The newest game in the River City universe is looking to flip things on their head. River City Girls stars Kyoko and Misako, traditionally side characters to protagonists and love interests Kunio and Riki, on a city-wide quest to save their boyfriends from kidnappers. It's vigorous, animated, and brimming with energy; a goal that a developer WayForward was aiming for since day zero.
Talking to USgamer at PAX West 2019, WayForward's Bannon Rudis tells us that his co-worker Adam Tierney approached him about co-directing a new River City game with an all-new direction.
"He pitched me this idea of trying to take the River City Ransom franchise in a weird kind of goofy, zany direction," Rudis told USG. "At first I was like, 'I don't know,' but then I saw it and was like, 'Okay, maybe I can get into this.'"
The goal was to do River City, but in the style of WayForward. Well-known for developing the Shantae series, the goal was to make something expressive and larger in presentation, even more than previous attempts like River City Ransom: Underground.
"The presentation's more modern, but this is taking everything up to a notch beyond, to where the meter just breaks," Rudis says. "Everything is supposed to be over the top, even the characters themselves and the situation that they're in."
Once I started playing the intro level of River City Girls, the amped-up presentation clearly comes across. Opening with black-and-white manga panels depicting the girls in detention, a text from a mysterious source alerts Misako and Kyoko that their boyfriends have been kidnapped. One outburst later ("No, YOU can take it!" Misako yells while throwing her chair at a teacher who tells her to take her seat), Misako and Kyoko find themselves in a brawl to escape school. Beset by cheerleaders, tough guys, and classmates, it's like a high-school version of The Warriors, ending in a boss fight with the massively muscled Misuzu.
Rudis says River City Girls aims to exude style. That extends from the anime boss intros and manga interstitials to the interface, arenas, and enemies themselves. Characters will have their own unique moves, each one accentuating a piece of their personality. When Kyoko parries, she throws her cell phone out in front of the attack; and likewise, when Misako pulls out her phone for the in-game menu, the screen is partially cracked. It's little details like this that build up the world of River City Girls.
"Just beat the audience over the head with character and presentation was pretty much the first thing we wanted to do," Rudis says.
The spin-off hasn't forgotten its roots, though. An earlier game in the River City universe, Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, is a spiritual predecessor of River City Girls. Rudis says this is WayForward's take on that game, where the girls first became playable and sprites were larger for the Super Famicom. Now, it offers them more pixels to create even more expressive animations.
River City Girls also makes nods toward other brawlers, fighting games, and real-life wrestling. Misako has a Stone Cold Stunner (Rudis is a wrestling fan), and some moves resemble infamous fighting game attacks.
"What you see with the Lightning Feet, that is my variation of the classic Dragon Feet from the original. The original River City Ransom Dragon Feet was just three kicks in a row," Rudis says, "but now this is like Chun-Li's own 'Lightning Kick' that ends with a roundhouse. If you cancel that move in the middle, before the roundhouse, you can cancel into a different special. So there are little nuance things I'm hoping players will learn as they start playing and unlocking the new moves."
The combat system goes deep into these roots, where customizable heavy and special attacks open up new avenues for doling out damage. Some moves might be better for juggling an enemy or launching them up into the air, while others are better for crowd-control, hitting in an area all around Kyoko or Misako.
It's "expressive" combat, as Rudis puts it, and it was an element of River City Girls he wanted to make sure the team got right. WayForward is partnered with longtime fighting game developer and publisher Arc System Works, and at the time, the studio was fresh off the stellar anime fighter Dragon Ball FighterZ. Thankfully, he says, the company likes the combat.
The River City Ransom series has often stuck to its roots, grounded in traditional sprite work and pixels. River City Girls doesn't just mark a departure to new territory, with HD character portraits and interstitial anime cutscenes, but it reintroduces a cast of characters who now exude more personality, even down to the boss fights. Rudis says he's intentionally kept some things out of trailers, so players can see the surprises themselves. This includes characters, who he says he wanted to both have "bizarre mechanics" and be very "cosplay-able."
Is there potentially a new future for River City with the girls? "We'll just have to see how audiences take to it and if it does well," Rudis says. River City Girls hits PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on September 5.