Product provided for review. Thanks WayForward!
Please note that I played the P.C. version of the game. The following review is for the game itself, and does not cover platform specific details such as performance or glitches.
Developed by Wayforward Technologies and published by Arc Systems Works, River City Girls is, as the name would imply, a spin-off of the N.E.S. classic River City Ransom. Much like its 8-bit predecessor, River City Girls is a blend of side-scrolling beat-em-up combat and open-world action-adventure exploration with a sprinkling of R.P.G. elements on top. The game follows the adventures of the tough, temperamental, and sarcastic Misako and the cute, bubbly, and emotionally unhinged Kyoko as the two set out to rescue their respective boyfriends from being kidnapped.
Of course, the boys’ kidnappers aren’t going to give them up without a fight. Misako and Kyoko will have to thrash every thug in town in their search, which is good news for us; combat in River City Girls is easily the best part of the game. Each character starts off weak—almost frustratingly so—but quickly gains an abundance of new abilities that enable the player to better address the onslaught of adversaries the game throws at them. The best part is that each of the myriad of options available to the player is not only satisfying to execute, but feels distinct, making every attack’s inclusion feel deliberate and meaningful. Furthermore, the game’s two protagonists, in turn, have subtle differences in their respective fighting styles, giving each girl a unique feel.
While the levels you gain and the skills you learn will certainly help you lay the smack-down on the game’s various goons, they won’t make you invincible. Above all else, fights in River City Girls are won with skill, not stats. Even with a high-level character, carelessness will cost you as you quickly get surrounded and pounded into the pavement. In addition, I also found that the combat featured a surprising amount of depth. For instance, once I had a firm grasp of the basics, I was able to experiment with more advanced techniques such as juggling enemies to extend combos.
Combat’s only part of the equation, however. River City Girls features a large urban sprawl with many interconnected districts to explore. As to be expected, the area you can wander starts off small and gradually expands, not only revealing new locations, but new paths to old locales. Between the aforementioned shortcuts and the inclusion of bus stops which players can use to fast travel between, getting from one end of River City to the other takes little time and effort, especially if you simply run past enemies. While out on the town, you’ll be able to shop for health restoring items and equipment, learn new moves at dojos, and complete side-quests.
While the combat is nigh impeccable, the exploration segments are rife with nagging little annoyances. For starters, you’ll have no idea what an item does until you buy it, which is especially annoying when it comes to expensive pieces of equipment or combat maneuvers. Secondly, the player characters can only dash when moving left or right, instead only having a short side-hop to quickly move forward or back. While this wouldn’t be much of an issue in a more traditional entry in the beat-em-up genre, as such games typically feature exclusively horizontal levels, many areas in River City Girls employ much more open level design. Perhaps the most aggravating of all, however, is that attacking and interacting with the environment are mapped to the same button, meaning if you’re fighting near an N.P.C. or an exit to the another area, it’s quite likely you’ll accidentally initiate a conversation or enter another part of the city.
The difficulty in this game is also pretty lop-sided. The game starts off being quite unforgiving, with health pickups rarely—if ever—dropping and money being scarce, but gradually gets easier with enemies dropping more money and dropping health items far more frequently. While getting more money is to be expected, the spawn rate of health items struck me as odd. This is just a hypothesis, but I think it’s because one of the stats that increases as your character levels up is luck, meaning the game actually cuts you more breaks the further you progress.
Switching gears, let’s talk about the game’s presentation. The story in River City Girls is very straight forward. The girls discover via text message that their boyfriends have been kidnapped and set out to save them. I have mixed feelings about the game’s writing. On one hand, the game has the clever dialog and light-hearted tone we’ve come to expect from Wayforward, with just a bit more of a biting edge. The game never takes itself too seriously, with the heroines constantly commenting on the eccentricities of the characters they come across or the absurdity of their present circumstance, leading to many amusing exchanges.
If you’re looking for a compelling narrative, however, you’ll be rather disappointed. Throughout the game, Misako and Kyoko just meander from one lead to another, with little in terms of build-up or pay-off. Moreover, the segues between objectives start to feel increasingly disjointed as the game progresses. While the tenuous logic connecting the game’s events may have been intended to be humorous, it ultimately comes across as haphazard.
The visuals are, by and large, excellent. Once again, Wayforard demonstrates their mastery of 2D animation, with smooth and expressive sprite art that boasts a distinct visual style. Furthermore, many of the cutscenes in this game are fully animated, while others incorporate a surprisingly appealing manga-like presentation reminiscent of that one scene in FLCL. There are stylistic incongruities in some of the game’s artwork, making certain images look like either placeholder assets or just like it was from a different game altogether.
In terms of audio productions, however, I have no complaints. The music fits the game quite well and lends a unique identity, with many of the songs even being remixes of tracks from River City Ransom; something I’m sure many long time fans will appreciate. There are also several lyrical tracks, which I’m surprised to say I actually quite enjoyed, despite it not being the sort of music I’d typically listen to.
The game is also fully voiced, and quite well too. Almost every voice fits its respective character—save for one or two random shopkeepers—and lends an extra layer of personality to the game.
River City Girls features excellent beat-em-up action with an extra layer of depth in the form of R.P.G.-styled leveling and exploration. This strong core foundation is offset, however, by many small, nagging quality-of-life issues and inconsistencies that—while negligible on their own—were frequent enough to consistently irk or distract me during my time with this game. Overall, I like this game, and fans of the River City/Kunio-Kun games, or just the 2D beat-em-up genre in general, will definitely find it worth their while. The game is priced at $30, which I’d say is a little steep for what you’re offered. Personally, I’d value it more in the range of $20-$25.