pilgrim vibes.
Without doubt River City Girls rocks it on style. Its substance on the other hand is more debatable. While it has systems that should give it more depth than just another arcade brawler, it’s the execution where things get frustrating.
There’s an RPG-lite system so that as you level up you can acquire more moves from the rather basic light and heavy attacks - though you can also pick up objects to use as weapons. You’ll be able to learn combos as well as more powerful moves that use up a special gauge. These however need to be purchased from the dojo, which don’t come cheap.
Defeated enemies will leave money behind but you’ll quickly realise it’s chump change and you’ll earn more by carrying out quests or just advancing the story. However, if you’re defeated, you’re also punished by losing a fraction of your cash. And believe it or not, this can happen an awful lot.
Learning combos feels like a waste once you get to enemies who can just block, so you might as well just resort to cheap attacks. Conversely, I found it near-impossible to make use of the block and parry system. If you get caught by an enemy’s jab, you’re effectively stunned into their combo. As for bosses, while some of them are pretty inventive, they also veer on the ridiculously tough side, unless you’ve stocked up on healing items.
Frankly, you’ll have a better time of it if you play in co-op, as not only do you have a short window to revive one another but because each girl only levels up when they’re playable - a solo player who’s spent half the game as Misako thinking of switching to Kyoko will find themselves totally under-levelled.
Unlike Streets of Rage where you’re scrolling across linear levels, River City Girls also takes a more open-world approach, as each of the six areas of River City can be navigated back and forth. Getting around can however get repetitive with all the brawling encounters, while annoying moving from one area to the next is done by pressing the same button as light attack, so if you’re fighting at the edge of a level, it’s all too common for you to accidentally leave an area. Perhaps the biggest pain of is when the screen suddenly locks until you’ve defeated a wave of enemies - and boy, do some of these waves drag on.
You can’t however fault the distinct art direction of each area of the city, which is also filled with plenty of shops where you can buy equippable or consumable items, while each place is also accompanied by excellent illustrations. The problem is that, for some reason, you don’t know what an item does until you’ve paid for it, and when money is tight, this makes no sense. You’re better off just making use of the items you receive while playing the story (Here’s a tip: find the downtown pharmacy then stock up first aid kits and ignore everything else - you’ll thank me later).
There’s a fair bit of replayability, from taking on side quests as well as destroying the yakuza boss statues located around town, and even bonus unlockable characters. But ultimately, for all its entertaining style, I would have had a better time if River City Girls had been a shorter, more streamlined brawler that let me get back up to fight again instead of pinching my lunch money.
River City Girls (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Faultlessly stylish but also frustrating in its execution, River City Girls is nonetheless a refreshingly vibrant brawler but best played with a friend.