Title: Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!: A River City Ransom Story
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Arc System Works
Genre: Adventure, Shooter, Action
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 07/11/19
Price: £11.49 – Rapid Reviews were very kindly provided with a review code for this title.
Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!: A River City Ransom Story is as the name implies the newest instalment of the long-running River City Ransom series. Known as Kunio-Kun games to fans of the franchise, this series generally revolves around the delinquent misadventures of a schoolboy named Kunio and his penchant for getting into gang fights with his schoolyard rivals.
Heading into its fifth decade of existence, the series has branched a few times but has mostly stuck with the same gameplay formula. Stay Cool is an attempt to mix things up with a streamlined and straightforward iteration of this classic side-scrolling brawler while adding a few new things to keep it fresh.
The story centres on a character from River City Ransom, Kobayashi-san and his attempt at thwarting the plans of time travelling super-powered bad guys. There’s a little more to the narrative than that, but it’s so ill-delivered and meaningless to the gameplay that I’m not going to waste your time trying to explain it. Suffice to say, and the world needs a hero, and Kobayashi is that hero.
Unlike previous entries, Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!: A River City Ransom Story is an always co-op game. If you can’t find a friend to play with the CPU controls the second player. This is how I played the game. You can switch between the two characters at any time and even replace one of them with characters from other instalments. The caveat is that Kobayashi always needs to be on-screen playing. Completing the game adds new characters to the roster with different move sets, though move sets are a tad misleading.
The other big additions to gameplay are a special items button and a super move button. Both being tied to a meter that fills and depletes like those found in traditional fighting games. The super move is different depending on the character being played and adds a bit of depth to the otherwise anaemic combat but lacks the flash normally associated with the word ‘super.’
It’s special alright
The special item bar consists of three items picked by you at the beginning of the game. I don’t think it matters what items are picked though as they all seem to do the same thing. The first and easiest to fill and use is a health-up which adds a small amount of health. The second gives your character more power/strength to your combat moves. The third item brings in a third character to help you defeat enemies and hangs around for a bit.
The gameplay is up-ended in another significant way. Instead of making your way through an area defeating minions to get to a mid-boss and eventually the area boss, Stay Cool lays out the whole thing up front; there are five gangs each coloured differently. Defeat thirty minions of any colour and that gang’s boss show up for a battle. Defeating all five bosses reveals the last boss and defeating him ends the playthrough. It doesn’t end the game, though. Stay Cool is meant to be played through multiple times to get the complete story and collect all the extra characters. A single playthrough was enough for me, though, as I have no intention or inclination ever to play this game again. In fact, I wish I hadn’t accepted this game to review as the time spent with it would’ve been better spent doing literally anything else.
To “simplify” the already simple mechanics of a side-scrolling brawler, the developer has relegated all kicks and punches to a single “attack” button. Directional presses change the type of attack, but there is only two or three per character. They are also barely discernible and seem to have no benefit over one another. These two or three variations only become useful once your assailant is stunned, allowing you to send them to the ground in a few different ways. Of course, there’s no way to parlay those takedowns into much of anything, making the whole exercise pointless.
Not content with merely handicapping the combat, the developers continued to cripple the game with unnecessary redactions that boggle the mind. There is no ability to grab, hold, or throw an opponent! These cornerstones of the genre have been plucked out and replaced with…nothing. It gets worse. There are also no weapons available of any kind, not even environmental weapons like trash bins. Though I assume, that’s because there are no environmental objects at all within this game. It’s just empty. You’ll find that there’s also no way to attack or engage the enemy once they’re down. You simply have to wait for them to get back up, but you better do it from a distance because…there’s no way to block!
These omissions result in ‘cookie-clicker-like’ gameplay with none of the nuance, strategy, or personal style afforded by nearly every other game in its field. It strips out everything fun and interesting about beat ‘em up mechanics in favour of mind-numbingly repetitive simplicity.
If there’s one thing in this game more shallow than the combat, it would be the story. The narrative has a sci-fi bend that serves no purpose other than as an excuse to have a ‘super-move’ button added to the gameplay. That’s fine. I don’t think most people are playing brawlers for their deep narrative and complicated character arcs, anyway. Still, the narrative is so ham-fisted and ill-delivered that I was often left scratching my head wondering what I just read.
At first, I thought it was bad translation, but the more of these exposition dumps I came across, the more I started to think it was intentional. Except, it’s not amusing like ‘all your base belongs to us’ it’s just wordy dribble phrased in the most obtuse manner. This is most likely due in part to the ‘complete story’ being segmented over multiple playthroughs. Either way, I’m sure it’s as terrible in its original Japanese as it is in English.
Aside from River City Girls, Kunio-Kun games aren’t known for their graphics. Even recent titles in the series employ the same aesthetic as the first River City Ransom game published on the Famicom way back 1989. What they lack in fidelity though they tend to make up for in quantity and utility. The streets are usually lined with shops and restaurants you can go into to recover health or learn new moves. NPCs litter the areas as do common objects that can be used in battle. You may even stumble into a game of dodge-ball or two. Yes, the graphics of the older games are simple, but they’re also charming and do a lot to breathe life into the experience.
The environments in Stay Cool are barren and dull, with no interactable elements of any kind. The backgrounds that frame the game, which are usually a high point in the genre, consist mainly of stone walls and boxes. There’s a cityscape in one area and thought things might have picked up for the better. Instead, 95% of the background is obscured by a long hedge…and it’s an ugly hedge. Considering the main gameplay of Stay Cool has been so pared back some added detail to the game’s surroundings would’ve been expected – justified even, but no. It’s just another disappointment in a long list of disappointments.
The character designs are minimal but look pretty good. The problem here is that there are only a handful of them and the non-boss enemies you fight are all the same guy just palette-swapped. Of the six bosses on offer, most are similar, and one of them doesn’t even engage with you in combat.
This game is pretty awful in all respects, but it gets even worse. During one of my playthroughs, the item bar stopped charging and the ‘enemies defeated’ counter set itself to 99 and refused to allow me to get the number of victories I needed to progress to the next boss. I had to reset the game and start over. In a separate incident, the screen went black, and the Switch stopped accepting button inputs. That time I had to hold down the power button and do a hard-reset to get back into the game. Stay Cool is not only boring and uninspired but also broken…of course, it is.
Though Stay Cool shares some of the aspects of the Kunio-Kun games, it’s trying to do something different. As such, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to review this game against those much better iterations. Instead, my review score is based on how it stands up to other games in the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre. Flatly stated, it doesn’t. Every aspect of Stay Cool could’ve and should’ve been improved. I can’t think of a single redeemable component of it, and I regret starting it in the first place. A colonoscopy would have been preferable to playing this game. At least in that situation, I could find comfort in the warm touch of a fellow human being as I’m being bent over rather than the icy fingers of Arc System Works nicking $14 from me for this series-killing failure of an experience.
Rapid Reviews Rating
You can purchase Stay Cool, Kobayashi-san!: A River City Ransom Story from the Nintendo eShop on the following link, https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Games/Nintendo-Switch-download-software/STAY-COOL-KOBAYASHI-SAN-A-RIVER-CITY-RANSOM-STORY-1671764.html
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.