I freakin’ love side-scrolling beat ’em ups. When I laid my eyes on a spanking brand-new Captain Commando cabinet whilst holidaying in Guernsey all those years ago, it was love at first fight. There’s just something magical about the rhythm and flow of the genre, as your muscle-bound avatar calmly walks from left to right, eviscerating everything in their path.
So it was with some excitement that I came to play River City Girls, the latest offering from developer WayForward. With the excellent and ever-so-slightly evolutionary Double Dragon: Neon under their belt, I was eager to see what the studio would do next with the well-worn but much loved side scrolling brawler.
I’ve never played a game in the Kunio-kun series before and so approached this game as an enthusiastic and brawler loving newbie, but those familiar with the Kunio-kun series will know that high school students Kyoko and Misako get kidnapped an awful lot. As a result their battling boyfriends – Kunio and Rike – have to regularly go on a rampage through the streets of River City to get them back.
This being 2019, WayForward have turned this antiquated narrative on its head and now it’s Kyoko and Misako who must venture forth and rescue their kidnapped sweethearts. They’ll do this by punching faces, slapping shins and roundhouse kicking through six distinct stages. Unlike most side-scrolling brawlers this journey isn’t strictly linear, instead they’ll go back and forth between the locales they’ve visited to complete quests and level up.
River City Girls’ bright, bold and colourful visuals are really off the charts. Aesthetically this is a children’s morning cartoon brought to life; the influences can be seen everywhere, from the brilliantly over-the-top voice acting to the superb theme song that will soon make even the glummest player sing along. Kyoko and Misako are beautifully animated, bouncing from foot to foot with a smoothness that lets you know this is a modern game, despite its obvious retro influences.
Combat is chunky and satisfying; sending a foe bouncing through the air to crack against the scenery is an initially gleeful experience. Controls are clear and responsive for the most part, and it’s only the woolly and unclear timing required to deflect attacks that frustrates. Then there’s the drop-in local co-op which is, of course, a delight. Everything about this game screams solid side-scrolling beat ’em up.
It’s a shame then that these solid fundamentals are undermined by some odd design choices. Unlike more traditional games that only ask you to battle from left to right, River City Girls has a large map for the player to navigate and complete objectives within. This stretches the brawler formula to breaking point as you traipse from point A to point B and back again in order to smash up a golden statue, smash up some fancy cars or smash up some other unassuming inanimate object. It’s a bit of a drag, not helped by the hordes of unremarkable identikit enemies that get in the way. Sure, the same enemy type with alternate colour schemes has always been a trope of the genre, but the hub-like structure of River City Girls makes it feel like a real chore.
You’ll find bus stops on your journey which act as quick travel locations, but you’d be a fool to use them, as doing so means you miss out on valuable experience points and cash. You’re going to need all the experience points you can get to level up and have a chance against the challenging bosses. You’ll also need the cash to unlock some new moves and stat enhancing items to beat up the same old enemies at a slightly quicker pace. Going back and forth between locations, punching the same few enemies with a limited move set, just to level up and make a tiny bit of progress quickly becomes both boring and frustrating.
All of a sudden, the minor irritations begin to add-up: why do the hundreds of identical enemies take so much damage? Why isn’t there an enemy health bar? Why are there big peices of scenery in the foreground that regularly obscure your view of the fisticuffs? On occasion the game locks you in a dead end and forces you to fight hordes of enemies until you are freed, but are you rewarded in this endeavour with an exciting item or some storyline development? Nope, your only reward is being allowed to leave. It’s all so infuriating because there’s a decent brawler here, it’s just obscured by so much clutter.
Now maybe you really like video games that demand the player to grind the same simple task again and again in order to make progress. That’s not what does it for me. I can’t help but feel that a perfectly enjoyable side-scrolling beat em’ up has been ruined by a gameplay loop stretched to tedium. The best brawlers are those that recognise and highlight the genre’s strengths, whilst at the same time hiding its weakness. In an attempt to evolve the genre, River City Girls does the exact opposite. Sadly brilliant visuals, terrific music, amusing dialogue and lively characterisation can’t save River City Girls from feeling like a missed opportunity.