Title: River City Saga: Three Kingdoms
Developer: Arc System Works
Release Date: July 21, 2022
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Arc System Works
Genre: 2D, Beat'em up
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a classic, iconic, mostly fictitious story detailing significant warring periods throughout Chinese history. An immense variety of media has shared their own interpretations and adaptations of this time period, and Arc System Works has now stepped into the fray with River City Saga: Three Kingdoms. This 2D beat’em up embraces the precedent of comedy set by the previous River City titles, resulting in a light-hearted historical romp.
Throughout River City Saga: Three Kingdoms, players experience reimaginings of events from the Yellow Turban Rebellion to the Battle of Red Cliffs. In China, the Han Dynasty had ruled for centuries, and the common folk faced unfortunate circumstances such as plagues and governmental corruption. It’s a rough life for many out there. However, a brash, courageous man named Guan Yu is determined to make society more livable and prosperous. He eventually meets those who become his brothers-in-arms, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei. Then, after conversing and understanding one another, the Oath of the Peach Garden is formed, where the three vow to restore the glory of the Han Dynasty.
Several other events occur throughout the story, and it all manages to be a genuinely engaging beginner’s course into the Three Kingdoms. Of course, countless liberties are taken, but it’s all pretty fun. Truthfully, as someone who’s not a Three Kingdoms buff, I can at least say I have a decently vague encompassed understanding of certain events that transpire. Further, the primary cast is endearing with breakneck-speed dialogue, so any potential slowness one would typically expect from a game taking on this narrative isn’t present.
Though, how the title doesn’t let up in its pacing makes it difficult to genuinely internalize the particulars of some story events, so don’t expect to feel emotionally attached. Then again, the real draw that will keep players around is the brawler gameplay. River City veterans will feel at home here, with fast-paced bouts against waves of foes. Punches and kicks can be performed with combo strings, and various learnable skills diversify the combative applications. Many aspects of the combat are self-explanatory, and even those unfamiliar with beat’em ups won’t have trouble grasping the fundamentals.
You can also level up and choose several stats to invest points into, with transparent descriptors beneath each of them. This design choice helps exemplify the sheer sense of gameplay freedom players can wholeheartedly embrace, and fighting styles will assuredly vary between users.
Still, I must admit that a vast degree of the combat fell short for me because there is an absurdly overpowered skill learned early on that overly decimates foes from afar. Called Aura Punch, a generous shockwave is fired out after one holds down the punch button for a specific amount of time. The grand power granted by this skill is honestly laughable, to a degree where I barely had to mingle with the rest of the mechanics. Aura Punch doesn’t necessarily mitigate the challenge of every battle, but I was able to resort to it often enough that it’s impossible to overlook.
Regardless, there are other RPG elements to note, such as equippable gear providing expected stat benefits and useable items that restore health. Towns offer special meals that grant temporary stat buffs too, so there are plenty of gameplay avenues to consider before heading out on treks to spam Aura Punch. Ultimately, the currency is at the core of the experience here since it’s used to procure almost everything, including new battle techniques.
Fast travel is even possible at any point via the map, though that too costs currency, so one must assess whether backtracking or fund loss is a more worthwhile sacrifice. Players will undoubtedly utilize this functionality often during the many side quests. They aren’t especially notable, ranging between item collection and enemy defeats, but they do grant neat rewards for those willing to invest time.
A gameplay facet that I wasn’t entirely expecting was platforming. There are many sequences where one must complete platforming challenges, usually relating to optional objectives. Unfortunately, area depth is burdensome to detect due to the clash between the shown sprites and backgrounds. Thankfully, these segments rarely grew legitimately frustrating because of their relative brevity, but I never really grew used to how depth perception works in this game. It always felt off.
On an offhanded note, the soundtrack deserves legitimate acclaim. It’s impressively intense, truly setting up appropriate atmospheres for more crucial story battles. However, it can be somewhat awkward during character conversations since there’s no cutscene-specific music. The same carry-over tracks playing from towns and field exploration can kill the mood. Another issue worth bringing attention to is the odd controller implementation. I had to custom map my controls via Steam itself since the game would not naturally detect any of the controllers I own. This point is relatively minor since Steam button mapping is simple, but hopefully, an in-game fix arrives for controller customization.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is a low-stakes 2D adventure that offers a varied array of customization options to influence its beat ’em-up combat. As explained previously, there isn’t exactly a well-kept balance, but there is genuine fun here for those simply seeking an experience where they can turn off their brain. Moreover, the narrative can be seen as an enjoyable adaptation of the Three Kingdoms in spite of its rapid pace, acting as a loose entry point. The repetitious gameplay loop likely means long play sessions won’t be the norm here. Still, there’s a decent chunk of content dedicated fans can pursue.
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