Natsume’s E3 showings have always included some sort of farming goodness through their evergreen Harvest Moon games, but for the last two years running we’ve also been treated to fresh installments in Arc System Works’ hard-hitting Kunio-kun series. Previously localised under such varying titles as River City Ransom, Renegade, and even Crash ’n’ the Boys, it’s now settled on the ‘River City’ moniker, and Natsume brought two new 3DS titles in the series to show off this year: River City: Knights of Justice and River City: Rival Showdown. The former is a spin-off that sees Kunio-kun and co. transported to a fantasy RPG setting, complete with swords, magic and dragons. It’s as delightful and different as it sounds, and we had a blast going medieval in our hands-on session.

If most Kunio-kun games can be described as beat-‘em-ups with RPG elements, Knights of Justice flips that ratio — it feels like an RPG with a bit of brawler mixed in. The demo we played started out in a castle in the land of Riverandia, and this area had the feel of a Zelda II town: several connected side-scrolling screens held shops (with free smiles!), inns, and NPCs. When we made our way to the throne room at the far right of the complex we had a brief chat with the King, and he gave us our first quest.

From there, we left the castle and headed out — quite unexpectedly — into a classic Dragon Quest-style world map. And we mean that in every sense; though the overworld is viewed from a 3D perspective, it’s presented as flat bitmap, giving the feeling of floating above a fully two-dimensional world mapped onto a globe. It looks fantastic — especially in stereoscopic 3D, which is used to great effect throughout — and nails the modern-retro vibe the series’ revival aims for.

Out in the overworld, moving between towns brings the possibility of random encounters. Rather than turn-based RPG battles, however, these are Kunio-approved beatdowns, where River City’s fun, punchy combat system shines through. ‘A’ punches, ‘B’ kicks, and ‘Y’ jumps, and combinations of those three can create some surprisingly intricate combos. Brawls take place on a horizontal plane with room for vertical movement, and you can swap between party members — otherwise controlled by the AI — with a tap of the ‘R’ button.

If you’ve never played a Kunio-kun game, you’re in for a treat when it comes to combat. There’s a satisfying weight to each punch and kick that makes it feel quite different from other examples of the genre, and the short range of your character’s reach makes for scrappy, in-your-face action. It’s also full of different weapons and items to pick up and use, and these have been appropriately tuned to the new setting — the garbage cans and baseball bats that Kunio and pals use in the main series are replaced with swords, staves, and magical potions. Enemies have undergone a similar palette swap, from Tokyo thugs to slimes, knaves, monsters and dragons.

Speaking of swaps, one of the things we appreciated the most about Natsume’s localisation of last year’s River City: Tokyo Rumble was the thoughtful balance they hit in reinstating the names and locations from the original Japanese (i.e. “Kunio-kun” in Tokyo instead of “Alex” in California), while including nods to earlier, more Americanised localisations in the form of nicknames and easter eggs. That practice continues in Knights of Justice, where party members’ alternate knightly names are callbacks to their first trips across the Pacific — Kunio-kun’s noble medieval incarnation is “Sir Alexander Valford”, for instance. The localisation team also clearly had a lot of fun portraying the medieval European setting in dialogue, with NPCs and passing nobles speaking in slightly Shakespearian styles that help set the scene. 

We only got to spend a brief time with Knights of Justice, but we loved what we played; the spin-off-style setting makes for a fun change of pace, the combat felt as tight and enjoyable as ever, and the RPG trappings — from magic skills and recruitable party members to the beautiful overworld map — give the feeling of a true high fantasy epic. Happily, aspiring knights won’t have to wait much longer at all to jump into the adventure; it’s heading to the North American and European eShops on June 20th. We’ll have a review up as soon as possible, but from what we played on the showfloor we’re expecting great things from Sir Alex and the gang.