Have you ever heard of the Kunio-kun franchise? No? I hadn't either. The Kunio-kun franchise is a long-running series of beat 'em up video games that focus on the titular Kunio, a high school student who fights students from rival schools alongside his friend Riki. The franchise has proven popular in Japan but was relatively unknown in the West where it was localised under various names such as Renegade and, most importantly and consistently, River City. Imagine how surprising it must've been for Arc System Works, the current IP holder of the franchise, when WayForward, a game developer and publisher probably best known for their Shantae games, approached them to make a spin-off game focusing on the female protagonists of the internationally unreleased game Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, since localised as River City Girls Zero! Nonetheless, the game was made and I'm here to share my opinions on it.
The premise of River City Girls is that Misako and Kyoko are in detention at River City High when Kyoko receives a text on her phone that their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, have been kidnapped. With this, they spring into action and fight their way out of the school, leaving a trail of destruction behind them as they scour River City for any sign of the location of their boyfriends while fighting a variety of students, security guards, wrestlers and even robots based off of the Terminator!
The story of River City Girls is a simple but enjoyable one as Misako and Kyoko travel from boss to boss, each one pointing their finger at another who might know the location of Kunio and Riki. These bosses are wonderfully eccentric but also a little underdeveloped with very little screentime to get to know their personalities. The main thing that will keep people interested in the story is the dialogue which is often funny and self-referential such as when Kyoko questions why everyone in the city wants to fight them all the time. The ending of the game is also quite amusing although it does help to know something about the history of the Kunio-kun franchise, something I suspect very few people who play this game would be aware of, and WayForward even ended up patching the secret ending of the game after fans expressed their dissatisfaction.
I haven't played that many beat 'em ups in the past so keep this in mind as I go through the gameplay of the game. First, if you're familiar with how most beat 'em ups work then you already have a fair idea of how the game plays, you walk from screen to screen, kicking and punching the enemies you encounter while also picking up various objects such as baseball bats, chains and even wooden boxes and benches to hit the enemies with. Something I've always found awkward about beat 'em ups is the hitbox which can be problematic when you're just ever so slightly above or below the enemy and miss your attack, leaving yourself open to a counterattack, something that is still present in River City Girls. One thing I found a pleasant surprise was being able to block and even parry enemy attacks although I did find it hard to figure out sometimes which attacks you could block and which you couldn't. Some of your more advanced moves expend a green bar underneath your health but you are able to regain this energy by using regular attacks against foes, preventing you from simply spamming these powerful moves over and over again. You also collect money from fallen enemies and this can be spent on either learning new moves at one of the two dojos in the city or purchasing items at shops.
Speaking of these dojos and shops, this is probably where I should say that River City Girls has some elements of RPG gameplay sprinkled in. For one, unlike many beat 'em up games where the game is divided into stages with your characters simply progressing from left to right, Misako and Kyoko are able to explore the world and return to any location that they've visited before, something I really liked as it let me take my time and not worry about missing secrets and collectables. As Misako and Kyoko defeat enemies, they gain experience which, once they've gained enough, will level them up, granting access to new moves at the dojo and increasing their stats. I admit that I never felt noticeably stronger from levelling up and it seemed that I dealt and took the same amount of damage even after levelling up dramatically and returning to the first area looking for secrets. What actually proved helpful from levelling, besides being able to learn new moves and getting a full health restore, was gaining more space in my inventory to carry items. Most shops in the game sell food which restores your health and you can stock up to your inventory limit and use these healing items in the midst of battle, something that certainly helped against some of the bosses in this game. There are also items that you can equip, two at a time, that have effects on battle such as dealing more damage to specific enemies and other effects. While there are some interesting ones, my personal favourite was an item that slowly, and I mean VERY slowly, restored your health as you ran around, many of their effects feel too mild to be noticeable in battle, something that makes discovering items feel a little deflating.
Mentioning the bosses, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these encounters! Many of the beat 'em up bosses I've seen in the past have been very simple and uninspired but almost every boss in River City Girls prove to be creative, unique experiences. I don't want to mention too much about them as I think everyone should know as little about them as possible so that they can feel the same surprise and intrigue as I did but I will say that the final boss of the game wowed me with a moment that caught me off-guard.
The graphics and presentation of River City Girls is superb with the gameplay rocking crisp pixel artwork with a bevy of smooth animations and special effects. There are also some animated segments done by Studio Yossa which is predominantly the games opening and the introduction of each boss and they are wonderfully stylish with bright vivid colours and an anime-influenced animation aesthetic. This style of art is also used during character conversations and in stores which do a great job of portraying each character's personality. Other elements of the story are presented through manga panels and these prove to be another enjoyable way to experience the admittedly basic story.
The game's music was composed by Megan McDuffee, Chipzel and Dale North and I have to say that they did a superb job! Each track felt completely appropriate to the situation, perfectly enhancing the experience without overshadowing it or being too noticeable. Part of my excitement when fighting each boss came from wondering what their music would sound like and I've added several tracks into my playlist for when I'm writing for work!
The voice acting is also superb, matching the over the top, lighthearted tone of the game and the humour of the dialogue. Admittedly, there was a moment that took me out of the experience but only because it was so unexpected and that is when a character called Godai is introduced who spends a lot of his time appearing from a skip in order to give you side-quests. Listening to his voice, I got an inkling of surprise, wondering if I was only imagining who it was voicing him and, after a quick internet search, it became clear that I was right. Godai is voiced by Sean McLoughlin, better known by his online alias of Jacksepticeye. He gives a funny, endearing performance but it was also a little jarring, simply because he sounds so much like himself.
River City Girls proved to be a pleasant surprise for me, even with my inexperience with beat 'em ups, and it's a series that I'm going to be keeping my eye on in the future.