Sometimes the topic of a story can be overpowered by the mise-en-scene. The 2000 anime FLCL is about a boy that grows a giant robot out of his head, after he is hit in the temple by a guitar. However, the setting, the framing, and the long static shots of the city he lives in emphasises the loneliness he feels after being abandoned by his brother. This is interspersed with frenetic moments that accentuates the alienation he feels around his eccentric family and surrounding oddities.
Likewise, The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa certainly has many things going for it in terms of combat, RPG elements and story, but the most striking is its evocative setting, animations, and music that reinforce its themes.
Enough about that right now, I should probably start with what TFoRI actually is.
TFoRI is a 2D scrolling beat-em-up, with RPG and social-sim elements that mimics the style and flow of River City Ransom. The player takes on the role of Ringo, a teenager in their last year of high school looking over the precipice into adulthood. Each day runs by its own interminable game-clock and the player must manage school, training at the gym, eating and part time work. Complicating this is the need to finance everything while also dealing with roaming gangs of other students that want to beat everyone up.
The game is open ended in that it doesn’t really care whether Ringo goes to school and, short of getting beaten up or trying to go into a place while it is closed, the player is free to wander around and tackle anything they want. The player is free to get a job at the local store, read a bunch of books in library, learn some new moves from the boxing coach, study at home to improve enough to get a scholarship, or not.
This might be a little too open ended for some, but it is worth setting up a daily routine and wandering around the small town due to the game’s many strong points.
The atmosphere evoked by the pixel art in each area, from the bustling school to the open fields being blown by the wind, rings true for all small towns on the verge of nowhere. They all have schools and fields and little else. The music also does a good job of setting the scene; the smoky video store with its wah-wah pedal inspired tunes, and the streets with the lo-fi hip hop beats, all give the settings a distinct feel.
This helps to root and elevate the story of an aimless teen and his, almost, equally aimless friends higher. When Goro, a shaven headed boy of few words, shows up at Ringo’s house I could feel the animated slump Ringo does over his balcony as the two talk at 4AM. This reminded me of shouting up for my own friends on an empty weekend. When Goro decides he just wants to go for a walk to look at the lights off in the distance, it made me think of my own listless teenage years where just wandering directionless was better than doing nothing.
Another of Ringo’s friends is training to win a martial arts tournament and this has caused him to split off from his more rudderless childhood compatriots. The player can only consistently find him at two places and in both instances, he will not join Ringo to go out and street brawl. This is justified because these brawls repeat in a pointless and brutal manner. TFoRI shares an outlook with Coppola’s The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish – in which the gangs are locked in a futile cycle of violence that validates the participants even as it grinds them down. This friend clearly wants to escape that, even if it might be for nothing.
In these respects, TFoRI feels very much like a mood piece that transcends its location (the developer is Russian and has said that they have never even been to Japan). The emptiness of the teenagers’ experience, and the expression of powerlessness coming out as violence feels like a reflection of real life.
Violence isn’t the only way that they express themselves – there are moments of macho tenderness, kids trying to reach out and talk to each other, and an earnest need for friendship while still keeping their barriers up. Ringo will joke about ‘broads’ when his interactions with the girls of his school shows him to be completely out of his depths. I don’t think I’ve seen a game on a major console that is quite as raw as this.
TFoRI is, on the face of it, a game about beating people up, gaining levels, and earning money, but the game’s setting and mood makes it about a great deal more.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is clearly inspired by many games, but this brooding, slice-of-life brawler has its own voice – that voice is profane, deadpan but honest. There is nothing else really like it in the mainstream.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.