When the two most feared and popular guys in town are kidnapped in River City Girls, it comes down to two feisty teenage schoolgirls, Kyoko & Misako, to rescue their boyfriends.
Played out in either single player or couch co-op with drop in/out functionality, River City Girls sheds the common theme of muscle-bound freaks and dark gritty scenes within previous entries in the genre for a lighter, sassy and attitude-heavy take on the scrolling beat ‘em up.
Introduced by some clean-cut HD cutscenes, played out in a comic book panel style, the story then drops into a detail heavy pixel art presentation favoured recently by the indie developer scene. Students studying, people talking, locals waiting for the bus, all of them have their own sets of animations which are further complicated when interrupted by activity within their personal space giving a great feeling of a living city rather than the sparsely populated streets of notorious brawlers like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage.
A few basic attack options are available at the outset but defeating your enemies gains you both experience and money, with harder enemies offering more of each. Leveling up increases your stats and makes things easier, as well as sometimes offering a new unlocked attack. Money collected, generally, has more impact as you purchase new moves from the Dojo or health boosting items from the many shops littered through the city. You can also befriend some enemies and utilise them to deliver a signature attack on screen at any time but with a cool down timer for reuse. Great for evening out the numbers in some areas.
Purchasing a few new attacks starts to expand your offensive capability into a more than acceptable set of options. This allows you to mix up normal, hard and special attacks with cancels and bounce mechanics whereby you can keep enemies aloft for more damage and higher combos. Where this is most effective is in co-op, since the time to complete a move can sometimes break your combo but with a friend available they can also keep them airborne.
Clearing an area gives you a short respite although more enemies will appear if you linger for too long. River City Girls rarely limits your progression to another area and you can (and often do) skip to the next area as you go back and forward farming cash or XP or simply travel to another quest driven event. Where specific fights are forced upon you, a simple but effective screen lock mechanic is implemented with a padlock and chain around the screen perimeter, clearing the challenge breaks the lock and allows you to progress again.
Death isn’t driven by a lives/continue mechanism and instead is tied to a penalty around the money you accrue. Losing around 20-30% of your current wallet can be fairly damaging given the price of some of the items or moves but it does mean going back to earlier (easier) areas is promoted to ensure you are suitably prepared for battle in the most recently unlocked and more difficult areas.
Given every school attending child today has access to a mobile phone, River City Girls utilises one to access your map, attribute screen, quest log and inventory. The map shows potential areas to be investigated as well as your current quest objective allowing an easy way to navigate to your goal. Inventory allows you to equip a limited number of stat boosting items picked up during play and dropped (generally) by boss type enemies.
As each “chapter” in the story line is completed you are treated to the obligatory Big Boss Battle. These are screen-locked arena affairs with pattern based attack mechanics. These patterns get progressively more challenging as you battle your way through the city. Preparing well for these is crucial since later bosses have additional mobs to distract you whilst some attacks are very damaging leaving you needing to heal, hope mobs drop health items or cautiously continuing knowing another hit will end it. Each Boss fight is preceded again with HD comic material and a more exotic VS screen before the action kicks off.
It doesn’t stop at Kyoko & Misako either, you can unlock several other characters for play including Riki and Kunio, the boyfriends of the protagonists whom you rescue in the main storyline. Not just palette swaps or clones, each have their own complex move set and allow for further variety on new playthroughs. Since Money, Experience and Level are retained for each character in isolation, you always have the option of starting again with a Lv 25 Misako whilst a friends toughs it out with a Lv 1 Riki.
All in all, it’s a riot, and any game utilising “The Dab” as a special move deserves some credit. Underneath a simple but beautiful pixel-art exterior lies the heart of a complex brawler which is great in single player and even better with a friend.