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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

I beat up like a hundred schoolkids in this budget Yakuza-like, and I’d do it again

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If Michel Foucault and Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide have taught me anything, it’s this: School is a prison. Beneath the plastic cafeteria trays and suffocating aroma of Lynx Africa lies a tyrannical order delineated by strict social hierarchies, and if you want to survive till graduation, your only option is to walk in, find the biggest guy there, and deck him.

Troublemaker, a kind of budget Yakuza from Indonesian studio Gamecom Team, understands this. You take on the role of Budi, a misunderstood tough guy whose constant brawling has led his mother to transfer him to “one of Indonesia’s finest high schools”. She should have, like, taken a tour of it or something first, though, because it rapidly becomes apparent that the new school is just as violent as Budi’s old one.

It’s even institutionalised that violence in the form of an annual “student fighting tournament” called Raise Your Gang: A bold academic initiative that sees the school actively promote literal gang warfare among its own pupils. I’m not too familiar with pedagogy; maybe this is that Montessori method all the mums are raving about. Regardless, it’s not long before poor old Budi is ensnared by his new school’s Darwinistic social order. There are menaced love interests and cowardly new best friends to protect, after all, and you can only beat so many rooms full of high school students to near-death before someone notices and enrols you in some sort of quasi-legal fighting tournament. Would that the world were different.

So off Budi goes, raising his gang by assaulting a succession of powerful teenagers in increasingly suspenseful and absurd scenarios. I wasn’t throwing out names at random when I mentioned Yakuza earlier: Gamecom Team has clearly been spending quite a bit of time with Kiryu, and it shows in Troublemaker. Combat takes place in real-time street brawls that see you alternate between light and heavy attacks and timing-based parries. Think the Arkham games if Batman sometimes just had too much on his mind to notice you’ve pressed counter.

It’s, well, look, it’s bad. It is not great. There’s no getting around it, and it’s damning with faint praise to say that the game’s saving grace is that its enemies are too braindead to take advantage of Budi’s bouts of inaction. But there is something here, even if it’s tough to define. Maybe it’s the fact that the game’s substitute for a robust combo system is its so-called SICK MOVE list (the capitals are important) that you can bring up during a fight to unleash devastating attacks on your opponents. 

My favourite has to be the one that sees Budi produce a chair from absolute thin air to beat around his enemy’s head. Not because of the animation or because it’s particularly powerful, but because its name in the move list is “Eat This Chair”.

That kind of gawky, earnest joyfulness extends to the rest of the game, writing and character interactions included. Don’t get confused, while the game’s Steam description says you’ll need to “Go to school, make new friends, beat old enemies up, [and] solve world-class problems (like grades and girlfriends),” this isn’t a Persona game. I haven’t beaten it, but in the hours I’ve spent with Troublemaker, my non-combat adventures have mostly consisted of walking from classroom to classroom while one of my tropey companions—perky social media influencer girl, dorky best friend you have to save from the bullies, outlandishly large boy—gives me a monologue.

The writing, by the way, is pretty juvenile, which I guess is appropriate. The dialogue is memey, reference-heavy, and filled with curse words, so it’s at least a great way to learn loads of Indonesian swears. Do you know what a ‘kontol’ is? I do. I’ve been called one upwards of 40,000 times. You will cringe as I cringed, but I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t get a chuckle out of me once or twice.

I’m not grinding social links or studying for exams, I’m just occasionally detouring to visit a guy called Richard who sells me new combat moves, stat boosts, and ramen in between fights. For all its Yakuza inspiration, Troublemaker’s school is no Kamurocho.

But I never really expected it to be, and it’d be unfair to hold up a budget game from a small studio to the standards set by multi-million dollar behemoths like Yakuza. I don’t know if I can recommend it at its full price of £17/$20, but if you can pick it up on sale and keep your expectations measured, you might find something to love about it too. If nothing else, you’ll learn how many school children you can take in a fight.

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