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River City Ransom: Underground (PC) artwork

River City Ransom: Underground (PC) review

"Pulled Muscle"

Starting life as a fan made tribute to River City Ransom, the humorous NES beat 'em up with free roam and RPG elements, Underground caught the eye of series creator, Yoshihisa Kishimoto. To everyone's surprise, the game then became an official, licensed product during the course of its development, with said creator even becoming a creative consultant. Why such an interest in a fan project? Well, at a glance, it doesn't seem like a typical Kunio-kun brawler the series is known for, and the more details you hear about the game, the more it comes off like a legitimate, labored product.

Canonically, Underground takes place after the English version of River City Ransom, where players controlled Alex and Ryan, the Western interpretations of Kunio and Riki. Years and years after the events of the NES game's school hostage situation, you now take command of four new students as they have to pummel their way through waves of gangs due to a misunderstanding. And staying true to its roots, Underground requires your brawlers to become stronger and agile with a combination of beating people for experience, taking their coins to buy stat-boosting items, or purchasing special attacks for quicker, harsher take downs. Along the way, older renditions of Alex and Ryan eventually lend a helping hand, as well as other new characters that can be switched whenever a save hideout is reached.

Present day River City of "19XX" is a much bigger area to navigate this time around, as you'll see more than brief displays of alleyways and construction sites. Familiar locations make appearances, but between them are an excess of new backdrops, all sporting detailed sprite work while maintaining the original's 2D, super deformed style. Brick walls are decorated with elaborate graffiti art, there's a dinosaur water fountain, and you can clearly see drivers having vivid conversations during an intersection beat down. And the artists really went to work on a mini-golf course, with a huge, mouth-chomping skull and a lake octopus as scenery. Also, as enemies make goofy facial expressions when hit, there's a very subtle, extra bit of emotion injected into their pain. Not to mention, characters' idle animations have more enthusiasm, as clothes sway, and mouths and eyes bounce around with personality.

However, the biggest improvement, something that was a huge flaw in the original RCR and even Tokyo Rumble, is the inclusion of each gang having varying, creative attacks! Jocks "bench press" your character if they get too close, Nerds projectile-toss test tubes of differing elements, hair-slicked jerks occasionally throw dirt in your face, and rich punks do charged punches that result in paper money flying out their sleeves. Thankfully, each gang has more than one unique attack, so learning each opponent's approach goes a long way in winning the overall battle, especially when there's up to four or more people on screen. Surprisingly, the game also has a "wanted level" system, where police in riot gear show up if you commit a crime, such as destroying property or beating up civilians for coins.

Within just the first hour, the devs have showcased how well they've handled the RCR formula in a respectable manner, refining and improving on aspects that very much needed it. Even with minor flaws littered about, the game's opening moments demonstrate that it's properly equipped for the long journey that's been stretched out for eager gamers, even tossing in a four player co-op component.

But add more play time, make a bit more progress, and you start noticing the tight, coordinated design seems only applicable to the beginning. Underground's greatest failing is that it doesn't have enough substance to sustain its lengthy trip around River City. It was a joy seeing every gang and playable character have a diverse move set for a varied fighting experience, but the widened combat system can only do so much in a game that doesn't have a lot of anything else. The freshness wears off once you realize you're ultimately beating up the same gangs, using the same fighting methods, for hours on end. Yes, I'm aware this is being said about a game that's solely about beating people up, but repetition is still repetition.

This flaw probably wouldn't have been as offensive if it weren't for so many moments along the way being marred by bad design choices, and two specific issues in general work together to form a communication problem for the player. One such moment occurs when you're given a clue to check the bridge screen for a suspicious man. When you arrive, there's no one to be found except for the usual gangs, and if you defeat every person hoping for the character in question to appear, he won't. When I encountered this situation, I thought the game was bugged, because an earlier side objective inside the amusement center also refused to trigger. So, I started a new game file, redid everything up to that point, and... still nothing.

The solution was found eventually, but it was by complete accident: I was standing by the left side of the bridge screen after defeating every opponent, and as I was about to exit, more gang members came spawning out from behind a fence. A tiny fence. Climbing and jumping behind this small fence leads to an additional screen below the bridge. This is so wrong on so many levels that it's painful to revisit in writing. The fence blends in with the background, so I never even thought of testing it out, not to mention... you can't hop over any other fence in the game. Why would I think this one to be different? A simple "try looking below the bridge" hint would have gone a long way in minimizing the confusion.

But the stress didn't end there; when I finally encountered the suspicious person, he ran back up the bridge. I followed him, and he then ran off the bridge to the right, repeating the procedure for the next two screens before disappearing. Again, a previous altercation had me chasing a different guy into another screen, which then triggered plot progression, so clearly the same logic would apply here, right? I kept checking every screen to the right, hoping and wishing something happened, but the runner never reappeared. After roaming around for a good 30 minutes, I went back under the bridge... and the chase sequence reset. After two more attempts, I realized he only runs for those three specific screens before the chase is considered a "failure," and that I was supposed to stop him with a simple jab. You don't even get to fight the guy.

Seriously, you can't just randomly change the rules if you went about it differently in an earlier, similar confrontation, at least not without informing the player of the change.

These inane, main objectives that act as "variety" are scattered throughout the game, and prolongs an adventure that's already too long to begin with. Sure, the original RCR also gives vague descriptions on where to go next, but that game has a very small map, so looking for the next objective is a minor inconvenience. Underground's map is much bigger, so pinpointing a specific location with even vaguer hints is torturous. Hell, this game tells you at one point to investigate a school for a person, doesn't throw a hint, and said school has over 15 screens; you systematically have to check nearly all those screens and beat up all the gangs on each one, because you don't know which screen the person is on. Sounds fun, right?

If you try sticking with the game to the end, it stops being entertaining in any capacity, outright becoming work. During the mid-to-late sections, the enemy AI is now aggressively reading your inputs, easily dodging and jumping over attacks that used to connect. Worse, opponents are intentionally blocking every single attack you throw at them, at least until another enemy lines up behind you, and that's when they conveniently stop. If you try outsmarting them at this stage of Underground, they'll just sneak in cheap shots and back away. Considering the late segments are just long, uninterrupted stretches of fights... this is masochistic.

There's nothing wrong about wanting to make an extensive and grand beat 'em up, but you need enough quality material throughout for it to withstand the length. Between all the fighting, River City Ransom: Underground just has a bunch of shallow chase sequences, a main quest where you carry a milk bottle halfway across the map without getting hit*, and perplexing directions to your next objectives. The devs should have just worked with what little they had for a more condensed, concentrated effort, because there's a lot of good ideas implemented: big selection of characters, a large map, and a diverse rogues gallery. It's just a shame they've been sullied by a convoluted experience, with a silly story that jumps the shark multiple times.

*In early versions of the game, the bottle breaks if someone hits you just once. The developers changed it to three hits after constant complaints.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (March 06, 2017)

I can't tell you how many times I spotted Cyber-Lip in an arcade back in the early 90s. Its title screen is etched into my memory.

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Nehonat posted March 11, 2017:

A good and objective review. However, i think the game was just rushed at the last stage and is really unfinished, thus the repetitiveness. And this is because the developers were pressed by the Kickstarter backers. They even went as far as publishing an official explanation of why they're taking so long on their FB page. Then, just a few months after that, the game is released. Seems to me that the developers should've been given enough time to do their job, especially when we clearly see that a lot of passion and creativity was put into the game.

They're making updates in the moment and I hope they'll eventually add some more content in terms of enemies and quests.
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pickhut posted March 11, 2017:

That's unfortunate to hear about being pressured. It's a game that, in certain aspects, clearly had a lot of love poured into it, and that's really what makes the full product more depressing to me to experience. Really does make me wonder what a few extra months of ironing out kinks and additions would have done for the game.

Thanks for reading and giving your comments.

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