River City Girls review (PS4)

A new breath of fresh air in a retro-flavored mix, something that WayForward is known for. Their latest, River City Girls, brings back the classic 2D brawler genre in a big and interesting way. Our review is based on the PS4 version, with the game also available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC.

Back when I was playing games in the late 80s, I was playing a ton of 2D beat ’em ups. Golden Axe, Double Dragon and Renegade all stood out, and a little later they were joined by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Final Fight. I didn’t find out about Streets of Rage until much later, but was delighted to find out there’s a sequel in the works to that series. At the time, I also didn’t know that Renegade was actually also the starting point for the Kunio-Kun/River City series that is still going today, and of which River City Girls is a spin-off.

But where many of those titles are now memories of the past, we’ve seen new River City titles pop up regularly over the last few decades. WayForward’s now released the most recent one, and it has a plot which turns the tables – giving you control over school girls Misako and Kyoko, who now have to rescue their boyfriends – themselves protagonists of older River City titles.

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The throwbacks to previous games in the franchise don’t stop there, because even with just a casual memory of the older games (I never had a clear favorite among all those beat ’em ups) there are plenty of characters and bosses that you’ll clearly or vaguely remember. It’s not all about ramming them into the pavement though, as the story mode in River City Girls also features pretty decent writing for a game of this time – at times funny, at times sweet.

This new entry isn’t a straight up point-to-point beat ’em up like the classics by the way, where you walk left to right and maybe meet a boss at the end. Instead, there’s an open game map with locations to choose from, and you’ll re-visit most of these multiple times because new enemies will have appeared. It’s a good way of padding the story campaign without having to keep adding new levels, and it plays into the progression system that River City Girls has. You earn money and experience while fighting, which you can spend on new gear, moves, or just making your character stronger or more resilient.

Progression is key in River City Girls in more ways than one as well. It doesn’t just mean you can get further in the adventure, it also means that your move set expands and that, basically, the game gets better as you progress. It’s a fairly standard button masher at first (yes, like many of the classics), but it gradually evolves into something with a lot of potential for combos and truly bone-crushing finishing moves. The downside? You have to persevere through what is initially a fairly one-dimensional experience, gameplay-wise.

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River City Girls is a great-looking retro-infused beat ’em up, and what the screenshots can’t tell you is how well all the animations are done. Not everything is delivered in a pixelated style, since there is also plenty of modern/manga-type art in between that was also well done. That mix of retro and modern also translates to the soundtrack, which consists of both chiptune music and full vocal tracks – and somehow it all blends together beautifully.

It’s a shame there’s not much more to enjoy after beating the story mode (and its new game+ mode), but mostly because what’s there is so good that it’ll leave you wanting more. I would’ve enjoyed some kind of sandbox/skirmish mode to just jump into for a few minutes, but I’m happy to buddy up and do the campaign once more – River City Girls features local co-op and that makes it even better than it already is.

Score: 8.6/10

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