It’s no doubt that I have covered some strange games over the past few years. I could have taken the typical route as video game blogger and just covered all the newest and most popular games, but there is something that always draws me to these odd titles that are not perfect by any means, yet still have their own unique charm to them.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is the most recent game I’ve played that fits this category. It is one of those “I would not have played this on my own if I didn’t get a review copy” games, and I would say that I’m glad I played it, although I’m not sure I will be playing it again any time soon.
I find myself conflicted in regards to whether or not I’d say Ringo Ishikawa is “good,” as I cannot say I found it fun most of the time. The art style gives off the impression that this is a beat ’em up in the same vein as River City Ransom, but if you are going into Ringo Ishikawa expecting a light hearted sidescroller about beating the shit out of random dudes on the street then you will find yourself feeling disappointed.
Ringo Ishikawa has been described by its developer as an “existential open world beat’em up with some school sim elements.” While this description tells you that Ringo Ishikawa is an unusual game that will attempt to make the player “feel” something, it is also a vague description that won’t tell the player much about what to expect.
Ever since I’ve started reviewing, I’ve been weary of games commonly attributed as “art games,” and one of the major reasons is that many of them are trying to “fix” problems that were never broken. The biggest issue I have had with games like Gone Home and Her Story is how telling a story wasn’t enough for them, so they instead opted to tell their story out of order and make the player jump through a bunch of hoops to access them. Apparently this worked for some people but for me it just broke up the pace and made the games boring as hell, and in the case of Her Story, I had no feel for the story at all.
Ringo Ishikawa suffers from a similar issue in that the story is its strongest asset, but it’s so spread out across the game that you are just waiting for it happen, and every element of gameplay feels like it is just there to fill time. There is a strong opening where Ringo Ishikawa and his titular friends discuss their high school gang and their dream of taking over the city as they walk into a gang fight against a menacing gang leader, but the game itself takes place after a 1 year time skip.
The core theme of Ringo Ishikawa’s narrative is the contrast of idealist and childish dreams contrasted with the harsh reality of real life. The likely reason that the title specifically highlights Ringo’s friends is because of the juxtaposition of their former and past ideals and how they play into the storyline. I found myself deeply engrossed in this game’s story and characters, and the ending hit me especially hard. I won’t spoil anything since the developer has specifically asked fans to not spoil those who haven’t played it.
So one can assume from this that I enjoyed Ringo Ishikawa more than something like Gone Home, but the truth is that I only enjoyed it slightly more. While the story of Ringo Ishikawa had an impact on me, it was way to spread out among what was honestly some of the most boring and tedious gameplay I’ve experienced in quite some time.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa tries to be this bizarre blend of Persona 3, Yakuza, and River City Ransom with a strong emphasis on making the player question just “what the point of everything is?” The games succeeds at the latter part, but it really shouldn’t have. The only game mechanics that are explained in Ringo Ishikawa are the basic fighting controls, and everything else is left for the player to figure out on their own.
This is an absolutely abysmal design choice for multiple reasons that can best be condensed down to “the game runs on an internal timer and the gameplay is extremely convoluted.” I don’t even know where to begin describing it, and that’s literally my fucking job! Most of the time will be spent bumbling around trying to figure out how the game mechanics work, and about half of that time will be spent wondering if this is a glitch or if the game is that badly designed.
An example of this includes the punching bag in Ringo’s house, where if you hit it, you get kept in what feels like a five minutes sequences where your ability to move away from the bag is disabled, and several hours of in game time passes. The first time this happened, I assumed it was a glitch until I got a message saying that one of my stats went up. This happened a few more times in the game where I just got curious to see if the same thing would happen, and when it did I decided that it wasn’t worth using this mechanic due to how intrusive it is. This meant that when I later got stuck in the School due to a glitch and I had to wait ten minutes for the in game timer to pass to get out, that it didn’t feel out of place among the other bullshit in this game.
What is especially frustrating about this mechanic is the fact that many events in game can only be accessed at a specific in game time. Tests can only be taken for a few hours each Saturday, and one only has one hour to show up to their job at the video store three days a week. Both of these are among the best ways to make in game money, but the player can get seriously screwed over by the incoherent mechanics of this game. Especially considering that not making it to your job a few times will get you fired without a way to get your job back.
There are times when cutscenes will take you forward in time and make you miss events if you don’t show up early enough, when your character will pass out if they don’t get enough sleep (and I still do not know how much sleep you need to avoid that considering that I’ve chosen to have my character take a nap before sending back out), and when you can order food at a restaurant in game and hold watch him eat it for several minutes with nothing happening until you realize you’re just supposed to press a different button and leave. The fact that there are no online guides for this game does not help.
The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa is an incoherent mess in terms of gameplay, and most of the game consisted of me thinking “why the fuck am I playing this godawful mess?” Apparently being confusing and incoherent was intentional to reinforce the game’s theme of existential uncertainty, but it did not make the game any more enjoyable to me. Instead I just found myself getting sick of all the bullshit and wanting this game to end.
Despite the fact that the story was pretty good, I cannot recommend The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. I find myself conflicted on whether or not I should flat out say that Ringo Ishikawa is a bad game and should be ignored, or whether it should be applauded for trying something deep even though it failed.. While most of the game is a plodding mess, the story IS pretty damn good, and it serves to remind me that not every game can be a perfect masterpiece. Without games like Ringo Ishikawa, we can’t have games like LISA: The Painful that do something similar but better (even though LISA was released first). So here’s to hoping we get a game that learns from Ringo Ishikawa’s mistakes, and Ringo’s friends for that matter.
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