Kenka Bancho is a boring and repetitive field trip.
Publisher Atlus has made a reputation for itself as a company that releases Japanese games in territories where those titles would never have seen the light otherwise. Most of the games they publish can be unconventional and some might even call them niche, but while these games won’t sell million of copies, they at least offer a new perspective on what our favorite medium has to offer. And you should definitely keep that in mind before playing Kenka Bancho, since this happens to be one of the most Japanese games I’ve had the chance to play.
In beat ’em up Kenka Bancho, you play as a bancho (a delinquent) who challenges the leaders from other schools so that he can defeat them and become the number one. Interestingly, the game takes place during a school trip, so the game follows a strict structure that you can tackle in different ways. Days are divided into three, since students have rigorous itineraries: during the morning, you participate in group activities or ditch them in favor of beating other banchos in the streets of Kyouto, during the afternoon though, you’re free to roam around in the open-world and at the night, you’re forced to go back to the inn to rest. The most meaningful events take place during your free time when you’re allowed to explore the city however you want.
The idea is that you look for other banchos so that you can increase your reputation. So let’s say you want to engage in a fight with members of other school that are invading your turf, what are you supposed to do? Once you’ve located your enemies, you approach them and focus a beam of hostility (known as Kenchi Beam) on them and a QTE-based mini-game of trash talk ensues. In this mini-game, you’re supposed to push buttons to utter silly phrases (example: “yo mama’s so fat…”) When the mini-game is over, the proper fight starts and if you manage to defeat the enemy leader, they’ll be able to assist you in battle if you call them using your cellphone.
If you really think about it, most beat ’em ups are remarkably easy, since you need to push random buttons and that’s usually more than enough to defeat baddies. Kenka Bancho is no exception, but the game has some mechanics to take into account. You can perform different types of attacks, including jumping attacks, grabbing attacks, combos and, of course, special moves that drain a special bar that charges over time. Apart from the regular attacks, you have branching skills in the form of flashy fighting moves you can use over and over to defeat enemies. Kenka Bancho uses a simple RPG-style of gameplay that allows you to level up and earn more attacks as you progress through the game. Basically, defeating enemies grants you green balls of light called “Bancho Souls” which let you level up at the local inn.
It’s worth mentioning that your attacks are fully customizable and that you unlock additional ones as the story progresses. Combat is fairly simple, since you can use light and hard attacks, finishing moves, grab opponents and so on. Overall, this aspect is simplistic not only because there are just a few options to choose from, but because you can win most fights without paying too much attention to what you’re doing. Additionally, there’s HP and stamina gauges and the Badassitude gauge (which basically tells you how cool or uncool you are.) To remain cool, you need to behave as a model citizen (with the exception of beating up other teenagers, of course,) but if you vandalize public places, hit random citizens or use weapons, you’ll be uncool.
Combat is the heart of the game, but there are other aspects to take into account, such as purchasing outfits, souvenirs, food items and more. Most items restore your health, energy, spirit and temporarily increase your statistics. It’s worth pointing out that the number of items you can carry depends on the number of pockets the outfit you’re wearing has.
Unfortunately, Kenka Bancho is full of inconsistencies. As I already mentioned, the structure of the game depends entirely on the premise that this is a school field trip, so you have seven days to defeat as many banchos as you can. I don’t think it’s possible to defeat all of them on the first playthrough, since locating them and fighting them takes a lot of time even if you know where to look. And more than once, I felt like the game was making fights more difficult to disguise its short length.
Also, the structure has its fair share of problems. Here’s how it works: you need to defeat as many banchos as you can in a week of in-game time. If you fail to do so, you save the game after those seven days (which should take you around 5 to 6 hours of real-time) and you have the chance to continue in the new game plus mode. The problem with this mode is that while a portion of your progress is saved, some elements you’ve unlocked on the previous playthrough are removed. This makes the second time you play the game boring and repetitive, since you’re doing the same a second time around.
As you probably noticed by now, this is a decidedly Japanese game and the localization team chose to maintain that particular aspect as intact as possible. To make this a bit more accessible to westerners, the loading screens are filled with Japanese definitions that try to shed some light on the “bancho” subculture, but even with some detailed explanations, some things are really difficult to understand for anyone living outside Japan.
The fights might be over the top and ridiculous in a delightful way, but they take too much time. Combat is shallow and extremely repetitive, since you’re pushing buttons mindlessly without paying too much attention to what’s going on. And even if there’s a large number of customizable items, unlockable attacks and enemies to fight, the core of the game never changes, making Kenka Bancho a forgettable game even if it’s remarkably quirky and weird.
I’m all for the release of titles that would be considered niche and unconventional in the West, but even if those games make obscure references to a weird subculture, they have to be more entertaining that pushing buttons mindlessly and that’s certainly the case here. Ultimately, Kenka Bancho is a promising title with some poorly executed ideas that make the game repetitive and lackluster.