Review: Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Sony PSP)

Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble
Genre: Brawler/Adventure
Developer: Spike
Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: 11/10/2009

I really didn’t know what a bancho was until Atlus announced its intent to localize Kenka Bancho 3 for the Sony PSP, but when a company goes out of its way to promote some off-the-wall game concept that normally wouldn’t see the light of day outside of Japan, I’m all for it. Honestly, that was the allure of Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble – we were presented with this bizarre premise, but left wondering what we would be getting ourselves into this November when the game releases. However, after months of waiting and with the end result on the horizon, even though there are some quirks and downsides to the title, it’s easy for me to say that Badass Rumble is indeed badass.

Atlus kindly provided us some advance hands-on time with the game and I pumped out a hands-on preview for Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble on Friday, so if you want the full scoop on how the title plays, be sure to check that piece out. With the premises and knacks of the game already printed on the site, we can dive straight into the technical goods and pick this title apart.

Just to brush the top layer off of the game’s story, the player assumes the role of a character on his senior school trip to the city of Kyouto in Japan. Unfortunately for the school and its teachers, your character, with the default name of Takashi Sakamoto, couldn’t care less about the temples and landmarks of the area. Instead, pulling through on your father’s wishes, your character is far more interested in beating the crap out of anyone who thinks they are tough stuff. After first stepping foot into Kyouto, the player immediate gets into a scrap with a bully who turns out to be the resident bancho (or strongest fighter of the district or school), effectively making the player the new bancho of the school for the trip. This new title engages the player in a competition – it appears a large number of schools are on the very same trip, each school having its own bancho. The overall goal of the game is to take down as many banchos as the player possibly can while managing their time over the course of seven days – not an easy task when you consider there are 46 other banchos visiting Kyouto.

While the school rumble theme might give one some River City Ransom vibes, there is a bit more to that simple premise running under Kenka Bancho’s hood. While the player will take down other students, nab their pocket change and buy items from a number of shops, the mechanics lend themselves to a number of modes: The player can tackle the seven-day story, continue with their stats in a new game plus variant, take a character out on the town for some night life in the Night Out mode or join up with another player in the Night Out mode to take down thugs. Each mode differs slightly, but each allows a player to keep going with a created character and build them up by earning experience, leveling up stats and learning new moves. This comes as a blessing as Kenka Bancho is a game that, while relatively short in nature, is one that you’ll want to play over and over. Spike is the Japanese developer of the Kenka Bancho title and much like its Way of the Samurai series, the player will have a number of choices to make through the week, with each having its own consequences and the results leading to a number of different endings. The player’s punctuality and skill will dictate how the game ends and there is a lot to see if the player searches hard enough, something that really bolsters the game’s story branching and replayability. Not only is there a lot to see in through the course of the gameplay, but the leveling system gradually builds the player up into a wrecking machine so they can ease into the harder Night Out mode and the various difficulties in the game as well as going toe-to-toe with the banchos that get progressively harder.

The story is furthered along by a series of text entries and while the dialog is fairly forced and in-your-face, that is what the game is aiming for and, most of the time, it works. Some of the insults laid out in the game are admittedly a bit groan-worthy, but, again, Kenka Bancho isn’t a game to take itself very seriously. The story gets the job done throughout the main mode and the player has a number of other classmates that interact with their character in different manners and the key characters in the game can be met or called via cell phone at certain times of the week in order to further a sidestory of their personal relationship, again extending the scope of the game and having players go back to do things differently. The story might be cliché on the surface, but if players dig deep enough, they’ll find a little more, albeit nothing that happens in the title will be described as mind-blowing. The relationships are perhaps the most crucial part of the storyline the game has going for it and with the numerous ways players can end the game, it’s not hard to walk away at least moderately satisfied with the game’s progression.

Of course, relationships and chatting with women are all fine and dandy, but if you’re picking up a game called Badass Rumble, you’re probably extremely concerned with the said “rumbling” promised in the game’s title. Overall, the controls work, although they are far from perfect, most specifically with the game’s camera control, uncomfortably mapped to the PSP’s directional pad. Players will find their customized three-hit combo mapped to square, their strong attack mapped to triangle, along with other commands to run, grapple and jump. Pressing combinations of the face buttons will do other actions such as special techniques, back attacks and spiritual charges, which extends the moveset a bit more along with the various grappling positions players can use (front/back, standing/ground). The R shoulder button fires the game’s menchi beam to challenge thugs to a fight and the L shoulder button blocks attacks, giving players a bit of a full repertoire to work with. Most of the time, fighting isn’t overly complicated, although with canned animations, players may find themselves attacking in the wrong direction for a combo and not being able to adjust before being hit and the sensitivity of the combo and attack timing sometimes doesn’t help matters, sticking players in more animation or executing a different attack. Regardless, players should overcome these setbacks quickly and with the vast number of moves to unlock by leveling up and defeating banchos, players will have full customization of their moves that can tie up a lot of the player’s time with experimentation. With no command strings to punch in for moves, players can execute moves without difficulty with the single push of a button, making the control scheme suitable for this style of game.

Ultimately, it will be down to the game’s seven-day time limit (each day lasts roughly half an hour of gameplay) that makes or breaks the game for players. If the mention of Dead Rising makes you cringe, this might not be the game for you, but, on that same token, I would say Kenka Bancho isn’t quite as strict as the aforementioned title. If you miss a bancho, you aren’t completely screwed thanks to the “competition” rule that any territory defeated by a bancho falls under the command of that person; meaning if a bancho defeats five other banchos before you defeat them, you gain control of that bancho’s territory plus the other five under their command. Also, various public transportation modes strewn about Kyouto can take you all across the city for a slight fee and minimal passage of time, cutting down on wandering across entire sections and losing precious time. Furthermore, missing out on some of the deadlines leads to story paths that wouldn’t normally be available if the player did everything they felt was necessary, so players won’t have to stop and quit and they certainly won’t have to revisit hours of gameplay. Even with the time management aspect of the title, picking up school itineraries from school thugs shows exactly where banchos are lurking on the city’s map, cutting down on the time players will spend seeking out their next challenge, so, in the end, the time’s concept of time is more of a guideline than it is a roadblock.

The meat of the gameplay, however, lies in the challenges and, of course, fights, which can become quite repetitive, but that’s par for the course in a game of this nature and players will no doubt expect this coming into the title. When the player isn’t progressing the story or tracking down an uncovered bancho, players will engage a number of thugs with the “menchi beam,” used to shoot a menacing glare at a would-be opponent and declaring your intent to fight – since the fighting in Kenka Bancho is based on respect, the player is punished with a decrease in rank if they do not lay down this challenge before attacking (and other things such as vandalism and threatening innocent bystanders will also decrease this rank). If the thug accepts your challenge (they can also bow in obedience or cower in fear depending on your strength and status), the player enters a “smash talk” mini-game where the player spouts a one-line taunt by pressing the face of shoulder buttons to match up a predetermined phase. This perhaps becomes the most tedious of the features, but if players really explore the feature, it can become quite fun. The game will throw in words that look similar in order to try and throw you off and entirely different phrases appear as well. I was able to get a few unique conversations from enemies in response to my nonsense taunts such as “Frogs say ribbit you moron!” which gave me a bit of a chuckle. If the player is successful in the taunt, they get a free hit in to start the fight and there are hidden selections in each case that does even more damage with the first strike. While screwing up the taunt results in an enemy first strike, experimenting with the smash talk feature is a rewarding experience on its own and gives players even more to do in a game that already has a ridiculous amount to see.

However, when you boil it down, players run into a cycle of using the menchi beam, smash talking, face smashing and repeating until they are blue in the face, which may not suit all players. It doesn’t help that the enemy AI isn’t the most challenging, mostly relying on charging straight in and relying on overwhelming numbers, but there is a fair amount to do outside of battle as well. A large amount of customization is involved, but most of the physical appearance options are merely cosmetic, giving you a number of pockets you can store mostly useless items in. While there are a large number of items in the game, they mostly only differ in how much health they restore, but there are groups of items that buffer your character or provide them a one-time benefit. This makes the stores in the game largely passable, as the enemies themselves usually drop anything you could ever need and when your pockets fill up, players then run into the dreaded Resident Evil-esque item management circus. That being said, though, the physical appearance options in the clothing and hairstyles should keep players going for some time and as players progress through the game, they’ll find some bonus items and unique clothes (as if you needed another reason to replay the game).

That being said, still, if you’re just looking for a game with a ton of action, you can’t go wrong with Kenka Bancho. The Night Out mode fills the streets with powered-up thugs to level up on if you don’t want to be bothered with time or story mechanics and the daily routines of the story mode cut the game up into bite-sized chunks. Again, the fact that Kenka Bancho can be played for a short period of time such as half an hour or for a couple of hours at a time in going through the full week makes the title a perfect fit for the portable format. Its simplicity and parallels to River City Ransom are hard to ignore, but that is definitely the game’s appeal – it harks back to the themes of the brawlers we enjoyed a decade past, bringing us an updated look at the genre with a humor and theme that most definitely stands out.

Even though the gameplay is satisfying, Kenka Bancho’s presentation isn’t exactly the most cutting-edge performance to be found in the system. The graphics resemble mid-generation Playstation 2 models and while they aren’t an eyesore, the lack of animation outside of fighting sticks out like a sore thumb. In conversations, there is a void of voice acting and through the text dialog, the characters’ faces do not animate at all, with most conversations consisting of very little animation. Players will see a few bits of flare in the special maneuvers that emit bursts of light or fire and charging your spirit also results in a flash of light, but such special effects are far and few between. The environments do hold up, however, giving players a variety of buildings and environments to scout in Kyouto and the menus are ripe with designs and are easy to navigate with shop owners giving player clever quotes with some of the in-stock items. In the end, though, the character models do lack a sliver of detail and repeat quite often with the innocent bystanders and thugs, but, thankfully, the banchos in Kyouto provide some much-needed variation in the crowds. If more animation and flare were thrown in along with some polish, Kenka Bancho could have looked as badass as it plays.

The more glaring offender, however, lies in the sound, with its repetitious music, lack of voice acting outside of grunts, yells and squeals, and absence of music through any section where there is no activity. Most of the time players will be listening to the sounds of the environment, which isn’t too bad with noises such as bustling traffic (from the vehicles that can run you over) or wildlife, but most of the travel in the game will only be accompanied by the footsteps of the player. When the music does chime in, it is serviceable, but outside of the smash talk theme, which blares through the speakers and is incredibly recognizable, there are very few tracks to be heard. It’s understandable that full voice acting isn’t included in Kenka Bancho with its portable format, but the voice effects provided also become repetitious and can even border on annoying. However, the fighting sound effects do their job effectively with heavy smacks and thuds and energy effects emitting from special attacks, but they do little to save how weak the rest of the audible package is in Kenka Bancho.

Overall, Kenka Bancho is an old-school package with a burst of freedom and customization that players of today demand from their game titles. It certainly has its ups and downs, but, as a whole, Badass Rumble is a satisfying package that gives players plenty of fistfights and attitude. If anything, hopefully a little retail success can fuel more entries in this series, as a little bit of improvement in some key areas and a bolster in its content could make it a must-have title.

The Scores
Story/Modes: GREAT
Graphics: ENJOYABLE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: AMAZING
Balance: GREAT
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: VERY GOOD
Appeal Factor: INCREDIBLE
Miscellaneous: GREAT
The Final Rating: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble might not sport the best graphics or stellar sound, but its gameplay is an example of why I love brawlers. Even though it can be repetitive and has a few gameplay quirks, Kenka Bancho has plenty of attitude and humor to lure players to the game and features solid gameplay, entertaining storytelling and a massive amount of replayability to keep them coming back for more. Much like Fable or Way of the Samurai, players will have to know that Badass Rumble is a relatively short game that needs to be played repeatedly in different ways and while this approach and the game’s time-based mechanic may turn some players away, they stand to miss one of the PSP’s most unique and crazy games to release this year.

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