The scrolling beat ‘em-up renaissance continues, with a new River City Ransom game that is one of the best examples of the genre ever.
The dream is alive. That hope we almost dared not speak of when reviewing The Ninja Saviors – that 90s style scrolling beat ‘em-ups were making a comeback – is actually being realised. Because not a week after its release another one has arrived and if anything, River City Girls is even better.
Scrolling beat ‘em-ups are famous for being one-note and simplistic but the great thing about The Ninja Saviors, River City Girls, and the upcoming Streets Of Rage 4 is that they’re all so different – within the obvious parameters of you walking along punching people in the face. Rather than the 80s sci-fi nonsense of The Ninja Saviors, River City Girls is a gender-swapped sequel to River City Ransom (known in the UK as Street Gangs) where you’re out to rescue your kidnapped boyfriends, who are the heroes from the original game.
The history behind River City Girls is one of the most complicated in gaming but the short version is that this is part of the Kunio-kun franchise, which all but invented the modern concept of scrolling beat ‘em-ups with its first entry, known in the West as Renegade, and went on to inspire Double Dragon from the same developer (the now defunct Technōs).
Guilty Gear creators Arc System Works now own the brand, but River City Girls is by Shantae developer WayForward – an American team known for their sublime pixel artwork and who already made the underrated Double Dragon Neon back in 2012. You never know what you’re going to get from a WayForward title though, as they do a lot of for-hire licensed games that are often not very interesting, but just as often then manage to push out a real gem of a game, mixing old school nostalgia with more modern sensibilities. River City Girls is one of those.
Apart from anything, the graphics in River City Girls are some of their best work ever, with gorgeous 2D sprite animation that’s some of the most impressive we’ve ever seen. Even minor characters are full of personality and the whole thing almost looks like an anime in pixelated form, with wonderfully over-the-top moves and idle animations. But the presentation excels beyond even that, with some fun voice-acting and a fantastic soundtrack that even features original pop songs with lyrics.
When we say River City Girls is a very different experience to something like The Ninja Saviors we mean it, as while that game has one foot firmly in the arcades this feels much more like a console game, with exploration and even mild Metroidvania elements. The story starts off in school, where the two leads discover the kidnapping and have to fight their way out of detention, with the headmaster egging other students on to stop them over the tannoy.
At first you have only a very basic set of moves (although each girl has their own specific repartee and specialities) but as you progress you learn more and more until the game begins to rival a one-on-one fighter in terms of the variety of moves and combos on offer. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how you bring down an enemy, but a skilled player will be bouncing off walls, countering moves, and juggling enemies in the air like a Jackie Chan movie.
The Metroidvania influence means you’re exploring an open-ended map, where some areas cannot be accessed at first. Most will also lock you in with enemies the first time you visit them, forcing you to defeat everyone, and then subsequently allowing you to run through them if you’re just trying to backtrack and not get into a fight. There is an experience point system for your characters though, so level grinding is useful, as is completing optional side quests along the way.
On top of that is a system of buffs based around collected accessories and the fact that you can pick up and use a variety of weapons, from dustbins left sitting around the screen to baseball bats and brass knuckles. You also collect money as you go (and lose it if you die) which can be spent on new items, weapons, and moves. These greatly expand your combat options and your range of abilities at the end of the game are almost unrecognisable from how you start.
Another neat trick is that you can spare certain enemies, who will sit begging for you to stop hitting them, and then call them in as an assist character later. The most useful aid you can have though is simply a second player, and while the lack of online options is a shame there’s no doubt a game like this is best enjoyed with someone else sat on the same sofa with you.
The only real flaw in River City Girls is the pacing, which is fine in terms of the story and accessing new areas, but it takes a little too long, and relies a too much on grinding, before you get to the more complex gameplay elements. Some of the shop items can really open things up, such as preventing weapons from degrading with use, but we fear some may give up before they get that far.
The ending also tries to be a little too clever and we think most people are going to find it unsatisfying. Everything else though is fantastic and we really hope the ideas here can be built on by both WayForward and other developers battling to keep the scrolling beat ‘em-up alive.
River City Girls
River City Girls review
In Short: A fantastic scrolling beat ‘em-ups that shows exactly how the genre can be evolved and modernised, while also indulging in some gloriously retro presentation and throwbacks.
Pros: The core action is instantly entertaining and offers a surprising amount of depth by the end. Great two-player action, superb 2D graphics, and amazing soundtrack.
Cons: Like all scrolling beat ‘em-ups the action can get monotonous in long doses, especially given the slow wind-up at the start. Unsatisfying ending.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Release Date: 5th September 2019
Age Rating: 12
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