REVIEW: ‘River City Girls’ brings brawling back in style

  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated E10+ / $29.99 / released September 2019
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars

Inspired by games like “Double Dragon” and “Final Fight” – and directly related to 1989’s “River City Ransom” – “River City Girls” sends a pair of high schoolers out into the meanest of mean streets. Misako and Kyoko are on a mission to locate their kidnapped boyfriends, which means punching and kicking through streams of angry enemies. “River City Girls” is a gender inverse of the creaky “save the girlfriend/princess” plot of old video games, and these girls pull no punches on their quest to save the boys.

The game is mostly done in the visible pixel style of early 1990s video games, well after the blocky Atari years but before 3D polygons showed up. However, the modern tech mean the characters have color and detail far beyond the old arcade quarter-munchers. “River City Girls” also includes several fully-animated cartoon scenes and even Japanese comic-style interludes, creating a richly varied look at the game’s world. Misako and Kyoko (and the friends and foes they meet) are completely voice-acted and packed with personality, bringing life and energy to the game.

The city is divided into chunks, usually at least twice the size of your screen, with plenty of room to deliver body blows and flying leaps. Knocked-out enemies drop money, which can be used to buy new attacks, food and other helpful buffs. “River City Girls” has an absurd number of little shops scattered throughout the map, and since you can explore the city at will, you can save your money and shop at the stores you prefer. Each shop has a unique proprietor, which is a great touch.

River City’s bullies and thugs are tough! Even the lowest-level grunt takes multiple hits to flatten, and you do not want to let yourself get surrounded. If you get a “game over,” you lose a percentage of your collected wealth and then continue from the area where you left off. It is nice that “River City Girls” does not overly punish players by forcing lengthy do-overs, although you can watch your money drop pretty quickly if you repeatedly bomb out in a particular area.

You can also recruit enemies to work for you. Occasionally a baddie will beg for mercy, and if you grant it, the enemy will become a limited-use special attack. The recruits’ attacks are nothing special, but it’s nice to have another option when things get hectic. The various recruitable enemies are collected into a brief character database, creating a Pokémon-like “gotta catch ’em all” challenge.

There are a few unrelated side-missions to complete, but for the most part Misako and Kyoko are chasing rumors about their boyfriends’ kidnappers. Each new lead ends in a boss fight and a clue towards the next rumor. The boss fights are challenging, as they rely heavily on pattern memorization to anticipate and counter the enemy’s attacks. These parts are a greatest hits assortment of classic video game sequences. You’ll encounter bosses that rush you like a bulldozer, or float in the air, or duplicate themselves, or slam the ground to cause rocks to fall from the sky. “River City Girls” stands on the shoulders of highly memorable giants.

There are winks and nods that fans of “River City Ransom” and “Double Dragon” will appreciate, but everything in “Girls” is strong enough on its own. The game not only looks great, but “River City Girls” basks in a superb soundtrack that delivers catchy original pop tunes with crushingly seductive vocals. Between the music and all of the lovely background details, you might not mind the game’s penchant for backtracking you back and forth around the map.

Getting from one section of the city to another can mess you up, however, as the button to advance to the next neighborhood is the same as one of your attacks. It’s very easy to have an enemy back you up against a wall, and instead of attacking, you end up walking to the next screen by mistake. “River City Girls” is also too obtuse about how new attacks work, offering them via a menu that lists their cost and not much else. Other items bought with in-game money, like food and other accessories, intentionally will not tell you their effects until you use them. This is fine when you’re spending $13 on a hamburger and have to guess at how much life energy it will restore, but it’s not so great when you spend $500 on something and it ends up doing the same thing (or is worse) than a cheaper item. Let the buyer beware!

“River City Girls” lovingly homages a bygone era of video games without ignoring modern style and improvements. It’s great to see a simple two-player brawling game upend the typical “boy saves girl” story with so much gusto. The visuals and music are so well polished, and the characters are all instant favorites, making “River City Girls” a solid release.

“River City Girls” is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy WayForward.

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