We have seen the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story implemented in plenty of games, with Dynasty Warriors being a solid example. We have also seen a vast supply of Kunio games, with Kunio finding himself in wide variety of scenarios outside of the US releases of Renegade and River City Ransom. Outside of being a beat-em-up highschooler, he was in games where he was a baseball player, a soccer player, hockey player, a samurai, a knight, and even some sort of street Olympian. With both Kunio games and Romance of the Three Kingdoms adaptations each casting a wide net, the two were bound to mash up sooner or later. That mash up is River City Saga: Three Kingdoms for the Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4.
In River City Saga: Three Kingdoms you play through the classic story, reimagined through Kunio-kun characters in the style of a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Various classic Kunio characters play as famous Three Kingdoms heroes as you experience the classic Han Dynasty story through campy stubby Kunio sprites. All of the classic Kunio RPG beat-em-up tropes are back. The game features special moves, weapon usage, equipment collecting, and skill and item purchasing. You play as Kunio, who stars as Guan Yu, as he progresses through the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story from the Yellow Turban Rebellion to the Battle of Red Cliffs.
In the main gameplay, characters are displayed as 2D sprites in a fully 3D environment. Being a Kunio aka River City game, the game functions as a 2D scroller. Guan Yu (Kunio) battles across various areas, collecting money, experience points, equipment, and health items. You can punch, kick, grab, and jump using your controller’s face buttons. Should you acquire skills from shop vendors, you can assign those skills to overwrite Guan Yu’s (Kunio’s) standard actions. While your character has a health bar, a special gauge bar, and a tactical gauge bar, you are free to use skills as often as you like with no gauge depletion whatsoever.
Ultimate Skills are reminiscent of the Super Special Skills from River City: Rival Showdown. They act as your “supers” in this game. Guan Yu’s special gauge bar is consumed by 100 points when he uses an Ultimate Skill. After which, unleashes an exaggerated attack for big damage. There are several Ultimate Skills to collect, and they are learned by Guan Yu automatically based on combinations of skills used. NPC’s are scattered throughout the game to give you hints as to which skill combos you should try to unlock more Ultimate Skills.
Your Tactical Gauge bar is for using Guan Yu’s Tactics, a specialized attack representing the military Tactics used in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Each Tactic has a fun little cinematic that plays before the attack is executed. The downside of using Tactics is that you cannot pause and access your items while the Tactics are in use. So, you may want to be careful if you are low on health, since you are not invincible while the attack is in play. Tactics are acquired from story parts and vendors.
Every time you level up, you gain 5 attribute points that you can permanently allocate to your character’s stats as you wish. Health items can be found on the field or sold by vendors. Vendors can also sell food items that you eat on the spot, giving you temporary boosts in various stats. Money falls from all defeated enemies and Guan Yu loses money whenever he is KO’d after his health reaches zero. The amount of money lost is dependent on the difficulty level you are playing on. Armor pieces are sold in shops as well, however armor pieces that fall from enemies have extra perks. The effectiveness and potency of the perks that drop are also dependent on the game’s difficulty level. Lastly, depending on the chapter of the story, Guan Yu can travel to most previously-visited towns for a small fee.
At its base, River City Saga: Three Kingdoms has a nice variety of skills and collectables to keep you engaged. Collecting skills and armor pieces alone give the game some solid replay value. That value is further enhanced by the game’s various difficultly levels, offering additional story paths and rarer item drops as the difficulty raises. Being able to swap between your acquired skills and Tactics from the pause menu offers you some variety when your move list starts to feel stale. As such, the game does a good job at giving you incentive to unlock and try out everything.
The game’s story will have you back-tracking a lot and the world map is pretty sizable. So, having a “teleport” option is a refreshing quality of life add-on. You are able to significantly save on travel time and the cost of travel after a while becomes irrelevant after a short time of playing.
The gameplay in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is the best it has ever been in the Kunio / River City series. By default, your character moves and strikes fast, maintaining a solid pace of play from beginning to end. The large variety of available attacks and abilities keep the game from feeling monotonous. Getting tired of your punch style or your jump kick? Just pause the game and change it up with the skills you have acquired so far. Ultimate Skills have a nice build-up to execution feel to them. They look and feel exaggerated, but in a good way, filling your screen with damage numbers as you wail on your enemies.
Bosses also have their own variety of skills and Ultimate Skills, which can take you out easily when you start playing on the game’s more difficult levels. Fights can also involve good amount of characters on screen, leading to some exciting and more involved battles. Many of the main story battles are like this, as they try to represent the scale of the battles from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Depending on the difficultly level and the story path you pick, some fights will test the best of your abilities. In the end, this is a side-scrolling brawler and it executes the brawling part exceptionally well.
I even appreciate that they implemented a fault when using Tactics. The fact that you cannot access your items while Tactics are in use is actually a nice touch. Tactics are large scale area-filling attacks. While those attacks are underway, you can also simultaneously move and attack with Guan Yu (Kunio), pouring on some additional damage. The game would otherwise be too easy if you can both continuously attack and heal yourself silly while these are going off.
If I were to point out any issues in gameplay here, they would be the kinds that appeared in previous Kunio and other side-scrolling games. The first issue being off-screen attacking enemies. As some enemies in this game also have Ultimate Skills, it was a pain whenever they would trigger these off screen. There were several times where a boss triggered an Ultimate Skill on Extra Hard and it led to my one-hit death. The other issue was the sometimes wonky platforming segments of the game. The 3D world in River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is beautiful. However, managing where your razor-thin 2D character is going to land on a vertical plane took much getting used to. Let’s just say there were a lot of falls, which hurt a whole lot on more difficult settings.
Story and Presentation
The game presents a colorful and comedic approach to its telling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story. Outside of a couple of dramatic scenes, characters are peppy and upbeat. Dialogue scenes feature enlarged artwork of the various characters, depicting their emotional changes as the scene demands. The story also has good pacing, giving you samplings of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ plot while providing you with the to-dos that progress your gameplay. Do not expect a detailed rendition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms plot however, this is a Kunio beat-em-up after all.
During gameplay, both playable characters and NPC’s are represented as 2D sprites on 3D-rendered backgrounds. The backgrounds have a nice campy design as well, whether you are out in war-ridden fields or in populated towns. City and towns have been given noticeably more attention on the design front. The 2D sprites also have more detail than previous Kunio sprites, with characters wearing detailed attire that is consistent with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
What might just be my favorite part of the River City Saga: Three Kingdoms’ presentation is the soundtrack. Many Kunio / River City classic tracks make their return here. However, what is unique now is that they are rearranged with classical twists from the era Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on. So, while series fans get to hear their classic Kunio fight song hits, the songs themselves are realigned to fit the theme of the game. If you are already Kunio series fan, I am happy to confirm for you that this includes the Double Dragon theme as well.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms also comes with a bonus arcade mode called China Heroes. This is an arcade version of the game where you can play as several of the game’s special characters as well as special guest appearances from other Kunio / River City games. A total of up to four players can team up in this co-op beat-em-up as they fight through linear stages. Each of the characters retain their special moves as seen in the Story Mode as well as the games they originate from.
In Gallery Mode, there is extra content from the game that you can enjoy. In the Characters screen, you can look up the lore for each character sprite, seeing how they are portrayed in both the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and conversely in the Kunio / River City game series. Attacks lets you review the skills you have collected so far. Events lets you learn more about the core events in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as portrayed in their original context. Lastly Music lets you enjoy the songs that you have encountered in the game so far.
River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is the best Kunio / River City game that I have played to date, and I have played plenty. The game is riddled with the comedy and charm that the Kunio series is known for. Fights are as exciting as they have ever been, taking many of the successful elements from previous games while adding in new ones as well. Experiencing the various story paths as well as collecting skills and items will keep you coming back for more. Best of all, all of this charm, fun, and replay-ability will only cost you $30 bucks.
If you are looking to check out River City Saga: Three Kingdoms for yourself, and I hope you do, you can do so by clicking here. River City Saga: Three Kingdoms is available for Nintendo Switch, PC (Steam), and PlayStation 4.
† As usual, there are no affiliate links contained within this post. We were provided a River City Saga: Three Kingdoms review code for review purposes and were not compensated for this review.