On an episode of Conan O'Brien's podcast "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend" featuring guest Mila Kunis, the actress tells a story that's at once confounding and relatable. She tells O'Brien about how as teens, she and a friend were very bored one day, so they got the genius idea of driving their cars into one another's just to "see what happens." Kyoko and Misako, the stars of River City Girls, are this frankly stupid idea personified. They're goofy and brash, full of horrible ideas, in the way only teen girls can be. (Believe me, I know from personal experience.)
The start of River City Girls feels like deja vu. Kyoko and Misako, this entry's heroines, are sitting idly in detention when they get a text that their boyfriends have been kidnapped. It's a charming nod to the original River City Ransom, which kicks off with Riki's girlfriend Mami being kidnapped and sends Kunio and Riki on a mission to beat up gangs across the city to get to her back. River City Girls is a role reversal, with Kyoko and Misako on their own journey to save them.
And River City has never been a more lively place. The shopkeepers are buff or otherwise intimidating, and eager to sell you anything from avocado toast to med kits to boost your health. On every street, everyone from Terminator look-a-likes to cheerleaders want to rumble and tumble with you. It's all soundtracked by electronic and bubbly pop music. And most importantly, the sprite work on Kyoko, Misako, and everyone they encounter is astounding. River City Girls' anime-inspired art direction is a delight, and sets a sunny tone for the entire game—even if I found the writing to be largely pretty grating. (I'm sorry, I'm allergic to internet humor.)
Which leads me to the heroines of this rescue mission: Kyoko and Misako. Unfortunately in single-player, it's not the sort of game where one of the characters is controlled by AI and you can switch between them. Instead, you choose one character from the menu when you load up your save, and that's your character until you save and quit. Luckily, you're not locked into just one character for the whole campaign, and can hop in with another from the menu. But in the first half of River City Girls, I very much wished I had at least an AI co-op companion at my side.
Combat works in very much the same way as other side-scrolling beat 'em ups. You have a light and heavy attack attached to buttons, and your direction indicates certain moves. The more you level up, the more moves you learn, though you can also purchase some at the local Dojo. Whenever I'd make a large sum of money after finishing a main story mission, I'd run over to the Dojo to buy new moves. You can also wear two accessories at any time, which change everything from gaining small amounts of stamina while you walk, to adding a five percent chance of taking no damage at all from an attack. You can buy accessories from specific shops across River City.
There's also a key addition though: You can now recruit some enemies you fight. In battles, there's a chance that the last person standing will beg for their life. You can walk up, grab them, and then recruit them. They're not AI companions who are always at your side, but more like a special move that you can summon with the tap of a button. Each enemy has a certain number of hearts, as they can be knocked down when summoned for an attack. There are multiple varieties of each enemy type too, and you even get your own little Pokedex-like app in your phone where you can see all the foes you've recruited over time. Each enemy type has a unique move they'll bring to battle when summoned, and I definitely found some to be more useful than others. (The Terminator-inspired guy, for instance, does a big extended punch which is great for knocking down a line of bad dudes.)
My early time with River City Girls didn't feel tuned well to single-player play, especially when it came to its brutal boss fights. When you die, no matter where you are, you lose all the items you were holding, any character you recruited, and a healthy chunk of change. This trained me to play River City Girls in a very particular way: before entering a boss fight, I'd enter without any items, knowing I would basically be throwing the fight and sacrificing some money. I'd do this so I could learn their patterns—and they all have unique abilities, such as how one has bullet hell-inspired mechanics. Then I'd venture out into the world for about a half-hour or more, beating up anyone in my path, and then filling up my inventory with items so I could heal myself during the boss fight when the going got tough. If a side quest was available, as there are a couple, I'd tackle that too.
For the first half of River City Girls, you have a limited inventory space. This makes the boss fights all the more difficult, as you have a fairly slim moveset. It was a long routine of fighting a boss, dying, running around for a long time to make enough money to buy health items again, and then dying again. It was a tedious cycle that elongated my playtime, and I bet if I was playing co-op, it wouldn't have been necessary at all.
The upshot of this was that after about the halfway mark, I was very overpowered for the bosses I would later face. I'd run straight into battle with an arsenal of medkits and bandages, and emerge victorious in my first go-around. I'm sure it had to do with me getting better at chaining attacks and combos too, but the annoyances that outlined my opening hours with River City Girls faded away.
I played through the majority of River City Girls as the varsity jacket-wearing Kyoko, while swapping to Misako every now and then along the way. The more time you spend with the two over the story—even in single-player, they both talk when you meet an NPC, and so on—the more you see their personalities reflected in their moves. Kyoko's a little clumsy and silly, while Misako is blunt and has no time for bullshit. By the end of River City Girls' story, I was able to run to the Dojo as Misako and buy up all of her extra moves in one shopping spree with the big amount of cash I was rewarded. I then prowled around River City as her, to get a better taste of what her full moveset was like.
And personally, I still prefer how Kyoko plays. She has a lot of satisfying kicks, like a special handstand circle kick that's great for crowd control, and I found her easy to string combos with. I'd bounce off people's heads, flip them into the air with a grab, and then use my heavy "combat dab" to knock everyone back. Once you unlock all of Kyoko's moves, she feels unstoppable in any situation.
But Misako is no joke either. She's very much a brawler type, with a lot of heavy punches. Both characters move the same way, though Kyoko's moveset makes her feel all around faster. I imagine the choice between whether players prefer Kyoko or Misako will fall onto people's playstyle preference. But rest assured: by the end of one of your story modes with either, you'll be rich enough to flesh out the other's robust moveset in no time without any grinding for money required. (Though, if you want her at a higher level overall like whoever you ended up maining through the story, you will have to beat up folks the old fashioned way.) You also unlock New Game + and some new characters upon completion.
While I was bummed that I capped out Kyoko's moveset well before the end of the game, I still had a good time beating up hooligans in the street with bouncy style. There are Easter eggs for all sides of the River City Ransom series too, from characters like Mami, to Billy and Jimmy Lee of Double Dragon fame running the two Dojos you'll find across River City. River City Girls directs the series into a more stylish direction, but it also retains constant nods to the lads that helped pave the way for Kyoko and Misako to kick asses of their own. And kick lots of ass they do.
River City Girls is as bubbly as the pop song that soundtracks its intro cinematic would lead you to believe. With all-around excellent art direction, you'll be hard-pressed to find a game this year with more style and confidence than River City Girls. While the first few hours are a slog as you level up and learn the ropes, once your moveset grows bigger, any encounter is a blast full of combos, and yes, dabbing. Just be sure to bring a friend along for the ride, as it's much harder to brave alone.