When the year began, there were only a handful of video games that piqued my interest, and chief among them was the spin-off to the classic beat ‘em up series Kunio-Kun (or River City). River City Girls 2 finally arrived in the U.S. on December 15 after shifting release dates all year, and the game not only lived up to the high expectations set by its predecessor, but exceeded them.
River City Girls 2, developed by Wayforward, is a pixel art action beat ‘em up that takes place right off the heels of the first game. In its opening moments, the rough-and-tumble sukeban duo of Misako and Kyoko kick the yakuza-affiliated boss, Sabuko out the window of her skyscraper. However, when Sabuko survives the fall and reports back to her incarcerated father, he decides to take matters into his own hands by breaking out of prison and seizing control of River City. His first step, hilariously, is to order his son to beat up Misako and Kyoko and get them suspended from school for their fisticuffs. Unsurprisingly, Kyoko and Misako use their newfound free time to play a bunch of video games at Kyoko’s for two months straight.
Much of my enjoyment with the earlier levels of RCG2 is how it narratively writes around the trope of video games stripping its heroes of all the awesome power-ups and moves they had in previous games. What incites their adventure isn’t a heroic calling to save their town from a swarm of Yakuza. The only reason they’re not hikikomori is because they want to go to the mall to buy a new video game. Oh and also, Kyoko’s mother is worried that lazing for months on end might’ve messed up their lower backs.
Turns out Momma Kyoko wasn’t far off because the girls quickly discover that they’re not as strong as they used to be. This narrative excuse for their lack of practice not only serves as the reason why Misako, Kyoko, and their boyfriends (who are also playable) don’t have any money and zero experience points, it also gives me some real-world leeway for whiffing combos at the onset of the game.
Although relearning moves in sequels are a source of frustration for me, earning them back in RCG2 by accumulating enough experience mid-combat is delightful. For example, I usually play Kyoko because I love the “ora ora oras” her English voice actress, Kira Buckland, does as well as her sparkly heavy attack, the rainbow dab. So whenever I leveled up in the middle of comboing a group of yakuza, perfection of basic combo strings was rewarded with the extra oomph of those subsequent moves returning in the heat of battle.
RCG2 switches up the pace of its predecessor’s mad dash toward the final boss by encouraging players to take their time as they fully immerse themselves in the world of River City. To hammer this point home, RCG2 leans heavier on its RPG elements with new additions like its spoof Twitter social media app where you view messages from NPCs and follow their questlines. Yes, RCG2 has side quests. Upon completing a side quest, you can recruit characters to fight alongside you. However, because cash rules everything around you in River City, if you want help from an ally who died in battle, you’ll have to cough up the same amount of dough as you did the first time around to get their assistance again.
Another quality-of-life improvement with RGC2 is that corner comboing enemies with the light attack button no longer causes you to accidentally waltz into the next area by mistake. Now, you have to click and hold the button prompt to enter the next area so that the game doesn’t confuse your button mashing with a carnal desire to progress to the next area. This was annoying in the first game, to say the least, because it forced me to stop saying “my turn forever” while endlessly wall bouncing enemies so I wouldn’t trigger an area transition. It’s also got safe houses around the map where you can recover your stamina and swap out characters instead of having to go back to the start menu.
Unlike the prequel game, River City Girls Zero, combat in RCG2 has a faster and more satisfying rhythm to it. Instead of feeling like I have to stagger and cheese enemy attack patterns to sneak in a punch just to have enemies land attacks harder and more often than I could’ve ever dreamed, RCG2’s margin for error is much more forgiving and makes you feel just as powerful as the bosses you encounter. Every attack is super fast and its block and parry counters are responsive and satisfying to pull off. The extra cherry on top of RCG2 is that it has a two-player online co-op in addition to its four-player local co-op play so you can kick butt with friends whether they’re in the same room as you or in a different state, depending on how reliable your internet connection is.
While shaking off my River City Girls ring rust, I was enamored by how surprisingly expansive the previous game was in comparison to its predecessor. I walked into the game anticipating an on-the-rails beat ‘em-up adventure, but I found a River City that felt more alive and explorable than it’s ever been before. All in all, RCG2 stands at the top of the pile of Kunio-Kun games as a must-play for beat ‘em-up veterans and newbies alike.