I've dipped my toes into the beat-em-up genre a few times but never really got on with it. I've played Streets of Rage 2, Scott Pilgrim and Castle Crashers, but I found them a bit too repetitive for my liking. I don't know, the whole formula of 'walk right, defeat enemies, walk right again, repeat until boss' didn't really do it for me. I usually end up losing interest after 30-60 minutes. And while this game isn't exactly totally different from that, somehow I ended up getting pretty into it.
I can't really put my finger on what makes this game click with me more than any others I've played, exactly. I guess I would say I like the more 'open world' aspect of it, the fact that you aren't side-scrolling through a linear level with a boss at the end, there are plenty of areas and sub-areas that you are free to travel between, there are a few side quests and some secrets to find as well. It gives you a little more freedom to take things at your own pace rather than funneling you to an end goal.
As far as the actual combat goes, it's not a million miles away from what you'd expect from the genre but there are plenty of moves and they all have a nice 'oof' to them that gives them a bit of weight. Each of the characters have their own movesets that function the same but are animated differently to reflect their personalities and it's a nice touch. I had to play the game solo and overall the difficulty was pretty fair though the bosses could be really challenging. There's some creative stuff going on, like a rockstar lady who has you jumping over a Guitar Hero-style fretboard, or this emo guy who's turned to the dark arts because he's salty about an unrequited love. There were definitely some heart-pounding moments where I had my back to the wall and only just managed to finish them off when I was on the brink of death.
In general, the game has a ton of personality. The pixel art is vibrant and detailed, the character designs are fun and the music slaps. Feels a bit like a Saturday morning cartoon with an edge. I found myself wanting to explore every area just to see what kind of environment they'd send me to next.
Story wise, it's a bit mixed – I like the subversion of the typical 'save the girlfriend' plot, and while not all of the jokes land, it can be pretty amusing at times. I've never played a River City/Kunio-kun game so I didn't get all of the references, but I expected as much. For the most part, the game makes it fairly clear who's who without getting deep into past events – until the ending.
I won't get into details, but the ending was a bit of a head scratcher for me and I wasn't surprised at all to find that it's pretty controversial among long time fans of the series. On one hand, I kinda dig the subversive twist they were going for, but for the joke to really work, you need to know at least a fair bit about River City canon because it relies on knowledge of previous entries. Since I didn't, the effect was lost on me. It's not even like a 'you need to have played the previous two games' kind of thing either, they're expecting you to have knowledge of a couple of games from many years ago, at least one of which was never even released outside Japan. We're talking about different continuities and timelines here, so to call it a niche joke is really underselling it. I can see why it could be funny, but as a non-fan it just left me confused. Considering it's made by a Western studio, it seems odd to go that route.
I saw what they were going for, but it just kinda fell flat and left me feeling a bit disappointed. In hindsight, there is stuff in the game to hint at all of this, but if you're a newcomer to the series (as I suspect a lot of players probably were, due to this being newer and more widely available than most games in the series), you're being introduced to these characters for the first time and don't have much reason to suspect that something's up. There is a secret alternative final boss and ending that tries to change this, but it still doesn't really do it for me either.
All that aside, it was still fun. I don't know if I'll be rushing out to buy more beat-em-ups (Streets of Rage 4 is on Game Pass, so maybe I'll try that at some point), but I liked this one enough to finish it at least. I wouldn't even mind doing a NG+ playthrough, truth be told. Especially since after beating it, you get to play as Kunio and Riki.
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