Despite being a cult hit on the NES, River City Ransom has become quite a big franchise. One of the very first games you might consider “open world”, Ransom was overlooked in its heyday for being weird and different. Thanks to fans keeping its legacy alive, there are now so many sequels, spin-offs, and reimaginings that you’d be forgiven for assuming the original was a massive hit.
None of these continuations really captured what made the original so memorable. That is, until the release of River City Ransom: Underground in 2017. Funded via Kickstarter and created by a team passionate about Ransom, it felt like the first true sequel to the groundbreaking beat-em-up from nearly 30 years prior. A modest success Underground gave its core developers a chance to create an even better sequel.
Walk in River town girlsfollow-up supported by WayForward with key members of the Underground helping team. Have the opportunity to strengthen what worked before and eliminate what did not work, River town girls not only feels like a tribute to the past, but a true evolution of what makes beat-em-ups so addictive in the first place.
The first thing one will probably notice about River town girls is that the grainier art style of the past river town the titles are gone. Consider it more like river town meets manga, because everything is colorful, over-the-top, and brimming with personality. river town definitely had a quirky charm and never took himself seriously, but Girls is a more extreme version of this already goofy original.
The plot, this time around, doesn’t focus on Kunio-Kun (the main protagonist of most previous entries), but rather his girlfriend Misako and best friend Kyoko. The two roam the streets of River City in an effort to rescue their boyfriends from the clutches of an evil gang. Wasting no time, the two leave detention and immediately begin racking their brains before leaving the school grounds.
Unlike previous games, which had text boxes to convey their stories, Girls uses manga cutscenes with full voice acting. It could have been a complete disaster, but the personalities on offer are so much more fleshed out than previous entries that you can’t help but get sucked in. Obviously, Misako and Kyoko will talk to you the most, but pretty much every character you’ll encounter some form of voice acting.
I wish I could say the whole English cast was solid, but WayForward decided to go with some popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers. Thus, the results are mixed. Legendary characters “The Game Grumps” put in decent performances in their small roles, but some others seem a bit untrained or amateurish. It happens to fit the style of teenagers running amok in a city, but it can often look like poor voice acting in anime. It’s never distracting, though, and the writing quality definitely elevates the occasionally shaky voice acting.
Joint cracking goodness
Either way, you probably won’t catch River town girls for a compelling story or deep characterization. That the game even has some of that is nice, but it’s the icing on the cake of this punchy dessert. If you couldn’t tell from the intro to this review, Girls is a beat-em-up in the vein of the NES original. While always paying attention to the stupidity of this game, Girls looks like an evolution of what was previously possible.
Run with the leveling system that Underground extended, Girls gives each of its playable characters a full set of unlockable moves. As you level up, you won’t directly gain new moves, but rather the ability to purchase them from Dojos scattered around River City. Instead of being chained to the constraints of the NES game, Girls chooses to move in a more fluid direction, and that’s for the best.
Combat can be very interpretive in Girls. There are no set combo chains that you will mindlessly overwrite once unlocked. Instead, you enter different moves at different times to create makeshift combos. Some enemies are even susceptible to specific attacks, which encourages you to mix things up. It’s also great to start with a few standard jabs, kick someone into the air, then bring them back down to the ground.
Co-op takes things a step further by allowing a player to launch a combo, stun their opponents, and then have their friends finish them off. This seems to be what the “hard” difficulty is balanced around as well, as playing this solo will sometimes see an extraordinary amount of enemies flooding the screen. It’s never too difficult, thanks to the inventory system and RPG mechanics that river city is famous for. However, going solo in a more difficult setting can sometimes see the fights drag on a bit.
No time to waste
That said, unlike Underground, Girls better understands how to pace his adventure. Although the semi-opening of the original is retained, a much more descriptive map screen has been included. Besides highlighting where your main objective is at all times, it also gives you an idea of where you might locate certain secret rooms. It inspires you to explore every nook and cranny, especially since you can find collectibles and small gauntlets to battle. However, this mainly prevents Girls to artificially prolong its execution time, because you will always have a clear idea of the next step.
A very generous checkpoint system further aids the pacing. At the start of each screen, the game automatically saves, so dying will only take you back to the start of your current area. While this sometimes has the side effect of leaving you running out of areas dying for full health, it does make the game hard to quit. Since losing only hurts your wallet (sometimes painfully, if you’re hoarding money), it’s not the biggest problem to fall in battle and restart. It certainly doesn’t suffer from the rollback issues of previous titles.
All is not perfect in Girls, yet. There is a recruitment system that allows you to request help from enemies once you’ve manhandled them enough. Although fine in theory, the execution never goes as it should. The game tells you to press the left bumper to call them out, but it seems to have its own idea of whether or not they’ll step in. Some characters are also practically useless with their moves, causing you to ignore them. when they surrender.
You can also unlock various gear to improve certain stats of your characters, but I never felt that any of the gear really benefited me. Things like “Recover stamina while walking” sound great, but they turn out to be so subtle in their execution that I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe I didn’t find the right gear, but I’m wondering if maybe those stats could be boosted a bit more to really feel the effect.
I also don’t know how I feel about the enemy variety. Although each area gets unique sprites that enemies can dance with, there’s no reason to color them differently. In other beat-em-ups, an enemy’s color usually indicates their strength relative to their counterparts. In Girls, enemies appear colored differently just for diversity reasons. You end up prioritizing based on enemy design instead of color. Honestly, it’s fine, but it feels like a missed opportunity for a more gradual difficulty curve.
That said, when the music starts pounding and you’re up against six idiots at once, River town girls feels like one of the best brawlers ever made. It borrows heavily from those that came before it (drawing a ton of inspiration from fan-favorite Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) but has so much refinement and personality that it’s still a pleasure to play. Character progression is handled well, the boss fights are all unique, and the length doesn’t overstay its welcome.
I would have liked to see a better conclusion to this particular story, but I’m not unhappy with the end result. In fact, I’m confident enough to say River town girls is the best game to use the river city IP. He has a fantastic understanding of why people play beat-em-ups, but generally avoids the pitfalls this genre can fall into. You can also pick up giant fish and punch people in the face with them. That makes this game good enough for me!
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