Fading Afternoon Review
The trickiest and most elusive thing about time is that we all have it to varying degrees, but how you utilise it will usually determine whether you achieve your goals. Even if you are willing to throw money at the situation, it will not always be the most fruitful, which inadvertently makes time the most precious commodity of them all. Fading Afternoon, developed by solo developer Yeo, takes the concept of time and crafts a melancholic game following a Yakuza man who is no stranger to adversity, and has partaken in countless scraps with rival gangs but is about to face the biggest battle of his life that he is preordained to lose: a fatal illness. As you choose how he lives out his last days, it begs the question, what is the purpose of any action?
The plot follows Seiji Maruyama, a highly revered and respected Yakuza member who has spent a good portion of years behind bars. After his release from prison, he meets his old mob boss, Azuma, who puts him in a hotel and gives him some cash to get him back on his feet. Azuma then informs Seiji that the group has fallen on hard times while he was a jailbird, and the other family gangs, Harada, Tanaka, and Ando, are now in charge of the city. However, Seiji is hiding a secret from everyone that he is slowly dying and has little time left in this world, and how he spends his last days is entirely up to you. You could embark on a revenge-bent quest to restore your mob family to their former glory days, ignore everything and spend time fishing and hiring out ladies in host clubs, or decide it's all too much and commit suicide with a firearm that feels ripped straight out of a Beat Takeshi film.
Fading Afternoon is a side-scrolling pixelated beat 'em up that takes an open-world approach. In a way, the gameplay feels like an amalgamation between Shenmue and River City Ransom as you decide where to explore, fight bad guys, and engage in various side activities. Although everything is not as carefree as it may seem, one of the main draws is that every action has consequences, and there are multiple endings to reflect this. The simplest action will dictate what events transpire, like heading to a specific location during the evening hours or letting someone live or die, will cause a butterfly effect of chained events. There are no multiple save files either, so if you mess up, that's it, and you will have to start at the beginning all over again, with most endings taking 3-4 hours to achieve. Moreover, the prompts for where to go next can be ambiguous and can easily go over your head the first time playing. It leans into the idea that you must be wise to get ahead, as you can no longer rely solely on your fists to do all the talking.
Games and movies do not have a habit of pulling on my heartstrings, but Fading Afternoon achieved it on numerous occasions, with one happening very early on, hidden in plain sight. You have a health bar displaying the number 999 in the left-hand corner of the screen, but it's only filled up to 546. You may think you can gain more health later on, but you can't; it is a metaphor for how much you have already deteriorated. Not only that, but your health will gradually deplete as each day passes, which is rather ominous and morbid. It's a clever way of creating sympathy for the rugged protagonist, who is not necessarily a nice guy, leaving you feeling invested in Seiji's story.
At the outset, only a handful of locations will be open, but different districts will become unlocked through your actions and conversations with people. You can pick where to go from a mini-map and then travel to that location with whatever transport you have available. In the beginning, you travel via public transport, but later you can buy various cars for travel. From there, you can walk down the alleyway and battle with rival Yakuza families lurking around, or enter establishments. All the outdoor areas give the vibe of a hustling 80's metropolitan Japanese city, accompanied by great indoor locations like bars, with gambling and even a pachinko outlet, where you can talk to other characters. Depending on your actions, you can also unlock a countryside location with a quaint supermarket, barn and fishing area. The game does not have the most extensive array of locations, but every place feels distinctive from one another and fun to explore.
If you want to earn yen and re-claim districts for the Azuma clan, you will have to mop up the streets and start a good old turf war by instigating a fight with members from another Yakuza gang. The combat pulls inspiration from River City Ransom and Double Dragon. You can perform basic manoeuvres like punches, kicks and takedowns. But the true key to success will be countering your enemy's attacks and disarming your opponents if they are wielding guns, bottles, and swords, and then using them yourself. It's fun at first demobilising an enemy and then impaling them on their sword as it makes you feel like a professional killer, but after a while, the combat gets a bit repetitive as there is not much variation. Another complaint is that the soundtrack does not match the combat either, as the same music will play whether you are walking around or in battle. You don't particularly feel like a gangster when saxophone music is playing while you're gunning down enemies.
Every time the opponent lands a hit, you will lose health; luckily, you can regain it in various ways, including eating at a restaurant, heading to an indoor onsen or sleeping at your accommodation. Each area has a certain amount of points, and each day, you can take down a point by beating up the Yakuza members in that area. After it's reached zero, you will get a prompt to assassinate the honcho in charge, but he could be in any location available on the map. Although none of this is explained, and it's left to you to deduct entirely, so if someone told me that there was even more nuance again, I would not be surprised, as I know I have not achieved all endings possible. Equally, you can ignore combat, light up a cigarette, and engage in side activities like baseball or fishing mini-games, which are no more elaborate than pressing a face button at the correct time.
On the technical side, there are a few issues. The game flat-out crashed three times within my fifteen hours with the game, although luckily, I only lost a handful of minutes of progress each time. I also encountered a particular bug where, walking out of a building, I wouldn't be able to walk in a specific direction unless I went in the opposite direction first and then backtracked, which was a bit annoying. The text dialogue would sometimes have a few misspellings with a heavy emphasis on slang, like "though" being spelt as "tho". The context of the conversation was never lost, but it is worth mentioning.
One of the main appealing aspects of Fading Afternoon is that the game does not remotely hold your hand, and although the Grim Reaper may be on your shoulder, you are the messiah of your own fate, and how you choose to live your last days are up to you. If you do not gel with sombre storytelling, you will probably not find many enduring characteristics here, as no matter what you do, your ending will be the same; the journey will just be different. Admittedly, these abstract themes of existentialism and introspection would not have resonated with me when I was younger, but these concepts really hit a cord now that I'm a bit older. There are a few things that Fading Afternoon misses the mark on, and that sadly holds it back, but ultimately, it does more right than wrong, and I recommend it to those who enjoy Japanese culture and solemn narratives.