River City Girls (Switch) Review
Do you remember River City Ransom? Hopefully, you played it in some form or another, as it came out on the NES, the Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console… and the Wii U, and the 3DS, and as part of Switch Online. It’s your quintessential classic early 90s beat-em-up, along the lines of your Final Fight or Double Dragon. In the past couple years, Arc System Works acquired the licenses for nearly all of these classic fighters and has started making modern entries for the beleaguered genre. Their first attempt, Double Dragon 4, didn’t land so hot, but River City Girls – the new sequel to River City Ransom, 30 years later, doesn’t do too bad a job at recreating some of that arcade joy.
River City Girls puts you in the shoes of Misako and Kyoko, whose boyfriends (the protagonists of the original River City Ransom) have been kidnapped – and it’s your mission to rescue them, punching up anyone who stands in your way! You can choose which character to play as – Misako for the slower, heavier punches and Kyoko for a nimbler, crowd control sort of experience – and then you’re off, going area to area beating up various students, police officers and miscellaneous goons. Your attacks are mapped to the four face buttons (well, one of them is jump) and as you fight you’ll level up, unlocking new combos for better man-punching ability. You’ll also earn cash, which you can spend on, even more, moves from a dojo or various health and stat-boosting items to use in combat. Eventually, you’ll hit some clever bosses with unique mechanics and beat the snot out of them as well.
It’s a classic loop, with the RPG-esque elements being a pretty unique addition. The various moves all have their own uses at their own times, but you’ll definitely find your favourites and stick to those. Unlocking a new useful move always feels great when you can fit it into your rhythm. The cash system is a little unpleasant, though. Items you buy rarely heal you enough to justify their cost, and if you die you’ll lose everything you bought. You’ll also lose a bunch of cash, too, so the only satisfying way to spend a windfall is to buy more attacks – but the dojo, much like all the item stores, doesn’t give you any information on the move you’re buying before you commit. Is it a new heavy? A new special? You won’t know until you get it – but at least these are permanent and won’t disappear when you lose.
Notice I say WHEN you lose – you will, a lot, as this game is difficult. Even regular mobs take a lot of hits to go down, and when you’re significantly outnumbered engaging some strategies definitely becomes necessary. The bosses are even tougher than that, and while none of them really had me confused about mechanics or unsure what to do, they tend to deal big damage if your execution is off. I never felt cheated, though, and I think that’s important – everything always feels scaled pretty nicely, with a healthy but not insurmountable challenge. I want to note that I played on Normal difficulty. On Hard I died so much and so brutally I couldn’t progress, so that’s definitely one for the pros.
There’s also co-op, which is obviously perfectly suited to a game like this but comes out a little more mixed bag. With two characters, fights are a little easier, and if one of you goes down the other player can run over and revive you with a generous amount of health. You’ll die more though, as with no clear visual separator between the two of you and your enemies you can easily get lost in the noise. For bosses, some I found only doable with the help, whereas for crowded fights I found them more difficult in co-op. As well, your characters level up individually in your save file, so if you’ve been playing as one character for a while, a just-jumping-in character is going to be at a much lower level with fewer moves and no money. Be warned.
While there’s a lot of nuance in the gameplay, the presentation is very un-nuanced: it’s great. River City Girls doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are some super well-written, genuinely funny dialogue and cutscenes, with references and fourth-wall-breaking aplenty. The visual style is fun and cohesive, and voice acting and music are both done to an incredibly high standard. It’s just so polished and nice to look at and play, and really elevates what could be a fun but flawed brawler into a memorable experience. The characters are silly and tropey but rise above one-note caricatures, and I was always impressed by the amount of personality injected into every little part of the game. Like your smartphone pause menu – Kyoko’s is in a fun rabbit case where Misako has a crappy boring phone with a cracked screen. That sentence doesn’t really convey much but it stood out to me as evidence of the work done here to really make everything feel a part of the vibe. It works great.
River City Girls could have just been a fun retread of some arcade-style fighting with some good new stuff and some bad new stuff. To a degree, it is – there are bits here like the money system and the co-op that could have been a little less unfriendly to deal with. But with a hearty dose of style and some great writing, it lifts itself up into a great little retro-styled treat for the beat-em-up inclined. Maybe not for everyone, and especially if you’re not up for a challenge, but I sure had some fun.
+ Charming aesthetic
+ Super polished
+ Rewarding gameplay
- RPG elements a bit harsh
- Confusing co-op
- Occasionally frustrating