A bit of a word about Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble; stuff like this doesn't usually make it out of Japan. In fact, it hasn't; Badass Rumble is actually Kenkabancho 3: Zenkoku Seiha, the third game in the series and the first to get localized for a North American audience. And it's all kinds of crazy. While it's technically not one of a kind and it may not be as stellar as we hoped, I can pretty much guarantee you've never played a game like this.
Take, for example, the game's opening minutes. You're on a seven day class field trip to Kyouto (not Kyoto), and, as luck would have it, so are classes from every other prefecture in Japan. As your prefecture’s bancho (a word which Atlus defined as "someone who's in charge because he's the meanest, toughest, strongest dude around" i.e., badass), you find that this is a perfect opportunity to prove you're Japan's most badass bancho. To accomplish this you need to ignore your field trip and walk around Kyouto for a couple hours a day for seven days, all the while doing your best to locate and then beat the crap out of the other 47 banchos.
But you can't get going until you have a flashback where your dad teaches you how to fight. Here in lie the mechanics, which render Kenka Bancho a seemingly diverse brawler. Two attack buttons compliment a jump, a grapple, and a host of charge moves. Variety lies in selecting your moves in your combos. Like Clover's Godhand, the button presses for your combos remain the same, but the actual moves behind the button sequences can be earned, arranged, and customized. Finding the most damaging of moves often fell behind walking around with a never-breaking pipe in your hands, but the added variety was a nice touch.
Stare Down. Shout Down. Beat Down.
Anyway, after your dad simultaneously insults and teaches you, you need to get your ass in gear and start beating up other banchos. Since Kenka Bancho functions in an open world in semi-real time, this can prove difficult. Thankfully you can get a hold of the other bancho's itineraries, which tell you where, what day, and what time of day a prefecture's bancho can be located. To get an itinerary, you'll need to beat the snot out of other, normal students walking around Kyouto.
Now hold on to your hat, because this is where it gets really weird. You could start a fight just by walking up to someone and jacking them in the face, but it's heavily advised that you preface every fight by shooting a laser out of your eyes like Cyclops. Really. Should you literally fire your gaze at a passerby, and should they return a laser fire gaze of their own, you'll enter Smash Talk. Essentially an elongated and hilarious stare down, Smash Talk consists of you verbally taunting your opponent before a fight. Doing so correctly, which involves stringing words together with correct button presses, results in a cheap shot right off the bat, typically tipping the match into your favor.
From there it's a game of brawling and time management. You only have a couple hours each day to scour the streets before you need to get back to your hotel. Traveling between the different areas of Kyouto by bus or train eats up time and money, but expensive taxis transport you instantly and without a time penalty. You'll also have to contend with school obligations, which can be obeyed or ignored at will (I chose to go with a couple and skip out on some fighting, and at the end of the game I wound up with a girlfriend).
The actual brawling, the heart and soul of the gameplay, leaves much to be desired. The right stuff is all there, but the execution feels a generation behind. Auto tracking is a mess, fallen foes seems to stay on the ground too long, blocking is a perfect defense for your opposition, and the general combat interface comes off as clunky. Conquered banchos become your peons, and you can phone them in to fight alongside you, but most of the time I wound up accidently hitting in them in the head and taking them out along with the ever increasing army of hostile students. Worse, the AI doesn't seem to get smarter as the game proceeds. Their health bar gets longer and they block more, but the game doesn't leave much room open for surprise or advanced techniques. Leveling up and dropping points into one of five categories adds a bit of customization to the character, but, on one play through, it really didn't seem to make a difference.
Because Caring about stuff makes you Weak
At the end of my game, which was a little over eight hours, I managed to take out 43 banchos, but I still got my ass kicked by the last opponent. A new game plus option, where I retained all of my stats, itineraries, items, and bancho's defeated (peons), should make things easier for a second play through (and it's a good time to use the included fast forward option for those unskippable cut scenes), but I'm not entirely sure if Kenka Bancho is a game I'd like to revisit.
I enjoyed the game, but I didn't keep playing it for its mechanics (well, wouldn't have. obviously we play through all the games we review). I played Kenka Bancho to see where the outrageous plot was going to take me, to see if beating up high school kids was going to have any sort of legitimate narrative payoff. It was fun and exciting for the first couple of days in the game, but Kenka Bancho runs out of steam pretty quick. Being a short game works in its favor, but even by day five it started to wear thin. The feeling of sameness was prevalent, regardless of the new clothes or fighting moves.
And if it wasn't entirely clear by the premise, Kenka Bancho is thoroughly Japanese. From a game design perspective this means a lot of awkward quirks absent in most western games; the lack of background music, limited inventory, awkward collision detection, and a great difficulty at picking stuff up tend to stand out, but they're not deal breakers. On the plus side, it's loaded with minute traces of Japanese culture. While not anywhere near as deep as Yakuza, Kenka Bancho offers blips of Japanese culture through its environments and atmosphere. Digitized versions of the mangled subway maps in the train stations, the gold temple at Kinkakuji, and the steps at the Kiyomizu temple elicited memories of a trip I took to Japan in 2008, and seeing them recreated, in any context, adds a bit of value to otherwise underappreciated aspects of the game. It wasn't as subtle as Persona 4 or as detailed and full of life as Yakuza, but vague references are better than aimless scenery or random environments.
The constant humor was also a big plus. Kenka Bancho is all about being manly, and that's most evident in the wild language you can sling in the Smash Talk sequences. "I'm the god of pain," "time for amateur dentistry," and "you're just the baby school" play well to the self-aware ridiculousness of the premise. What's even funnier are the quotes that slip out if you screw up a button sequence; in one case, what was supposed to be "time for male bonding" wound up being "time for male pregnancy." The addition of some ridiculous attire (which I snapped a few pictures of with the games included screen cap feature) is a nice cherry on top, but I couldn't help but feel they could have pushed the localization further and sent the absurdity into overdrive. The ludicrousness of the dialogue starts off strong with the conversation with your father, but portions of the rest of the game feel relatively docile in comparison. A more consistent, indeed, badass, attention to detail might have served the game a little better.