KENKA BANCHO: BADASS RUMBLE / Atlus / PSP
So all this time, whenever I've seen the Japanese schoolkids slouching around with the hands in the pockets and etc., I've always assumed it was just a copy of Iori Yagami's character design from King of Fighters. It wasn't until I played Kenka Bancho that I actually learned this is a real thing and a proud tradition in the Japanese school system. Kids have apparently been rebelling against good posture and hair there since the 1970s, all to the tune of outdated doo-wop music.
Anyway, they call all this the "yankii" lifestyle, and that's the world you'll enter in Kenka Bancho. A "Bancho" is the biggest badass in a school or prefecture, sorta the gang leader of the area. You play as a bancho of a territory you choose, then you're dumped into the fictional city of Kyouto (a mirror world of Kyoto basically, which also actually exists in-game to make everything weirder) for the weeklong "class trip" of your senior year. You're supposed to be visiting shrines, soaking in the cultural history and "making memories" to get you through the drudgery of your Salaryman days. But there's a sort of underground Fight Club type thing going on between the baddest banchos of each prefecture. They fight it out for superiority when they run into each other, looking to conquer all the other provinces and be declared the toughest man in Japan.
The gameplay is best described as a River City Ransom/Yakuza hybrid mashed up with the core mechanics of a time-management "student life" visual novel. Kyouto is divided into 20 or so segments that you get between by bus, train, taxi or just walking. Time passes in real-time as you walk about each section, and a chunk of time also gets hacked off for traveling between areas. You have a strict curfew that the game forces you to obey, so that leaves you with only a limited amount of hours for each game day to walk around hunting banchos.
Unfortunately, the banchos only hang out in certain areas in certain times. Fortunately, there's no shortage of lower-rank yankii punks roaming each area who sometimes drop a bancho's itinerary when you beat them up. You start a fight by cutting a "menchi" at them, or using your high-powered glare to try to intimidate them. If they return your menchi, it's time for "smash talk" -- trying to one-up each other by quickly piecing together clever insults and responses. Whoever out-taunts the other gets the first strike in, then the rumble is on! You're able to have one AI assistant at a time, and when you beat a bancho, the rules of Fight Club dictate that they become your peon for the week and come running to help fight when you call.
The combat engine is slightly reminiscent of Yakuza, but honestly a little slower and more cumbersome. It's worst at the very outset, because you have to earn new moves by leveling up, and you're stuck with a bunch of amateurish weak stuff at the beginning. It doesn't take too long to learn new moves, however, and as you do the combat becomes more fluid and interesting.
Also reminiscent of Yakuza is the detailed rendering of a little slice of actual Japan. There's much less to do here other than brawling, but there's a bit of shopping to be had. Convenience stores offer healing items and such, and there's a clothing store and barber shop to customize your appearance at. There's also three young women to romance (simply by finding their events at certain times), and a subplot involving warring factions at the local school that takes some investigating to dig up.
With the tight daily time limits, you'll never see all this in one play-through. Instead, the game is meant to be played in loops. When you complete the game, you can start a New Game+ that carries over your statistics, money, items, learned moves and clothes. You'll be back at Day 1 of the trip and have to hunt down the banchos again, but you also get to keep itineraries gathered in previous loops to make it easier to find them all. Don't miss the daily map breakdown of where they all are, by pressing the Triangle button on the map screen -- I didn't notice this until my third loop!
Kenka Bancho unfolds all its little secrets to you slowly, and it's one of the few games with this "repeat the same events" sort of structure that I thought actually pulled it off really well. There's a lot of new stuff to see on each new loop, and brawling with the banchos repeatedly doesn't get too old as they strengthen up somewhat to match you with each new game. The only really irritating issue is a camera that can get itself into unhelpful positions and can only be moved in a limited range by the d-pad, but I would imagine that's fixable on the Vita if you have the pad mapped to the second stick. It's a neat little world to get absorbed in and perfect for a moderate-length commute.
* Gameplay Video