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River City Girls

Old-school, arcade beat ‘em ups aren’t as frequent as they once were, often relegated to underrated indie releases, spiritual successors or, once in a blue moon, full-blown sequels such as Streets of Rage 4. River City Girls, from Arc System Works and Wayforward, is an anomaly in this landscape then.

Taking place in a universe analogous to Double Dragon, River City and other brawler classics, this is easily one of the year’s biggest surprises. Boasting a cute, anime-esque visual aesthetic and bucketloads of creative charm, River City Girls is also a razor-sharp brawler played perfectly both alone and with a friend by your side.

There’s also a move dedicated entirely to dabbing. If that doesn’t sell you I’m honestly not sure what will. 

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River City Girls Review
River City is packed with shops and storefronts, with each clerk being lovingly distinct in their own way

River City Girls has an adorable yet simple premise. Kyoko and Misako are two rebellious high-schoolers who would do anything for each other, never pay attention in class and won’t hesitate to put the beatdown on local thugs if they start something. One day while attending class the duo receive a text. Their precious boyfriends, Kunio and Riki, have been kidnapped, and they’re the only ones in River City that can save them. 

From here, they embark on a hectic adventure across River City in search of their beaus, starting fights and making friends along the way. The fact you’re playing as two strong, capable female characters saving a couple of men in distress is immediately refreshing, and not something we’ve really seen in the genre before. Kyoko and Misako are brilliant characters, even if they’re not entirely nuanced in their development. However, the way in which they embrace archetypes works with the game’s overall identity. 

Kyoko is a bubbly, happy-go-lucky personality obsessed with make-up, fashion and keeping up with the latest trends, her animations representative of how she’ll jump into any situation regardless of the danger. Misako is more hot-headed, snappy towards anybody who doesn’t give her what she wants. A clever use of visual cues, among other excellent touches, help the girls feel like they truly belong in this world.

For example, the pause menu is housed within each girl’s respective smartphone, the wallpapers and layout acting as yet another element of what makes them so much fun. Kyoko’s device is brightly coloured and adorned with stickers, while Misako’s is battered and broken, and probably hasn’t seen a firmware update in years. 

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River City Girls Review
Kyoko and Misako have some of the best animation I’ve seen in the genre, each one packed with personality and charm

If you’ve played the likes of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage, the core ideas in River City Girls will immediately ring a few bells. It’s a fast-paced brawler focused on stringing together combos in the most effective manner possible, drawing multiple enemies into a single area to juggle them into oblivion. Kyoko and Misako are forces to be reckoned with, capable of dishing out a mixture of punch, kicks, knuckle dusters and dabs at the touch of a button. They each play distinctly enough from one another to justify two playthroughs, or you can mix-and-match with a partner in local co-op.

Kyoko is fast, frantic and almost acrobatic in her application of flying kicks and light yet deadly jabs. By defeating foes you will level up, gaining access to a growing arsenal of new moves. Each one serves to highlight the personality of each character while eliciting a few genuine laughs. Kyoko’s highlight is easily her dab. It’s a clearing skill which blows away any nearby thugs in a fabulous wave of millenial excess. It fits her aesthetic perfectly, and is pretty useful in a pinch, too.

Misako is a little on the heavier side, often seen using her heart-shaped bag as a melee weapon for battering creepy dudes and rebellious cheerleaders roaming the streets of River City. Much like Kyoko, each move compliments her tomboyish nature, whether it be a rolling kick to the gonads or a Bruce Lee-inspired backhand. Each one is lovingly animated, reaching the highest benchmark of pixel animation and then some. River City Girls doesn’t rely solely on its appearance, as striking as it is.

Look beyond that and there’s a stupendously solid brawler that’s a blast whether you’re playing alone or with someone else. However, the difficulty can feel unbalanced when running through River City Girls on your lonesome. This is especially true with bosses, and there’s no way to draw attention away from their devastating attacks, even as your ally dishes out damage. I’m surprised neither Kyoko or Misako are AI-controlled depending on which one you pick, despite maintaining their presence in cutscenes and other snippets of the experience.

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River City Girls Review
There’s nothing more satisfying than picking up a thug and using his body as a makeshift baseball bat 

Co-operative is definitely the ideal way to play. This is thanks to the sweet spot for difficulty and an environment that frequently produces giggles from the sheer stupidity of it all. While you won’t deal damage, it’s far too easy (and tempting) to hurl melee weapons at one another, resulting in a wipeout of spectacular proportions. Switching friendly fire on and off is an option, but I don’t see accidentally killing my friend as much fun. That is, with the exception of River City Girl’s revival animation.

Once fallen, Kyoko or Misako’s ghost will begin to rise from their bodies and ascend to the heavens. To bring each other back to life, they need to repeatedly stomp down until the spectre recedes back into its body which is hilariously unique. The shops, streets and other hidden parts of River City Girls are a delight to uncover. Simply exploring the the world is so much fun, especially with a friend by your side to point out all the references.

Verdict

River City Girls is so much fun and one of the most enjoyable brawlers I’ve played in a long time. Developers Arc System Works and Wayforward have made the genre feel surprisingly modern with its anime aesthetic and sharp, tongue-in-cheek approach to dialogue and world design.

It’s self-aware enough that every joke lands, every location feels distinct and every musical track is an experimental banger. If you’re after a charming beat ’em up – grab a friend and help Kyoko and Misako track down their boyfriends. You won’t regret it.

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