Following on from last year’s River City: Tokyo Rumble, Natsume is taking the rough ‘n’ tumble Kunio-Kun out for another spin in a follow up action game. River City: Rival Showdown largely follows the same beats as its predecessor, but refines many of its ideas down into a tighter and more enjoyable experience. Though it still isn’t perfect, particularly in terms of its difficulty curve, this is a worthy entry in the series and an excellent 3DS beat 'em up, to boot.

River City: Rival Showdown sees you take control of Kunio-Kun, the baddest kid on the streets, as you defend your turf against the encroaching threat of a pair of powerful twin brothers. After they wipe the floor with you in an initial encounter, you’re given three days to prep before they battle you again. In this time, you can explore around town beating up thugs, eating ramen noodles, and buying new outfits in your bid to be the toughest fighter out there.

Essentially, it's a retro beat ‘em up, with open world and RPG elements sprinkled in for good measure. You’ll run around the city as Kunio-Kun and fight hordes of rival gang members from other neighborhoods and schools through a combination of punches, kicks, throws, and special moves. Chaining together combos and flooring groups of enemies can be immensely satisfying, and things get more interesting as you level up Kunio and unlock new abilities. It’s a simplistic form of combat to be sure, but it’s easy to pick up and still poses enough of a challenge that seasoned gamers won’t be turned off too early.

You have three days to train up Kunio as much as you can before the big confrontation, and what you do with that time is largely up to you. 'Events' will be taking place in various other parts of town - denoted by an exclamation point - and you can choose which ones to walk to. Usually these result in some story-based fight, the outcome of which will effect which of the multiple endings you’ll receive upon completing the game. Along the way, of course, you can pick fights with thugs you find in the streets, or they’ll pick fights with you. And when you’re not brawling it out, you can eat some stat boosting food at a restaurant or kit Kunio out in new clothes that raise stats and add other effects. All of this combines for a satisfying feedback loop that empowers the player at a decent rate while also keeping the pressure on to always be improving.

Issues do exist, however, with large difficulty spikes that persist throughout your adventure. The random fights you get into when traversing the world are just that, so you never know whether you’ll be fighting a squad you can take or one that will positively steamroll you. It’s not uncommon for you to get in a fight with a group of thugs that you knock out in about three hits each, only to be followed a few minutes later by a squad of iron-skinned superhumans that easily overcome your pathetic resistance. This can lead to uneven pacing, as you receive experience and money in stints that vary from you rapidly progressing in a short window of time to more or less halting progress altogether. A more smoothly judged difficulty curve would be appreciated here, and while the option to run away from fights is always there, it runs counter-intuitive to the point of the core mechanics.

There’s some multiplayer options here, too, which help pad out the package. If another friend has a copy of the game, you can choose to tackle the story mode in co-op, but the real meat comes in with the new Double Dragon Duo mode. This one can be played through download play, too, and it essentially crosses over beat 'em up gameplay with a fighting game. You pick from a roster of characters and duke it out in a 2D ring, punching and kicking your foe (or bludgeoning them with the crowbar that drops in the middle) while utilizing a range of character-specific moves to gain the edge. It’s great and provides a mostly distinct experience form the main mode, yet there’s enough similarities that it doesn’t feel out of place as an additional piece of the main package.

From a presentation perspective, River City: Rival Showdown is rather forgettable, but it nonetheless gets the job done. The story mode sees 2D sprites moving about on more or less photorealistic backdrops, making it feel a bit like a diorama in motion. The issue with this is that the environments lack significant detail and feel rather static and lifeless, like you’re moving in front of a picture instead of a place. Granted, the visuals aren’t all that important in a release like this, but it still feels like more could’ve been done on this front to make the game feel a little more animated. The soundtrack is similar; there’s a few catchy beats here or there, but the largely-synth based music is mostly just there to fill space. It manages to set a good pace and tone for the action, though, which is a nice plus.

Conclusion

All told, River City: Rival Showdown is a worthwhile beat 'em up game, certainly worth the price of admission. Though the oscillating difficulty curve and the ho-hum presentation hold it back from true greatness, this is a game that no beat 'em up fans will want to miss out on, and it also stands as a great entry point for those looking to try out the genre or this particular series. We’d give this one a strong recommendation; between the meaty campaign and the fun side mode, River City: Rival Showdown will likely hold your attention for some time.