There was once a time when regions outside of Japan didn’t get enough games from the River City franchise, but now in 2019, as we commemorate thirty years of the franchise, gamers all over the world have their pick of River City titles to choose from on their platform of choice, including Xbox One. Earlier we saw the WayForward-developed River City Girls, an excellent homage and successor to the main series that gave a totally new vibe and presentation. Although not all new River City games can be nearly as good, it’s still great to see more of them released worldwide, with the latest being the off-kilter Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San!: A River City Ransom Story. Not only is the game’s title a strange mouthful, but the experience itself is as bizarre as games from the East come. Moving forward, let’s just call it Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San to keep things simple.
In Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San players take control of the titular character who happens to be a boss character from the older games, and the obscurity of the protagonist alone shows just how deep this title delves into the River City lore, which a lot of casual fans will be unfamiliar with. The amount of attention to detail and obscure references are admirable, especially the manner in which everything comes together to drive a bizarre narrative. This isn’t your typical River City narrative where a bunch of delinquents beat the tar out of the entire student body: instead this one delves into surrealist science-fiction as the heroes battle an evil organisation, invading aliens and all sorts of strange things during an adventure filled with time travelling and dimension hopping. One minute you’re fighting at a factory and the next you stepping into a dimension tear!
The nonsensical story and narrative in Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San is delivered with a surrealist sci-fi comedy style that is uniquely Japanese in flavour, although you can find a similar style of humour in Western sci-fi comedies from the 1960s. The offbeat sense of humour is very much an acquired taste as it’s certainly not going to appeal to everyone. Perhaps it may just be a case of things being lost in translation, but it’s still a fun insight into campy ‘90s Japanese humour nonetheless. Did I mention you need to speak with cats to save your progress?
As a game, Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San is a beat ‘em up without the open-world RPG elements most games in the series, including River City Girls, feature so prominently. Instead, it is a more traditional beat ‘em up journey with emphasis on repeated playthroughs, occasionally changing things up with unexpected gameplay segments. There is no real set structure or pace to the adventure, as events arrive based on how many of a certain type of enemy you defeat in order to trigger a specific boss encounter, and once activated they will pursue you until defeated. All the unscripted events eventually lead to one of the possible endings. Various characters are encountered, some friend but some foe, with the game allowing you to travel in a party of two and letting you switch control between them. Kobayashi himself is the compulsory protagonist, and he and his other buddies each play differently in their combo and special attacks, adding in some gameplay variety.
Gameplay variety is pretty decent for the most part, especially for a 2D brawler, but the core combat isn’t nearly as diverse or versatile as what we’ve seen in past River City games, especially the incredible combat depth featured in River City Girls. Despite this, there is a nice variety of playstyles with the different playable characters, and things are more enjoyable in two player mode since the partner A.I. isn’t always great. It’s a fun game as a beat ‘em up, but even with crazy moments like riding a UFO craft, the gameplay variety feels a little thin when compared to recent releases in the genre.
What’s brilliant about the presentation is the sound design, as both the soundtrack and the Japanese voice acting are presented very well to give the game plenty of personality. The latter in particular is done with a sense of flair and charm that the English subtitles probably don’t do justice. The soundtrack is just as fun and jazzy, with an upbeat rhythm which suits the ‘90s sci-fi theme of the game. The graphics and sprite art are decent enough although they feel a tad dated, especially at this point when we have seen so many games in the genre do so much better.
Stay Cool, Kobayashi-San! A River City Ransom Story on Xbox One is an obscure and campy beat ‘em up adventure that is off-kilter even by the standards set by the River City franchise. It’s definitely an acquired taste, even for fans of the series and genre, but it’s still great to have such uniquely Japanese titles receive a worldwide release. There are certainly better options available at the moment, but if you’re a die hard River City fan then this obscure side-story will provide a very different style of brawling action, and also weird you out… in a good way!