WayForward’s revival of River City just slightly misses the landing
If, like myself, you ended up playing River City Ransom as a kid, you were probably mystified by the somewhat odd and obtuse type of game it was: a side-scrolling beat-em up with weird dialogue (the ubiquitous BARF comes to mind), levels, stats, and menus, with a nearly incomprehensible world that surrounded it. Much of that was due to the localization changes in the game, and frankly the Kunio-kun franchise has never really gotten the best localizations in the West, usually undergoing massive changes, being released out of order, and other drastic changes. However, beat 'em up games are one of gaming’s most beloved and underserved co-op genres, with recent generations of games having ditched the couch co-op for larger online player bases or single-player experiences.
While there are some occasionally brilliant brawlers that find their way onto systems these days, a new leader in the pack hasn’t really emerged since 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game, a now sadly lost to the intricacies of licensing problems brawler masterclass. WayForward seems intent on trying to change this, as their Double Dragon Neon attempted to take Scott Pilgrim’s throne in 2014, and in 2019 WayForward have released their newest co-op beat em up: River City Girls. After receiving both a Switch and PS4 code of the game, I decided to take a look at the game and see what conclusions I would come to. And… well, it’s probably best to just say it up front: I was really let down by this game.
In River City Girls, players take on the role of Misako and Kyoko, who receive a mysterious text that implies that their boyfriends, series lead Kunio and co-star Riki, have been kidnapped. Vowing to get back their boyfriends, the two girls go on a rampage across WayForward’s colorful envisioning of River City, meeting countless recolored enemies, Kunio-kun series character callbacks and revamps, and even Double Dragon cameos. For those not in the know, the two series have always been somewhat joined at the hip, although the Neon redesigns in this game stick out a bit more than you’d expect when compared to the overall aesthetics. Along the way, Misako and Kyoko can level up, buy new moves, eat food, and shop for new gear with their hard earned cash as they complete various quests and missions to progress the game or pursue bonuses.
The game can be played solo or co-op, and for the sake of this review, I played the entire game through to New Game+ co-op (more on that later). Players have the ability to turn on or off friendly fire, change difficulty, and swap characters before starting, and can even drop in and out of games on the fly (all offline, though). Overall, the game will last about 12 hours if you’re trying to do absolutely everything and occasionally grinding for items and levels, and this includes the hidden boss, but not a full NG+ run-through (we estimate you might hit about 20 hours overall if you’re looking to do that, and maybe more if you were trying to get every trophy).
As Misako and Kyoko search for their boyfriends, the story unfolds in occasional and fun comic-strip style cutscenes, and the game is fully voiced throughout, making the colorful world really come to life. Much like Double Dragon Neon, WayForward really nailed the aesthetic they were going with, and the character designs and general world of River City Girls is a huge success, especially when the very cool soundtrack is tossed into the mix (the vocal songs in particular are quite catchy)!
World building seems to be something that, at least aesthetically, WayForward know how to do exceptionally well; some of the best moments in this game come from the interesting assortment of shopkeepers that players encounter, and characters fill uniquely designed and visually appealing. The writing is generally solid and funny, with Misako and Kyoko’s one-liners being some of the best parts of the entire game’s dialogue. The voice acting in the game is generally very solid, although some character voices are fairly questionable; one character, Godai, has what seems to be an Irish accent that inexplicably appears more and more prominently as the game progresses, and other character voices are similarly confusing at times. Misako, Kyoko, Hasebe, and Mami are perhaps the best voiced characters in the game, which really does a lot of work for the overall attitude of the game.
As far as the gameplay itself is concerned, however, things start to fall apart faster than we really expected. Fans of beat 'em up games are generally used to somewhat “unfair” games, as many beat-em ups have their roots in arcades, munching your quarters as you try to land that final hit on a boss. While this gives a somewhat false sense of difficulty and skill required to best those older arcade games, it occasionally leads modern game designs that hew too close to this mentality to become frustrating and “cheap”, as enemies tend to batter your characters around in ways that you can’t seem to replicate despite a growing list of special moves and skills. Controlwise, River City Girls is mostly fluid, but feels jerky and unresponsive at odd times. Certain areas that require platforming skills can go great on the first try, then poorly on the second, and characters feel very slippery when they land, making it fairly easy to over-correct or under-estimate running jump stopping time. Dashing is also occasionally unresponsive, with characters just seemingly not doing so at times for random reasons.
The biggest problem with controls, though, is the button mapping for the “all-purpose” button. Like most games, River City Girls has a button that does most of the basic things in the game, like leaving areas, opening fast travel menus, speaking to characters, and entering doors that also happens to be your light-attack button, i.e. the button you are going to press through 95% of the game. The problem with this is that, if your character ends up too close (and we found that “too close” could get ridiculously abstract in some areas) to a door to a shop or another area, your character would simply just duck into that shop or out of the screen entirely as you tried to punch an enemy. This happened so frequently that we started to wonder how this sort of oversight even happened in the first place. While fights can of course take place on any area of the screen, enemies tend to horde around the characters so much and fights get pushed around that it will inevitably happen regardless of how careful you or your partner were to stay away from doors.
And when I say you will hit that light attack button a lot, I'm not kidding. While you unlock more abilities that can be purchased from the Dojo throughout the game, there’s really not much to combat except repeatedly smashing through your light attack combo strings, occasionally mixing in a harder attack to attempt a juggle or harder knockdown, or even a special ability. But no matter what, enemies are going to fall down anyway, leaving you with few options, as only one attack will hit enemies on the ground, and your only other option is an unlockable grab that turns said enemy into a weapon, but doesn’t actually do any damage to the enemy itself, meaning you still need to wait for them to get back up to keep hitting them.
Special moves are mapped to one button and a slight combination of directional button presses, but honestly special attacks do so little damage and felt so situational or weak that they don’t feel very useful; by the end of the game, most bosses and enemies simply just blocked them the entire time, or worse immediately interrupted the attack with a simple attack of their own, making the special attacks feel even more useless as they’d likely run the risk of getting you hit instead of doing any damage to the enemy.
And this, really, is the fatal flaw of River City Girls: the combat isn’t very fun after a while. The system has a lot of promise, and occasionally cool things like juggle combos can be achieved (especially with well timed inputs from your partner, and also if you don’t have a horde of enemies). But usually fights are just mashing light attack, knocking an enemy down, mashing the ground-pound attack, then either resuming your light attack string when enemies get up if stunned, or likely eating a seemingly invincible wake-up attack from the enemy if they aren’t stunned. This is interspersed with the chaos of usually dealing with multiple enemies at the same time; single player enemy counts seem the same as multiplayer, meaning that single players are likely to face even more brutal challenge in the sense that they can’t divide and conquer like co-op can.
Blocking is slow and somewhat unusual; enemies seemingly have the ability to block whenever they want (for however long they want, too, as we found out in later enemy and boss encounters), but your own blocks are slow to raise and can’t interrupt an enemy combo. If you get hit, you’re getting hit for the entire duration of the combo. Enemies, of course, don’t have these restrictions, and will hit you out of combos or grabs all the time, which becomes even more annoying when grabs are automatic, making your character an accidental sitting duck at times.
The leveling and stat system would seem to be the way to mitigate this challenge, but to be honest, we were left wondering what the point of the levels and stats even were. Enemies never felt any easier to defeat, and during grinding runs or supply shopping, we found enemies from earlier areas took just as many hits as enemies from later areas, despite our characters being nearly 25 levels higher than when they first encountered these foes. If the stat increases do matter, then they matter in keeping the game “level”, as it seems that enemies grow to match your own stats, but the growth is universal around the game’s entire length. Some enemies also seem to give the same amount of money and experience regardless of where you fight that variety of enemy, so an enemy from the beginning of the game will give the same amount of cash and exp as their variant from the very last area of the game. This makes grinding for money even more tiring than it already is, as there’s no real good place to do so that we could find our our playthroughs of the game, and enemies only drop extra money on occasion if you equip a specific accessory that isn’t found until 3/4ths of the way through the game… Which brings us to the most frustrating thing in the entire game: death.
Dying in River City Girls steals 50% of the cash your character is carrying, meaning that if you happen to be unable to revive your partner, they’re going to lose 50% of their cash while you desperately try to revive them, and potentially then lose your own 50% in the process. Dying in River City Girls causes a ghost to leave your character’s body, which can only be returned if the other player performs enough ground-pound attacks to stomp the soul back into your corpse. This would be a cute idea if the controls weren’t constantly buffering inputs, leading to hilarious (but frustrating) moments where Kyoko dabs on Misako’s corpse because the player happened to tap a directional button a second before hitting the triangle button. In our playthrough, this happened numerous times, to the point that we started to save scum the game by just quitting out of the game before deaths were recorded, as the game saves when you enter rooms, but not during them.
At this point, one might expect a mid-review turnaround, where we reveal that the story of the game is a saving grace and worth the time spent on it. Sadly, I have to report that isn’t really the case. In fact, after beating both the game and the secret boss, we found ourselves frustrated by what exactly the narrative WayForward were going for was supposed to mean. Part of the story relies on players knowing the intricate “problems” of Kunio-kun lore, which… isn’t really possible, as most of the games were never officially translated, and some are 30 years old. While the cutscenes in the game dealing with Kyoko and Misako’s friendship are fine, the story isn’t really about that, and the ending left us scratching our heads and somewhat angry and frustrated at the game. I won’t say any more about it, but I’ll just say that we were left feeling flat, and the secret boss ending is just a re-skinned version of the regular ending, meaning nothing changes anyway, making it feel even less fulfilling to have reached that ending after the extra work it required to unlock.
Beating the game unlocks a few new surprises, namely a Loiter Mode (free roam), New Game+, and two new characters to play through the game with, who do indeed play differently than the main girls, but didn’t change the game enough to make it feel worth it to do it all over again in different skins (the character sprites in shops don’t even change to reflect that you’re playing different characters, still showing Misako and Kyoko instead). If you’re playing on a system with achievements, then there are numerous ones to unlock, adding some extra reasons to take advantage of Loiter mode, but otherwise we didn’t feel any reason to keep playing the game after beating the secret boss.
"Surely a good boss fight would turn the tide!," I thought. Beat 'em up games feature lots of combat against waves of goons that can be frustrating, but a good boss battle can make all of that struggle worth it. Sadly, I feel the boss fights in River City Girls don’t really live up to that promise, and we found the boss fights becoming worse as the game progressed; each one seems to add a new gameplay mechanic, from bullet hell to a Guitar Hero throwback, which are pretty neat, but pairing said mechanics with clunky and sometimes unresponsive controls left the whole experience go sour. The final bosses were perhaps even worse, because they felt unchallenging and simplistic (we were honestly shocked at how fast we beat both the final and “real” bosses).
To make matters worse, the current builds of the game had numerous bugs, and we suffered 3 different game crashes while fighting different bosses, causing us to lose progress and the will to continue. This problem is not unique to bosses, sadly; we found that the game is fairly riddled with bugs and glitches: sometimes, we couldn't interact or grab items, characters would get stuck in geometry, and inputs wouldn’t respond as expected. This is even more noticeable on the Switch version of the game, where we noticed not only an increased amount of crashes, but also 5 frames of input delay and a stuttering framerate, which frankly made the game frustrating and somewhat unplayable. When we received the PS4 copy (infinite thanks to WayForward!), we found that these issues of delay and framerate were gone, but different types of glitches and crashes presented themselves instead. The big one being the Abobo boss fight; everytime we fought him, we had the same crash every time, and only actually beat him because the 3rd time it happened, the game didn’t hard crash and managed to continue playing.
Did we have fun playing River City Girls? The answer is complicated... I’d say that I had fun because it gave me the chance to spend time with my partner and play a game together, and sharing the experience with someone next to me like that frankly is hard to come by in the current gaming market. We both grew up playing games like Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, so this type of game is something we enjoy being able to play together whenever we can. But does that mean River City Girls gets a pass just because it gave us that opportunity? That’s a harder question to answer... We did enjoy the aesthetics, the music and some of the game's dialogue, but by the end of the game, we were left frustrated by how it all ended. Misako and Kyoko definitely deserve way better than this! At the end of it all, River City Girls managed to ignite our desire to play more beat 'em up games, but that's only to get this bitter experience out of our minds.
+ Aesthetics and visuals are colorful, vibrant, and fun.
+ The music is an absolute lifesaver for the game, with lots of great vocal tracks.
+ Kiyoko and Misako are fun characters, and they really deserve a better story.
+/- Frustrating combat and fights, but does scratch some of that co-op beat-em up itch that is lacking in games today.
- The story in the game is a dud by the ending, and actively makes the effort put into reaching it feel very worthless.
- Far too many bugs and quality of life issues in a final release of a game that actively impede being able to play the game.
- Switch version has noticeable input delay and framerate issues; one is understandable, the other unforgivable. We suggest avoiding the Switch version at all costs till fixed.
Will River City Girls be your first trip to River City? Do you disagree with our review? Let us know what you think of the game in the comments!
Nicole is a features writer and editor for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries
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