The Backlog: ‘River City Girls’: A world of hurt … and skirts

Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran

What happens when you take a kickass synth-pop soundtrack, action-packed gameplay, anime and manga cutscenes, a fully voice-acted cast and jam it all into a 16-bit style game? 

Well, “River City Girls” is what happens. 

The story follows two high school girls, Misako and Kyoko, who are on a mission to save their kidnapped boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, respectively. The girls will break out of detention, venture through River City looking for their boyfriends and beat the snot out of anyone who gets in their way, all in the name of love. 

“River City Girls” is a 2019 release developed by WayForward and published by the same company alongside Arc System Works. The game is a spin-off title of the Kunio-kun franchise (also known as the River City franchise in North America), a Japanese series of beat-em-up, or brawler, games that focus on the adventures of Kunio and Riki. Since it’s a spin-off title of a different franchise, you’ll see cameos of old and new River City characters, but it’s not necessary to be familiar with the River City games to enjoy the colorful cast of characters in “River City Girls.” 

Whether you play this game single-player or local co-op with a friend, you’ll get to play as one of the protagonists, who each have their own unique movesets. The hotblooded, no-nonsense Misako has attacks that rely on her heavy-hitting fists and utilize her backpack as a weapon. Meanwhile, the preppy and bubbly Kyoko has attacks that are based around mobility, making use of kicks and sports moves (For example, volley set and cheer drill). Oh, and Kyoko can quite literally defeat enemies with a dab. Although the range of each character’s movesets are quite stunted at the beginning of the game, players will unlock different kinds of attacks by leveling up or purchasing new ones at the dojo, provided they have money for it. 

Speaking of money, you’ll get cash from completing side quests, defeating enemies and bosses. The lunch money you take from your classmates will be put to good use as you purchase gear, items and food to up your stats. Every shopkeeper is different with their own unique splash art and voice, each selling a different kind of product. At certain shops, you can buy unique gear that will boost your stats or affect gameplay. For example, some gear might ensure that held weapons will never break while others will allow you to do more damage against female enemies. 

“River City Girls,” in true beat-em-up fashion, features a diverse cast of enemies to fight, ranging from your high school classmates to police officers to yakuza. Aside from being able to punch their faces in, you can recruit your enemies to fight for you and assist you in fights. Once they’re the last enemy standing on screen and provided they’re weak enough, they’ll beg for mercy. At this point, you can choose to defeat them or grab them and recruit them. Later, you’ll be able to bring them into the fight to flourish their own unique attacks.  

What really makes “River City Girls” shine is its visual and sound design. Visually, the game sports really smooth animation and combat for a 16-bit brawler. It features short, anime cutscenes before boss fights and manga story panels for narrative purposes. Aside from its cute artstyle that illustrates the aesthetics of River City, characters are reactionary in their dialogue with different expressions drawn for feelings of anger, disbelief and confusion. Also, it’s small details like Misako’s black phone with a cracked screen or Kyoko’s phone with a teddy bear case, that really bring out their personalities. 

Aside from the little things, it’s also the completely voice-acted cast that gushes personality for the game’s characters. Some side characters also feature cameos from the popular YouTubers Game Grumps and Jacksepticeye. The energetic synthpop soundtrack is done by Megan McDuffee, while the music for boss fights was done by Chipzel (who also did the soundtrack for “Dicey Dungeons,” a game I previously reviewed). McDuffee, who did the music for all the different stages, cinematics and menus, also included some impressive full vocal tracks for specific stages of the game.  

As you journey through River City, you’ll explore the various stages ranging from the high school you break out of, all the way through to the headquarter of dangerous yakuza, where the climax and ending of the game reside. You’ll travel through quiet neighborhoods, back alleys, junkyards and casinos all in your quest to find your boyfriends. Thankfully, “River City Girls” isn’t as linear as most brawler games. After passing through a stage or region of the city, you can always turn back and take the time to explore it for secrets, or to grind for more XP or cash.  

Though the game starts out quite simple with a limited set of moves that makes for repetitive gameplay, you’ll quickly learn that “River City Girls” becomes more fun as you play through it. You’ll get stronger, faster and unlock new moves and combos to crush skulls with. In the girls’ arduous journey through River City, you’ll meet quirky characters and find new weapons to use. I will say, however, that the ending of the game felt quite lackluster.  

“Huh, I expected more from that.”

After its 10 to 12 hour playtime, I reached the end of the game and thought “Huh, I expected more from that.” Even after going back and completing the requirements for the secret “true” ending and defeating the secret boss, I still felt unsatisfied with where “River City Girls” left off.  

No spoilers here, but finishing the game unlocks two new characters to play as, and it unlocks the New Game+ mode where you can play through the game again but with all your previously-unlocked gear and stats. Apparently, it also unlocks a new secret to strive for. 

Despite its slow early game and anti-climactic ending, “River City Girls” revitalizes the brawler genre and is well-worth its $30 retail price. WayForward has done a fantastic job of creating a spin-off title of another franchise that provides hours upon hours of arcade fun as you fight your way through River City, beating up others and jamming out to its soundtrack and taking in the sights of its aesthetically-pleasing visuals. A sequel has been confirmed, so be sure to keep an eye out for that. 

Rating: 4.5/5 

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