I’ve been a fan of beat ‘em up games since the first time I saw Marge Simpson wailing on clowns with a vacuum cleaner. It’s never been a genre I’d call myself an expert in, but always a great way to have a good time. Somehow, I’d never really gotten into the Kunio-kun (aka River City in North America) franchise. I'd heard of River City Ransom (the precursor to River City Girls), but preferred to punch dudes as Turtles, Toads, Superheroes, and cyborgs rather than as other dudes.
Side note: If y’all haven’t played Super Dodgeball Advance on the GameBoy Advance, you’re missing out. It’s a league-based competitive dodgeball game that takes place in the Kunio-kun world. I do not know why this game exists, but I love it.
Fast-forward a few decades, and the retro brawler is back in a big way. Games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Streets of Rage 4, Castle Crashers, and the return of the Battletoads have shown that a silly game where you run around and punch people can be a heck of a lot of fun. The rebirth of the River City franchise was brought about by Wayforward, one of my absolute favorite studios, with River City Girls. Despite being a fan of the genre and the development studio, I only got around to playing about an hour of it when it came out. After River City Girls 2 was featured in a recent Indie Direct, I went back and played through the whole first game in a weekend and am now super hyped for the sequel!
Game: River City Girls
Release Date: September 5, 2019
Rating: Everyone 10+
Platform: Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, Windows, Luna
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Simple and Substantial
River City Girls is a two-player beat ‘em up with RPG elements, snappy combat, and three beautifully rendered art styles. The game itself is all big, chunky pixel sprites with beautiful animation. When you get into conversations with NPCs in the world (which happens a ton for a beat-em-up game), the game uses still, anime-style illustrations of the characters to emphasize the voice-acted dialog. That anime-style comes to life during the intro to boss fights, which use short anime clips to bring a lot of character to your foes.
The story of River City Girls is that the two playable characters have received a text suggesting that their boyfriends (the playable characters from River City Ransom) have been kidnapped, so they punch and kick their way through everything in their path to try to rescue them. It’s a very silly, very simple story, but it’s also self-aware enough to make that simplicity charming. The big story moments are mostly told through a motion-comic style manga presentation that is absolutely gorgeous, which really helps make the whole thing work.
Without spoiling anything, there was one little vignette that was sort of an aside to the main story that really got to me. The comic-style cutscene filling in a bit of backstory in the world was really touching, and I was not expecting a game this silly to give me anything that emotional.
Welcome to River City
The world of River City Girls is, frankly, ridiculous. Everywhere you go there are people who just show up, ready to rumble. I know that’s how every brawler works, but it feels just a bit different here for two reasons.
First of all, the game talks about the absurdity of the world. The opening fight is a bunch of students trying to stop you from leaving detention while the principal cheers them on over the loudspeaker. Once you get out of that room, you’ve got to make your way through hordes of your classmates who all want to beat you to a freaking pulp. Throughout the game, your characters have little side conversations about how weird it is that everyone is always fighting, or how sore they are. It’s ridiculous but charming.
The other neat twist here is that the world really feels like a world. When you beat your first boss and escape from the school, you don’t get a big “Level Complete” screen before spawning in a whole new environment. Instead, you walk out the front door of the school, and then up the street to get to town.
Exploring the World
It’d be a bit of a stretch to call this an “open-world” game, but it is closer to that than any other brawler I can think of. Each “stage” is part of an interconnected map, and you make progress by talking to NPCs who give you silly quests. Throughout the game, you’ll have to destroy fancy cars, become a pop star's biggest fan, and buy a golden cat.
I think this world design goes all the way back to River City Ransom on the NES, but it’s not something I’ve seen in too many beat ‘em up games. Most brawlers are games I play for the combat, but River City Girls does more than that. Learning the map was a lot of fun, and the feeling of getting familiar with the space kept me interested in the world and the story being told.
Of course, the combat is pretty good, too.
Punchin' Around Town
The action in River City Girls is just as satisfyingly straightforward as the story. At the start of the game you’ve got two attacks, a jump, and a block, and that’s pretty much it. Everything feels good from the very beginning, but nothing feels groundbreaking. This game does use RPG mechanics, with your character gaining levels to increase their stats over time, and there’s a dojo where you can learn new powerful moves. This introduces some variety later on, but really, this is a brawler that seems focused on a combat system that is easy to use, not one that looks for finesse.
One wrinkle to the fighting that works really well is the assist system. Whenever you fight your way down to one goon remaining on the screen, there’s a chance they may drop to their knees in surrender. You can just keep pummeling them at this point, or you can recruit them to help you out in future fights. At the push of a button, they’ll jump on screen, pull off one attack, and then disappear again. The assists are helpful but not necessary, which is exactly what I want from a second-level system in a game like this.
One of my most memorable moments in gaming from the year was when I called in a buttrocker dominatrix to help me beat the crap out of tear-gas-tossing cops.
Jumping back to that announcement for River City Girls 2 after spending a bunch of time with the first game is interesting. Now that I'm watching it with a heck of a lot more context, it looks like the gameplay is exactly the same, but with more characters, new enemies, and bigger map. In other words… I'm very, very into it!
My only big hope is that the cutscenes before boss fights can be skipped easier. In the first game, most bosses had 3 cut scene “segments” that introduced them before each fight. Each of those segments had it's own loading screen. Even though the loading screens were short, it was annoying to have them pop up back to back like that. What's worse is that each segment was skippable individually. That meant that when you went to fight the boss a second (or more) time you had to skip a cutscene, wait for a load, skip a cutscene, wait for a load, THEN SKIP ANOTHER CUTSCENE AND WAIT THROUGH ANOTHER LOADING SCREEN TO GET TO THE ACTUAL FIGHT!
… Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Anyway, the sequel looks great and it's got online multiplayer, which was sorely missing in the first game.
I’m really happy that I took the time to play through River City Girls. It’s not a game that blew my mind, but it was a heck of a lot of fun. I actually played the vast majority of this over a long weekend where I was driving for several hours each day. Finishing up hours on the road, getting something tasty to eat, and snuggling up on a couch to go throw down was a delightful, comforting ritual over those few days.
There’s a lot of brawlers out there right now, and a lot of them are fun for a few hours then slip away from me. River City Girls was fun, funny, and heartwarming all the way through, and the sequel has jumped up to be one of the games I’m most looking forward to cracking into next year.