River City Ransom was known for its beat 'em up gameplay, light RPG elements, and gritty urban setting. Its sequels and spinoffs followed suit, pitting the player against gangs of thugs and bullies on the mean streets of River City, where fists, feet, and pretty much any random items you can get your hands on act as weapons. River City: Knights of Justice changes up the series' traditional formula just a bit, placing you in a fantasy setting reminiscent of retro RPGs. The result is an intriguing brawler that still feels familiar and has that famed Kunio-kun charm.
We're a Long Way From River City
River City: Knights of Justice acts as more of a spinoff than a sequel to River City Ransom. At the start of the game, you see familiar faces from throughout the Kunio-kun series, but they're all overhauled with new looks and names. Kunio, for example, is renamed Alexander Valford, and he now dons a heroic knight's armor.
The setting of the game is where River City: Knights of Justice deviates from the norm the most. Riverandia isn't filled with dangerous urban streets but rather caves, dungeons, and forest paths. And the gangsters and other sinister types Kunio-kun fans are used to encountering are replaced with armored guards, goblins, and slimes. This thematic makeover is actually quite refreshing as it takes the successful formula that this series has long been known for and utilizes it in an exciting new setting.
Interestingly, the story here isn't altered all that dramatically. Like in past entries, River City: Knights of Justice once again places Kunio – I mean, Alexander – at the center of some big turmoil within the land. There are people to save, dudes to fight, and mysteries to unravel. The story itself isn't all that deep or interesting, but then again no one plays Kunio-kun for the plot. True to the series' style, the story acts as a backdrop to what matters most: beating people up.
Questing and Brawling in the Land of Riverandia
Getting around Riverandia is made easy thanks to an overworld map reminiscent of Zelda II. Unlike that game's map, which was open-ended, River City: Knights of Justice features a more linear road. You can't go anywhere you want, but there are still branching paths you can go down while taking on different quests.
Speaking of which, there are over 100 quests in the game, though they're not all mandatory to get to the end of the game. Combat quests range from defeating large gangs — oops, I mean the opposing Imperial Army — to battling imposing dragons. There are also collection quests, which are far less interesting and usually require you to stock up on certain items or weapons that you must then deliver to specific characters. Not all of the quests are entertaining, but they reward you with plenty of money that comes in handy for buying new gear.
As is customary for the series, River City: Knights of Justice includes a bunch of shops in each of its towns. Here, you can purchase special health items and buffs that increase your health and magic meters as well as your attack and defense stats. In the fairytale land of Riverandia, you can purchase anything from boots and gloves to swords and magical staffs, all of which come with their own attack stats. Most useful are the special moves you can purchase, and these include kick and punch flurries, jumping flip attacks, and running sword slashes, among others.
There aren't trash cans and lead pipes in this game, but the combat remains similar to what fans are accustomed to. This is a straight-up brawler, but now you're using swords and clubs, many of which you can pick up on the field while engaging in battle. Weapons can be thrown, too, and if your back is against the wall and you find yourself unarmed, your fists and feet will certainly do. This is especially true if you purchase new moves. Toward the end of the game, I was hardly using swords at all and stuck with jumping and kicking attacks.
One of the strongest aspects of River City: Knights of Justice is its difficulty. The game does a great job of presenting its challenges so that you can't just blindly button mash your way through the whole thing. The difficulty escalates at a solid, steady pace, and you're encouraged to purchase new weapons, buffs, and health items regularly, especially later in the game.
Along the way, you encounter characters with similar goals who will gladly join you on your adventure. Because you're constantly facing multiple enemies at once, having allies at your side is pivotal in winning confrontations against beefed-up goblins, Imperial Army soldiers, and difficult bosses. Of course, if you're a total masochist, you can choose to go it alone and either deny these ally characters when they ask to join you or just remove them from your group via the pause menu.
More River City
Despite some changes to the setting and characters and the addition of an overworld map, River City: Knights of Justice plays just like a Kunio-kun game. That's great for fans, though it won't make believers out of folks who aren't already into the series. Though I've never delved too deep into this franchise, I enjoyed the game a good deal.
I managed to see the credits roll in under four hours, completing only a couple of dozen quests. Given the nature of these brawlers, that was a solid amount of time for me to enjoy the game from start to finish without getting burnt out on the mechanics. Diehard fans are sure to want to complete every quest, but for the more casual Kunio-kun player, the game does a decent job of hooking you at least throughout the duration of the main story quests.
In terms of its audiovisual presentation, River City: Knights of Justice keeps things simple. Normally, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but the way the game combines 2D character sprites with 3D backgrounds isn't exactly eye-catching. It works, but a lot of the environments look too similar, and the scrappy charm of something like the original River City Ransom is definitely missing here. The music is equally lackluster, providing some catchy, albeit uninspired, tunes.
River City: Knights of Justice alters the Kunio-kun series' beloved formula just enough to create an experience that's both nostalgic and slightly novel. This particular entry doesn't take the series in a massively new direction, but its classic RPG-influenced coat of paint makes for a fun and quirky adventure filled with faces new and old. Plus, fighting a dragon in a Kunio-kun game is just really freakin' rad.