By Scott Ramage / January 20th, 2020
|Title||Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San! A River City Ransom Story|
|Developer||Arc System Works|
|Publisher||Arc System Works|
|Release Date||November 7th, 2019|
|Genre||Action, Beat ’em up|
|Platform||Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone|
High schoolers in video games tend to go on some weird adventures. The Persona series immediately comes to mind, but some of the Kunio-kun games are bit out there compared to the series’ more down-to-earth entries like River City Ransom. Still, Arc System Works took a crack at making a Kunio-kun spin-off with Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! A River City Ransom Story. Having two former Kunio-kun directors leading development, it’s a fast-paced beat ‘em up which blends the familiar with the unusual. Strap in everybody, because this game punches and kicks its way through the fabric of time and space! Wait, what?
The lead of Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! is, as one might expect, Kobayashi. Yes, it’s the same Kobayashi who was a boss in River City Ransom. He meets with Kunio and an unseen player-made character to casually introduce Mizoguchi, a time traveler from the future. He warns of other evil time travelers gathering in town and, in the midst of their conversation, the player-made character gets kidnapped somehow. Kobayashi resolves to defeat all the evil time travelers and their lackeys while rescuing his friend and/or love interest. If it sounds like I’m glossing over a lot, I’m not trying to; the story is just told that haphazardly. For a game with this little dialogue, there are a lot of typos (misspellings, no spaces between words, etc.) and some awkward translations that make things a bit tougher to understand.
When I say there’s a player-made character in Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San!, it’s not as interesting as it sounds. Here’s a list of things that can be changed for this person: gender, name, relationship with Kobayashi, and what items represent their memories with him. These personal effects sometimes drop as an item, but otherwise don’t affect anything. The only ones that matter are gender and relationship, which only change the ending. I’ll go more in depth on this later, but what options there are feel like a way to drag out the number of playthroughs.
Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! tries to incorporate the familiar with a somewhat unfamiliar approach. There are two playable characters on the field at any given time. Mizoguchi and Kunio can be swapped in and out for the second player, but the first is always Kobayashi. He and Kunio are better fighters than Mizoguchi, having more options for combos and finishing moves while dealing more damage with a few charged up special attacks. However, Mizoguchi allows Kobayashi to use various abilities as a meter builds at the top of the screen. Said abilities include health regeneration, increased attack power, and summoning additional AI-controlled fighters such as the Hattori brothers. The health boost helps for certain boss fights, but otherwise I’d have Kunio with me since normal enemies constantly drop hearts to restore HP. The exception is the Moyakun, an enemy which doesn’t attack at all, but can only be defeated with one of Mizoguchi’s attacks to restore the special meter. I can’t help but think Mizoguchi would function better as a support character and not as a regular playable one.
The strength of Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! is its combat, even though it has some odd limitations. Punches and kicks are all tied to one button. If you hit attack right as an enemy is about to hit you, you can parry them. If an enemy sends you flying, you can hit a button to recover in mid-air, which works even if you have zero hit points. Things like weapon use, throws and attacking enemies on the ground aren’t here in lieu of things like air juggling. When using a finisher or a charged attack, enemies will be sent flying through the air. Pressing a button right after lets the player do a mid-air follow-up attack, effectively teleporting around like a Dragon Ball Z character.
When it works it feels satisfying and racks up a lot of additional damage, the key phrase being “when it works.” Often when I was too high, too low, or too far from the edge of the screen, my follow-ups would miss their target. Sometimes finishers would either whiff entirely or take so long that another enemy hit me before I could do it. Charged attacks are a quick series of punches or kicks, and doing one to an enemy in mid-air means landing only one shot and swinging at the air the rest of the time. Charged attacks have a delay on them and it was often a coin flip whether my target would jump in the time it took the attack to start. Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t satisfying to punt two or three bad guys at a time to every corner of the screen.
Obviously you beat up baddies in this game, but how does progression work in Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!? There are five different types of baddies, each with a different color on their uniforms. You have to defeat 30 of each color to face their leaders, beat all five of them, then face the final boss. If that sounds tedious, it is. Enemies usually spawn about five or six at a time in each area. Sometimes certain colors appear in certain areas, and other times a mishmash of several different colors pop up. Other times no enemies appear because a save point, in the form of a talking cat, takes their place. On top of that, sometimes random enemy robots appear in the form of a UFO, floating gray dice or spinning spheres that sap your charge meter.
And just to tease the player more, sometimes a UFO battle breaks out, where Kobayashi and friend hop into UFOs and blast random enemy UFOs to restore health. Said enemies piloting the UFOs don’t count toward the total for any color. Expect to spend too much time either tracking down the right color of enemies, or finding a place where they spawn and repeatedly jumping in and out of it until they appear. There is an in-game menu to keep track of how many enemies of each color you’ve defeated and, while helpful, also led to frustration from being one or two short and not being able to find the right enemy to beat up. The boss appears the moment the tally hits 30 in the next area you enter, so try not to walk into a place with a giant pit at one edge of the screen.
This leads me to my number one pro gamer tip for Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!, which is to never let the AI control Kobayashi. At first I would control Kunio and let Kobayashi do his thing, but the first time I saw an enemy fall into an instant death pit and AI Kobayashi jumped in after him, I learned two hard lessons. One, the AI regularly will not avoid attacks, stop attacking, or otherwise lead itself to an early death. Two, while Mizoguchi and Kunio eventually come back if they’re defeated, Kobayashi dying is a game over. If you have a second person to play with this is a non-issue, but otherwise it’s annoying to see the CPU regularly taking damage from even the simplest encounters.
One thing that I didn’t expect to get on my nerves was how Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! sounded. The music is alright, fitting the aesthetic of a Kunio-kun game pretty well, even if a couple tracks do seem a bit overdramatic. The soundtrack and pixel-based visuals have a bit of a Game Boy Advance feel to them, but that’s beside the point. When the enemies in the colored uniforms appeared, I’d sometimes just mute the game. They emit high-pitched shrieks which stack and play in a continuous wall of noise, and the only way they’ll stop is if they’re knocked out. This wouldn’t have been as irritating if it weren’t the sound given to the enemy I have to face at least 150 times. The one way around this is to turn down the voices, which mutes all the enemies and player characters. I wound up preferring this since, on top of the shrill enemy voices, there are only so many times I can hear Kobayashi punctuate a combo with “How’s that?” in Japanese before I want Kunio to backhand him.
Most of the Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! didn’t feel too difficult on the first go-around, except for the final boss. This thing has certain attack strings where it doesn’t matter if you get a mid-air recovery because the next five or six attacks will hit you anyway and drain about half your health. Well, half your health for the first go around at least. Finishing the game gives a certain amount of stars, a currency used to upgrade the playable characters through a store buried in the Options menu. The upgrades are rather simplistic—you only have one upgrade choice to choose from for each character—and tend to trivialize the game on subsequent attempts. Some are also poorly translated, such as “Increase HP and Parameter”. A few upgrades later, boss encounters would last less than ten seconds. Even that final boss, as annoying as it can be, would be done after landing a few charged attacks. My clear times went from two hours on the first try to less than half an hour on the fourth.
So what’s the incentive to keep playing, aside from making Kobayashi and friends absurdly powerful? Stay Cool Kobayashi-san! has 20 different endings, split into four groups of five depending on what you picked for your self-insert (e.g. male friend, female lover, etc.). Each ending is tied to a final score and whether certain plot elements happen. The latter are tied to going to certain places after defeating a certain amount of bosses, as well as defeating each boss in a certain order to unlock the true ending. I’m usually the completionist type, but by the time I unlocked a fifth ending my experience fully devolved from entertainment to a chore. Even moving up the online leader board isn’t enough incentive, considering it only ranks players by completion time and not score. Needless to say, I won’t be like those in the top ten who beat the game in under ten minutes.
Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san! A River City Ransom Story is a fun, if not frustrating at times, spin-off of the Kunio-kun games. However, as a game designed to be played through several times, often completing vague objectives to get certain endings or rankings, it quickly lost its charm for me. If you’re confident the gameplay loop won’t get old, the $13.99 asking price will probably seem like a good deal. Otherwise, I’d look elsewhere to get your fix of high schoolers beating up other high schoolers and/or time travelers.
Review copy provided by publisher
Arc System Worksnintendo switchStay Cool Kobayashi-San!: A River City Ransom Story