River City: Knights of Justice Review

River City Ransom is a name that may be familiar to NES gamers from the 80s. It was a charming combination of street gang beat ‘em up and RPG stat progression, and it eventually became a cult classic. Western fans may not realize that the Japanese Kunio-kun series, which RCR was based on, has kept going ever since. River City: Knights of Justice is its latest iteration for the Nintendo 3DS, giving the street punk high school setting a medieval makeover.

The game starts with an opening showing the core River City characters transforming into their medieval counterparts, as if they were getting into costume for a play. Kunio becomes the knight Alexander, and Riki is now Reinhold (both wonderful tributes to their original RCR names Alex and Ryan). The story follows Alexander, the savior who must rescue the land of Riverandia from the clutches of the Imperial Army. There are additional subplots as you progress from town to town, but the overall story isn’t anything special. The games are known for their action anyway.

On a basic level, Knights of Justice delivers classic beat ‘em up gameplay that the series is known for. You control Alexander through isometric 2D arenas, punching and kicking enemies until they “BARF” (yes, they kept the same terminology from the original game). There are obvious cosmetic changes. Instead of traveling through city and school landscapes, you navigate through fields and caves via a world map that looks suspiciously similar to Dragon Quest.

The biggest gameplay alterations are that you can now equip swords, staves, and other common RPG tools. The new weapons affect both your stats and abilities. Staves grant you access to unique spells like lightning or invisibility. Swords are more basic; you can swing them or throw them at foes. I found it annoying that you can actually forfeit your weapon if you throw it or lose your grip during battle. If you don’t pick it back up before the battle ends, it’s gone and you must repurchase it, which is baffling considering how much the game touts its weapon system.

The RPG inspiration leads to some interesting but poorly executed gameplay alterations – the biggest disappointment being that there is no level up system. Any power gains are limited to your equipment and jewels that can be affixed to the former. Even the original River City Ransom had some stat progression, so this design decision felt backwards to me. It’s probably for the best, since the game is already very easy even without upgraded stats. With a decent sword, you can mash a single button and vanquish many enemies at once. Sure, you can buy flashy special techniques that are executable with a simple button combo, or you can just as easily mash away. Additionally, as in many RPGs, you can recruit up to two allies to fight with you, but they also have static statistics. They are hardly differentiable from each other, so I felt no connection to any of them, essentially making them disposable extras.

The lack of depth is easily the game’s biggest problem. As a result, the game got repetitive very quickly, and this isn’t even a long game. I beat it in under three hours but performed very simple sword swinging throughout most of it. There are over 100 quests that increase replay value, but the majority of them simply involve defeating waves of enemies with the rest being dull fetch quests. Even worse, despite the sheer amount of quests, there is no way to organize them or prioritize the most important ones, so I sometimes had to look through pages of text just to figure out which was the next story mission.

If Knights of Justice does something right with its inspiration, it’s its presentation. The game effectively simulates the dungeon, castle, and town aesthetics of classic JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.  The costumed Kunio-kun characters look as charming as ever. Despite their roots, they mash well with the fantasy setting and the goblins and slimes that come with it. The music evokes that medieval feel and sound of the chiptunes you might hear in those RPGs of yore.

A medieval version of River City could have had robust stat progression, a sophisticated fighting system, and at the very least, a more interesting story. Instead, we have a barebones palette swap that is still the same beat ‘em up on the inside. Though the core mechanics are fun, it gets repetitive due to a lack of combat depth and stat progression. Regardless, this fantasy palette swap of the old-school games is a valiant effort. Fans of the series will likely find Kunio – or I should say Alexander’s – adventures in Riverandia to be an enjoyable, albeit short, experience. Others unfamiliar with the series seeking a good beat ‘em up may want to consider the original River City Ransom or the 3DS’ River City: Tokyo Rumble instead.

I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!