Few things spell "trouble" more than a kidnapping, especially when the victim in question is your boyfriend. What are you going to do about it, sit around and mope like a loser?? No! Not when your one of the River City Girls! You'll turn over every inch of River City until you find them.
River City Girls is the latest game by WayForward, the development team best known for the Shantae series. Taking place in the same universe as the classic River City Ransom for the NES, it follows the story of Kyoko and Misako. They have discovered that their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, have been kidnapped and they have to rescue them. They find themselves running all over town, taking on local law enforcement, music groupies, and a crime syndication in the process.
The game couldn't have given a better first impression. My senses were enthralled by the jammin' music and an eye-popping art style. The writing was interesting and the voice acting was immediately entertaining. Top all that off with some clean feeling beat-em-up action, and I was instantly a fan. As I progressed further, my love (and hate) for the game would only grow.
There's plenty to love about River City Girls. It provides constant enjoyment, whether its from the story, the voice acting, the art, or the overall gameplay. It utilizes unique mechanics not seen in most games today, while still keeping true enough to the classic arcade genre.
The most obvious of these is the overall style of the game. The combination of music, art, and writing blend together fantastically. I loved the characters, the items, the food, and the environments. Every shop was run by an interesting keeper and every item they offered was cute or funny. Everything about it is full of unapologetic girl energy and I am living for that. I'd call the creative direction flawless if it wasn't for the ending, but I'll get into that later.
A game is only as good as the gameplay, though. Even the most simple looking games can be an absolute blast. Fortunately, River City Girls doesn't disappoint here, either. Like the beat-em-up it hails from, its tremendously fun traversing the city streets, fighting the variety of opponents you come across. As you fight, the EXP and money you gain are used to improve your character, mostly through upgrades at the dojo and stat-increasing food items. It was super satisfying to fight off enemies, and then go buy a burger that only makes me stronger.
It also pays several clear homages to the original River City Ransom, ranging from the small quips enemies make when you defeat them to the overall plotline itself. The idea that food items increase stats started there, you can find certain map areas that are idential, and the boyfriends you're saving are the protagonists of River City Ransom. River City Girls is fantastic, even if you've never played the original game. But if you have, it's even better.
As fun as the game is, there are still some clear and noticeable frustrations to be had with the game. While not many, they were common enough issues that I regularly found myself annoyed or irritated with them. There's also the way the game ended, which left me angry for a good while after I stopped playing.
It's almost funny how the combat can be as smooth and fluid as it is, while still having these clear shortcomings. Fighting enemies and leveling up felt great. But the attack button is the same button used to both pick-up items and to transition to the next room. If you're fighting near a doorway or over an item, you'll frequently find yourself accidentally doing the wrong thing and taking a hit for it. And let me tell you, it happens a lot more than you'd think.
Next up on the annoyance scale are the items. I know I said I loved how cute and creative they were, and I do. But there's an issue with how they're sold. When in a shop, an item will not list what it does until you buy it. This isn't a problem with most food items since few cost more than $40 or so. But there's a certain frustration in grinding for 40 minutes to buy an interesting accessory, only to learn that its special ability is of absolutely no interest to you. It made me bitter and uninterested in buying non-food items.
But those are only annoyances, they didn't anger me the same way that the boss fights did. I know that having a difficult boss battle is part of the beat-em-up experience. And there's nothing wrong with that. The issue is with the way the difficulty was presented. Most bosses had a series of attacks that provided no hint as to how to prevent or handle them, leaving me frustrated when I'm hit for the 15th time and losing a large chunk of health. The others had weird gimmicks to their battles that felt unnatural to the genre. One boss played more like a bullet hell than a fighting game, for example. To let that frustration boil further, every failed attempt means having to skip through three different cutscenes to try again. That grew pretty old, real quick.
And yet, none of these hold a candle to the anger I felt when I beat the game's main story. The following paragraphs will contain spoilers for River City Girls. If you do not want to spoil the conclusion to the game, then skip the next two paragraphs and go directly to the conclusion section.
The game began with a text message. A picture message of Kunio and Riki, their boyfriends, being kidnapped, to be precise. This prompted the two girls to go and rescue them. The main motivation during the entire game is this. In the end, you discover that the two boys were actually taking a personal day at the downtown spa. You also discover that the boys have no idea who the girls are and that the idea of them dating is entirely false.
Of all the ways they could have concluded this story, this was the worst. It's even hinted at when a pair of rival girls imply that they're the ones dating the boys to antagonize the protagonistic women (which turns out to be true after all). They never explain what the kidnapping picture actually was, nor why it was sent to them in the first place. The game rewarded the player for beating the game by telling them that they actually delusional losers this whole time. It was uncharacteristically disappointing when all of the writing up to this point was so good. Everything else was momentary irritation, but this left me genuinely unhappy.
River City Girls is practically overflowing with good. It's cute, creative, fun, and exciting. I had a blast playing it. But the issues it did have were too regular and loud to ignore. All things considered, I rate the game as follows.
I had a great time playing River City Girls and I don't regret any of it. If you're a fan of beat-em-ups or anything with exuberant girl energy, then I absolutely recommend this game. If you're easily frustrated or wanting an easy, casual experience, you might be better off watching a playthrough.
River City Girls was developed and published by WayForward. It is available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam PC for $29.99. The game will be available for PC on the GOG and Humble Store at a later date. For more information, visit the WayForward website. A copy of this game was produced for the purpose of this review.