By Justin Guillou / October 8th, 2019
Author’s Note: I will be spoiling a major part of River City Girls and also Kunio-tachi no Banka.
|Title||River City Girls|
|Developer||Arc System Works|
|Publisher||Wayforward (LRG for the Physical release)|
|Release Date||September 5th, 2019|
|Platform||PS4, Switch, PC|
River City Girls is the latest entry in the long running Kunio franchise, which, despite not being the most recognizable one to your average joe, is a rather significant one. The first game in the series, Nekketsu Kouha Kunio Kun, known to us in the West as Renegade, would become one of, if not the very first, true Beat ’em up, paving the way for other classics such as Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage. In the original Japanese game, it featured a high school delinquent named Kunio who fights wave after wave of enemies in an attempt to rescue his friend from the Yakuza. While this plot was changed rather significantly for the Western release, the game was popular enough to receive several sequels and spinoffs, most notably Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari which would be known to us as River City Ransom, or Street Gangs if you were in PAL Territories. Unfortunately, there are many games in the franchise that never left Japan, one of those being Shin Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-tachi no Banka for the Super Famicom. This game featured Kunio, his rival Riki, and their girlfriends at the time, Misako and Kyoko, as playable characters. This is where River City Girls comes into play. Wayforward and Arc System Works took these two girls and gave them their own adventure and, for the most part, it’s a really exciting game.
The story is simple. Misako and Kyoko are in detention but soon get a text from an unknown number informing them that their boyfriends are missing along with footage of them being kidnapped. So they decide to bust out of school and go save their boyfriends and beat up anyone who gets in their way. Once outside, you are free to explore as much of the world as is currently available to you with new passageways and areas gradually opening up and connecting each area. When you begin the game you have very little HP, healing items don’t drop very frequently and enemies are rather powerful and aggressive, making just about every encounter very threatening. Heck, the first boss was a lot more challenging than I expected it to be. Death comes at a rather large penalty of you losing your hard-earned money that is dropped from enemies. That, unfortunately, makes for a rather intimidating first impression. However, if you bear with it, you will eventually level up and unlock more devastating moves, giving you significantly more freedom to experiment, effectively turning what would have otherwise been a rather monotonous game into an incredibly fast and furious one where you are chaining attacks and throws and finding all sorts of ways to juggle anyone that dares to oppose you. It is so much fun that you will not want to put the game down once combat “clicks” and you begin to understand it. The aggressive enemies that seemed like a curse earlier become a blessing as every encounter feels engaging. I was motivated to try out new techniques and combos and see how it fares against each type of enemy.
In addition to just beating people up, you have a few defensive maneuvers such as a block button which can also be used to parry attacks, leaving an opponent open for a counter. The timing for this is really tricky but oh so satisfying when you pull it off. You can also sidestep and, of course, run. Sometimes when an enemy is almost defeated they will beg for forgiveness. If you grab them and press L, you can recruit them and summon them to do an assist attack Marvel vs. Capcom style. That said, like that game, they can be attacked by your enemies and if they run out of health you will lose them. One slight annoyance with combat is that you enter and exit doors or passages leading to the next area by pressing the same button as your normal punch attack. What ends up happening is that if you are too close to an entranceway when you hit that button you will exit the area. I’ve had multiple instances where I was in the middle of a combo only to be warped out of the screen because I just happened to be too close to a door when I pressed the attack button. It’s manageable but you will need to pay extra attention on where you are on the screen before you attack an enemy. The bosses are all very unique and offer distinct challenges and quirks that really force you to make great use of your abilities. As mentioned earlier, they can be very challenging the first time you fight them. One boss in particular feels like she came out of a shoot ’em up and fires projectiles bullet-hell style. While they aren’t too difficult for you to dodge, the bullets can juggle you rather easily and in a worst case scenario, push you in range of one of her more deadly attacks which can potentially deal a devastating amount of damage in one blow.
To help you against these enemies you can buy equipment and eat food at various stores throughout the world. Similar to Bloodstained, the first time you eat or use a particular consumable item you will gain a permanent stat boost. Those are very important because some, like the Agility stat, impact how quickly your character can move and run, which is incredibly useful. Just be careful not to run after immediately throwing certain objects, because you can actually run into them and take damage. Throughout your journey you will encounter Godai who will give you quests. Completing these will earn you extra experience points and money. What really sells this game is the visuals. This game is, simply put, mesmerizing. Every single sprite is big and packed with detail. This goes for the backgrounds too, which are some of the most lively scenes I’ve ever seen in a beat ’em up. These might just be normal streets within the context of the game world, but each screen really feels unique and distinct and it just helps make this game feel all the more alive and dynamic. The animation is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I can watch this game all day and never get tired of it. The music features many remixes and nods to the older Kunio games which, as a series fan, is something I can definitely appreciate. Most screens will cycle through different songs which I can see being a bit annoying if you really liked one particular song one, only for it to be cut short because you left the screen. The benefit to this and a neat little detail is that whenever there is a boombox in a screen, a song with vocals will play. It’s little touches like this that make River City Girls all the more memorable.
As if this game couldn’t get any better, it supports local co-op! And let me tell you, this game is a great time with friends. It’s also a heck of a lot easier especially against the bosses since you will essentially be doing double damage. The game isn’t too long clocking in at a little under ten hours for your first playthrough. Of course that was also largely due to me spending so much time grinding, doing optional side quests, buying items, eating food and destroying the 25 hidden statues throughout the game. Honestly I was just doing everything I could think of doing, simply because I couldn’t get enough of this game. Each shop even has a unique store clerk all with unique artwork and voice actors. Every single NPC in this game looks cool and has a very over the top and ridiculous style to them. This is yet another touch that you really don’t see all that often in these kind of games. The voice acting is great! Though oddly enough only an English track exists, which is weird considering this series has been very heavy on Japanese culture. The cast put on an incredible performance and, to top it off, this game even features some beautifully-drawn anime style cutscenes and even Manga style cutscenes for some of the flashback sequences. They even bothered to bring back old Kunio characters and have some of them as bosses for you to fight. Double Dragon fans will also appreciate seeing characters from that series appear as NPCs throughout the game! River City Girls was everything I could have ever wanted in a beat ’em up and then some. Not only was it succeeding by its own merits, but it even appeared to be doing a fantastic job respecting the series’ legacy. It’s obvious that there was so much passion and care put into crafting this game and ensuring that this was going to be one to remember for years to come, and I was loving every second of it…until I reached the secret ending.
We are about to get into spoilers so if you don’t want to read about this, skip to the final paragraph. The game has two endings: a normal ending which, while kind of funny, was rather underwhelming. However the secret ending actually annoyed me. For such a brilliant game filled with incredibly diverse and likable characters with very witty and hilarious dialogue and self aware jokes, comes an ending that not only felt unnecessary but downright nonsensical and even a bit unfinished. It was so off-putting and out of left-field that it honestly had me questioning whether or not I should consider this story canon to the series. In the normal ending, Misako and Kyoko defeat the final boss by kicking them out of a window. In the process of doing that, they also fall out and crash into a sauna where they find their boyfriends Kunio and Riki. It turns out that they were never kidnapped to begin with and were just spending the day hanging out having fun. The real kicker is that they don’t even remember these girls’ names and refer to them as “those crazy girls” and are wondering what two other girls, Mimi and Hasebe, are up to. Misako and Kyoko are obviously upset at this, punch and send them flying, which is when the credits began to roll. This scene is played for laughs and It’s clear they don’t want you to take it seriously. It’s not the most satisfying ending, but I can accept it as a joke ending.
However…if you reload your file, there is a secret ending that is obtainable along with a new final boss. When you make it to the final area of the game you need to have these two charms equipped, and if you do, instead of fighting the normal final boss, you fight Mimi and Hasebe, two NPCs who, for the majority of the game, antagonize our two heroines. For some unexplained reason, they are in the final boss room and reveal that they are Kunio and Riki’s true girlfriends. They also say that Kunio and Riki only ever dated Misako and Kyoko for one 16 bit game that “never even came out here”. You then fight them and kick them out the window. Only problem is that the rest of the ending plays out the same as the normal one where Kunio and Riki act like they’ve never heard of these girls. That 16 bit game that was mentioned is referring to Kunio-tachi no Banka. As someone who does own a copy of that game and have played it before, this scene was incredibly disappointing to see. It’s true that in some of the Kunio games, notably River City Ransom, Kunio and Riki are not dating Misako and Kyoko. Riki was dating Mimi and Hasebe had somewhat of a one sided crush on Kunio. I believe the intention with this ending was to address this weird continuity discrepancy between the Kunio timelines by not only having all four of the girls coexist but essentially saying that this game is following the River City Ransom continuity instead of the Kunio-tachi no Banka one which the game initially appeared to be following. Honestly, this would not have been so bad except that Mimi and Hasebe explicitly suggest that Kunio-tachi no Banka is, in fact, canon to this story. Kunio and Riki not remembering who these girls are in this final scene is kind of disturbing and even heartbreaking considering the events that happened in that game. For those of you who have never played it, Misako and Kyoko play a rather important role in that game and help out those boys in many ways to the point of joining them early on and being playable characters. Towards the end of Kunio-tachi no Banka, the main villain shoots Misako and Kyoko right in front of Kunio and Riki. The boys then help get them to authorities and eventually the hospital. It’s a rather dramatic moment and meant to be one of the more emotional scenes there. So to have Kunio and Riki not only ‘forget” who these girls are, but act like they never dated and instead were only interested in Mimi and Hasebe really paints them in a horrible light.
NOTE: The below screenshots are from a fan-translated version of the game.
I get that they’re delinquents, but that’s an awfully sour way to introduce the two boys who are meant to be the face of the franchise, especially if River City Girls was your first exposure to the Kunio series. So this ending comes off as a cheap attempt at making an obscure “joke” that few players would have understood at the cost of the game’s own premise and 25+ years of characterization for the series’ protagonists. That does not sit well with me at all. Mimi and Hasebe always seem to act spiteful towards our duo, which goes against how they were portrayed in previous Kunio games as well. It also makes you question just how they want us to view our “heroines”. Are they meant to be “crazy ex-girlfriends” or just plain delusional? No matter how I look at this ending, it just doesn’t make sense, and that’s saying something in a game where you are literally fighting zombies inside of a Yakuza building. I still don’t even understand why Miki and Hasebe were in the final boss room to begin with or who sent Kyoko the text message and footage of their “boyfriends” being kidnapped. Quite frankly, this game really didn’t need to have a “gotcha” moment like this. I’m pretty sure many players would have been perfectly satisfied with a simple cutscene of them saving Kunio and Riki. Would it have been “cliche”? Sure, but the premise of love interest characters saving the protagonists of a long running series was novel enough for this kind of game that it would have worked just fine without having to rely on some sort of weird twist like this. Previous dialogue in the game hints at this ending somewhat, but there is also dialogue that contradicts some of those same hints as well, so you really don’t know what to believe. And perhaps that was the point, but overall I think this ending needed some more work in order for it to have truly landed well. When you complete the game you can unlock Kunio and Riki as playable characters and start a New Game+ run. While they have some different moves from the girls, the story plays out exactly the same as before. Kunio and Riki don’t even show up in cutscenes or in the store CGs. It’s kind of a missed opportunity as we they could have told us their side of the story, providing more context for the ending. I read somewhere that the Japanese ending is slightly different in that Kunio and Riki do remember them, but it’s implied that they were going to cheat on them. Whether or not that’s a better ending is up to you to decide.
I’m not the only one disappointed in this ending. It was the topic of discussion shortly after the game launched on message boards and on Twitter. Many people have had very colorful things to say about Wayforward when it comes to this ending and their portrayal of female characters. Despite my last two paragraphs, I’m not here to attack Wayforward or Arc System Works for this. I think they made an excellent game that hits almost all the right notes but just couldn’t fully nail the landing. I encourage them to revisit and expand on this story in a sequel, because I think the biggest reason the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense to me is that it’s very abrupt. It feels like there was more story to be told about these characters and I would love to hear and see it. Also I just want to play more River City Girls! Some of you might think the $29.99 price tag for the digital release is a bit high, but aside from the ending, this was one hell of a good time. If you are interested in a physical copy, Limited Run Games had a standard edition available to preorder until September 27th. If you were unable to preorder a copy by then and are still looking for a physical copy, Play-Asia also has multi-language physical copies for both PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
Game provided by publisher for review purposes.
2DArcSysbeat-’em-upKunionintendo switchPlayStation 4PS4River City GirlsWayForward