The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. You may know it as the basis for so many of the Musou/Warrior and Ambition titles. And this time…..it’s not either of them?! No dear reader, the cast of Beat ‘Em Up classic River City/Kunio-Kun is taking over this time! Polish your shoes and tape your fists; It’s time to throw down in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms.
Kunio or Kan’u
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms takes inspiration from previous titles such as Downtown Special: Kunio Kun’s Period Drama and Downtown Nekketsu Jidaigeki. If you aren’t familiar with these, they involve the cast of River City/Kunio-Kun taking on the roles of historical figures and recreating famous battles. In this case, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
You start the game playing as Kunio and opens with him forging an alliance known as The Oath of the Peach Garden – an iconic scene from the source. Kunio takes on the role of Guan Yu. Other fan favorites include Sawagichi as Zhang Bao, Misuzu as Lu Bu, and Yamada as Cao Cao. While you’ll get more out of the package if you’re a fan of Kunio Kun and co, the story is presented in a way that you don’t need to be familiar with either of the source materials to enjoy.
The story pacing is great and never takes you out of the action for too long. It does have a fair amount more dialogue and cutscenes than that of the standard River City game, but it won’t take you long to fall into the familiar rhythm of taking down the Yellow Turban army and trying to reunite China. The comedy flows and manages to nail the tougher scenes, creating one of the more memorable and engaging River City narratives.
Barf or no Barf?
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is a free-roam, scrolling beat ’em up with RPG elements, much like previous titles in the series. Think Streets of Rage with RPG mechanics and you’re on the right track.
The game can be divided into 2 modes, the main campaign, and the “arcade mode”. The latter of which is cruelly hidden in an Extra menu and shouldn’t be missed by any fan of the brawler genre.
The campaign mode as mentioned follows the narrative of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms with Kunio taking the lead. It’s split into several chapters, each presenting players with iconic scenarios to work through. These usually follow the loop of working your way through the country city by city, until you reach your objective for it to then move elsewhere. This continues until you reach the last boss or main battle of the story.
Cities and villages offer some respite. Here you can spend your hard-earned money on items, stat-boosting food, and new moves. You can also pick off a side quest or two which follow the tried and tested fetch quest method. They’re only really there to assist in leveling up or providing you with some more of the filthy lucre.
Countryside locations, ports, and castles are where you’ll encounter the bulk of enemies and you soon get to work dispatching them. They are skippable if you run fast enough, but it would leave you at a massive disadvantage in terms of level and money. Some sections involve platforming to mix things up, but the bulk of them are just battlefields for the cast to throw hands.
Kick, Punch It’s all in the mind
As River City Saga: Three Kingdoms has light RPG mechanics you build Experience Points from finishing quests and dispatching fools. When you earn enough, you’ll gain a level that allows you to throw stat points into your character. These do the usual; increasing Health, damage, and that kind of thing. While this isn’t quite as in-depth as it maybe should be, you can see it’s been put there to stop you from running from A to B and make you take your time with the game. It does seem slightly like filler, but the combat is that good you won’t feel it.
The second mode in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is China Heroes which is found under the “Bonus Mode” title on the main screen. It’s slightly deceptive to call it a bonus mode, as it’s essentially the same quality as many Beat Em Ups on the market.
Foregoing all the dialogue and RPG mechanics, China Heroes breaks the game down into its purest form. You have a timer, a reason to punch people, and several stages to walk to the right and do so in. The mode has a fantastic roster of characters to choose from and unlock including River City Girls versions of Kyoko and Misako. It’s addictive arcade brawling at its purest and you can easily spend as much time in this mode as you can in the main mode – plus it’s much more multiplayer friendly.
The Proof Is In The Punching
The combat in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is spot on. The controls are responsive, simple to pick up, and have just the right amount of feedback to give it that addictive aspect the genre needs to stave off repetition. You can juggle foes, use weapons, block, throw other characters, activate a special mode that slows down time, and even call in a screen-clearing bombardment.
In the campaign, you learn various moves through scrolls and leveling moves up. You can switch out moves in a menu allowing you to customize your combat experience and get the best out of Kunio. While not completely flawless, with an example being Dropkick is a standing kick move rather than a jumping kick, it’s still great fun to experiment and find out what moves work best for your particular fighting style.
With how smooth and responsive the combat feels, and the number of moves and choices you have, it feels like a top-tier Kunio title. It matches the standard of River City Girls, River City Ransom: Underground & River City Ransom Advance. It’s certainly a far cry from the more restrictive titles like River City Girls Zero.
Multiplayer is well catered. It allows local multiplayer with a single Joycon each on the Switch version. There’s online too – this can be joined at any time during either the campaign or the China Heroes mode.
Something Borrowed, Something New
Visually River City Saga: Three Kingdoms takes inspiration from the original River City games with its sprites. While they have more animation frames than in the older titles, they aren’t quite the level of the previously mentioned River City Girls which is currently the gold standard. The sprites are placed on 3D backgrounds which does look slightly jarring, but after a while you do get used to it. It does hold some visual charm, and is distinctively River City.
There is a fantastic Gallery mode that provides art and animations alongside the story in detail and biographies for all the characters. This is a brilliant addition and ideal for anyone who may not be familiar with the source material.
The music is quite fun and gets stuck in your head. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be too much of it as it loops a lot. This is especially an issue in the campaign; you’ll be hearing the same song over and over again until you grow numb to it. While there isn’t anything as good as the classic tunes from the series, it’s nothing too egregious. It’s just not as well implemented as I’d like.
It’s always fun when Kunio leaves the streets to take on other roles. River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is certainly no exception.
This is a much stronger outing for the River City franchise than the recent River City Girls Zero. Its overall quality and fun combat have skyrocketed the game firmly into one of my favorites from the franchise.
While there isn’t enough here to convert the naysayers, anyone who’s enjoyed previous titles or even just the genre could find quite a lot to love about this title. Here’s hoping that we see even more River City Saga titles in the future.
RIVER CITY SAGA: THREE KINGDOMS IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Arc System Works for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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