Notorious juvenile delinquents Kunio and Riki are at it again in River City: Knights of Justice. Except this time, instead of beating up yakuza, they’ve managed to fall into the fantasy world of Riverandia. It is here they take on the respective mantles of Sir Alexander and General Reinhold: two figures on opposite sides of an international conflict. A princess goes missing, there are wizards and dragons, etc. The story doesn’t really get much deeper than that, and it doesn’t need to. Knights of Justice is an unabashed Dragon Quest pastiche set in a world populated by an array of scarred, coiffed and eyebrowless high school tough guys. The concept itself is uproarious, although it’s unfortunate that Million didn’t lean harder into the parody. The bulk of the script ignores its characters’ absurd roots in favor of dry, generic (but winking) RPG dialogue. Even Kunio himself, normally an outspoken braggart, is delegated to the role of amnesiac silent protagonist. Despite its inherent self-awareness, Knights of Justice’s conservative adherence to genre conventions muffles what should have been an irreverent romp.
That said, the River City titles aren’t meant to be played for their narratives, but rather their addictive combat and robust character customization. Punching, kicking, and throwing enemies is just as satisfying as it is in other River City titles, with the added fun of going toe-to-toe against an entire bestiary of fantasy monsters. Headbutting a delinquent in the face is great and all, but drop kicking a super-sized 8-bit dragon before picking it up to throw at a group of goblins is a special joy unique to this entry.
Instead of a semi-open city to explore, Knights of Justice gives players a small world map dotted with towns and dungeons. Towns are filled with NPCs to talk to and accept quests from (more on this later), and they usually have an inn alongside two or three item shops. Dungeons function as short beat ’em up stages; some have a boss at the end, but all must be cleared once before they can be passed through on the map. Traversing the map is as simple as selecting a location and pressing the A-button to begin pilgrimage there, though random encounters with groups of foes threaten Alexander on his way.
In addition to his fists and feet, Alexander can wield a large variety of weapons to bludgeon his foes with. These range from swords and staves, to boulders and barrels, to even food items, which can be eaten for an HP boost or used as makeshift cudgels depending on which button is pressed. Alexander has ten active inventory slots at a time, which can be edited and optimized outside of battle via the menu. When in battle, inventory management is carried out by cycling through the ten slots using the L-button, and you can discard items by throwing them. It sounds simple enough, yet it’s actually a major hassle to manage. Let’s say there’s a sword you want and you’ve got a slot free, but you don’t want to throw away any of your current items. This means cycling through up to ten slots to your free hand using a single button, which can be difficult in the midst of a chaotic melee. Oh, and you can’t kick, headbutt or throw without a free hand, either. To add insult to injury, all slots are displayed on the bottom screen as if they could be easily selected with the stylus, yet Knights of Justice contains zero touchscreen functionality.
Despite its devotion to RPG trappings, Knights of Justice notably eschews the character progression that River City is known for. Whereas last year’s River City: Tokyo Rumble included permanent growth through experience levels and skill books, Knights of Justice contains no levels, instead allowing players to augment Alexander’s skills and stats through equippable items. These items can bestow passive abilities like HP or MP boosts, or active special moves like headbutts and sword combos. Like weapon slots, Alexander can only equip so many items at one time, so he can’t specialize in everything at once. It’s not a terrible idea, though it does make the random encounters feel a little redundant. Furthermore, some of the more obviously useful items are bizarrely hard to come by: I didn’t encounter a single HP boost ring until near the end of the game.
Alexander can also recruit two party members at a time to join him. These characters have set roles like knight or mage, and their potential is incredibly limited. Although you can swap between characters on the fly, only Alexander can equip items. Party members can only carry one weapon in their hand, which is reset to its default when changing screens. Fortunately, this means your mage friend will never lose his sick lightning staff, but conversely, he’ll never be able to do much else for long. Most of these characters have minimal personality and exist just to lend an AI-controlled hand. There are a handful of more interesting characters to recruit, but the game strangely categorized them as special NPCs and denied me control.
To spice things up, Alexander’s journey is filled with sidequests to complete. Unfortunately, Knights of Justice’s approach to sidequesting is one of its worst mechanics. Any unmarked townsperson may have a quest, and speaking to them automatically accepts said quest, which can never be abandoned. This is all well and good for garden-variety “bring me 10 pebbles” quests, yet I wound up with one that threw me into a battle against three waves of 20 knights as soon as I tried to traverse the world map. Boss/event battles are inescapable in Knights of Justice, and falling in combat means a trip back to the title screen — a far cry from previous River City titles, in which failure bestowed a monetary penalty in lieu of lost progress. After many frustrating attempts, I finally prevailed against the sixty-man free-for-all with 1 HP to spare and no healing items. I started to walk the two steps back to town, at which point I was thrown into another random encounter against an inescapable boss character, who killed me instantly. Who thought this was a good idea?!
Being a budget eShop title, Knights of Justice clocks in between 3-6 hours, but I’d had more than enough of it long before I completed its (incredibly frustrating) final battle. And that’s a shame: I adore River City’s cartoonish sprites and unique action RPG spin on the beat ’em up genre, and I genuinely enjoyed much of Knights of Justice’s combat when I wasn’t battling its inventory system or making up for lost time from unfair deaths. What could’ve been a breezy send-up is instead hampered by multiple terrible systems. Skip this one and wait for River City: Rival Showdown instead.