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Introducing ‘Bayani,’ the indie fighting game that pushes Filipino culture

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"Bayani" is an indie fighting game in the tradition of and "Street Fighter" and "Tekken" that features characters inspired by Filipino heroes such as Jose Rizal and Tandang Sora. Photo from RANIDA GAMES

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Ranida Games brought their Philippine history inspired fighting game to the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) — the longest-running and damn well most prestigious showcase for the genre — they were more than a little nervous.

Over 9000 people busted the doors to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, to see the rockstars of the esports world battle it out in “Street Fighter V,” “Tekken 7,” and “Dragon Ball FighterZ,” as well as the new “Soulcalibur VI,” “Mortal Kombat 11,” “Samurai Shodown,” and what turned out to be the largest in-person Super Smash Bros. tournament of all time.

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ Ranida, a small independent outfit — CEO Ben Joseph Banta and lead game designer Robert Edward Cruz — had a spot at the Indie Arena booth to demo their fighting game, “Bayani.”

An indie darling since it was first announced as a demo in 2016, the game won second place twice on the “PC Indie Pitch” in G-Star 2018 and 2019 edition in South Korea. It was also the only Philippine representative at the web-only Gamescom 2020.

Cruz said they wanted to pique the interest of the younger generation about our history. “And we didn’t want an in-your-face, very schooly type of game at all.”

Banta, a veteran games developer since the mid-aughts who had created the popular Flash games “Sniper Assassin” and “Potty Racer” for the U.S. market, said the international events circuit proved to be a valuable tool to get market feedback. “At EVO I was really nervous because it was the Mecca of fighting game events by huge companies,” said Banta, on a call with CNN Philippines Life. “But then I realized this game is our pride of place and a representation of our culture.”

The game demo has become a gathering point for young Filipinos all over the world.

“One of the most memorable moments [at EVO] was when Filipino kids who grew up in the US got to play our demo,” said Banta. “They were so glad they got to play a Pinoy game! They were just so happy! Grabe ang reception and tuwa nila, niyakap pa nila ako. They told us ‘we have nothing like this here.’”

The same reaction met them in Los Angeles when they went to Indiecade and Filipino students who stopped by their booth confessed they didn’t know much about Philippine culture. But “Bayani” had made them curious about their heritage.

“Iba ang feeling ng game na ito, mas personal for me!” Banta said. One of the Filipinas actually drew a Filipino flag and gave it to him to display in their booth, so that Filipinos could see it from afar and come over to play.

A fighting game like “Bayani: Kanino Ka Kakampi?” is a game of combat between a limited number of characters, in a fixed amount of time on a finite “stage” — in this case: a post-apocalyptic and fantasy version of places like Balintawak in Quezon City, Vigan, and Libingan ng mga Bayani.

The character Tonio is inspired by Antonio Luna while Fernando is by Ferdinand Magellan. Photo courtesy of RANIDA GAMES

At the moment, the core roster is composed of Filipino-hero inspired characters: Joe (Jose Rizal), Dre (Andres Bonifacio), Rio (Apolinario Mabini), Tonio (Antonio Luna), Leon (Emilio Aguinaldo), Oria (Gregoria De Jesus), Fernando (Fernando Magellan), and the recently unveiled eighth fighter: Lolang Tsora.

Not one hundred percent historically accurate, “Bayani” blends fighting game tropes and distinguishing character features that Cruz, who writes the game’s storyline, was intrigued by.

Take the rapier and book-wielding Joe, for example. He is of course inspired by Jose Rizal, a very studied and academic person who, in the game world lore, was educated in Neuropa.

“Jose Rizal is a fencer in the real world,” said Cruz. “And Rizal also had [uneven shoulders]. This is why in the game he has a pauldron covering [his left shoulder]. So, thirdly Joe is a Shotoclone archetype, which basically means he is the Ryu (from Streetfighter) of our game. He needs to have a fireball missile weapon (basically a hadouken) and he needs a rising attack (or a shoryuken). Which is why Joe in the game can literally throw his book at his enemy.”

From my three-hours play through of the Steam demo, the game already looked to be in good shape. As the rousing main theme by Slapshock played at the start, I got into the dynamics pretty quickly, the feel of it reminding me of vintage “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat.”

It was definitely hella fun to play, using fighters like Joe (inspired by Jose Rizal) to Oria (based on Gregoria De Jesus) to beat up other well-known historical figures like Antonio Luna (now Tonio, a hulk of a man who shouts “Artikulo Uno!” when he whacks you with his weapon) made me cackle madly.

Personally, I liked using the fast and agile Oria (after Gregoria De Jesus), who wielded two batons in the style of our native eskrima stick-fighting system, even shouting “Sinawali!” in one, fan-like attack.

Meanwhile, the newest addition, Tsora, a heavy nature magic-user and staff-slinging personality with bouffant green hair and a penchant for bonding with animals is of course inspired by Melchora Aquino, the Spanish Occupation-era revolutionary and caregiver to injured Katipuneros. Every school child knows she is “The Mother of the Philippine Revolution,” who also went by Tandang Sora.

In the hands of the developers, Tandang Sora has become Tsora the fighter. And boy can she throw down with the rest of them. In terms of gameplay and archetype Tsora falls under the zoner category. She zones out her opponent and keeps them away by controlling the space using her projectiles and long range attacks. Don’t let an enemy get too close though, as you always need to manage your distance if you’re playing the hoary-headed grandma!

Concept art for "Bayani." Photo from RANIDA GAMES

With all the research involved, Cruz shared that character development has been a slow process. In fact it’s been four years since the alpha version came out in 2016 after the two were inspired by the movie “Heneral Luna,” and the concept art of Anthony Dacayo.

At the height of the John Arcilla starrer’s popularity, Cruz recalled a viral video of a student asking why Mabini — ideally introduced in basic history classes as the “sublime paralytic” — never got up from his wheelchair. “Syempre binash siya ng mga tao,” Cruz recalled the urgency with which they strived to educate younger generations about Filipino heroes. “We wanted our game to solve that frustration of why kids even needed to ask ‘bakit hindi tumatayo si Epy Quizon sa wheelchair?’”

“It would have been infinitely easier had we decided to make a fighting game from scratch that didn’t have historical characters in it,” said Cruz. Add to that the fact that they also consulted esports EVO fighting game champion Ryan “FChamp” Ramirez for technical details to make gameplay even better.

“We were big casuals when it comes to fighting games,” Banta admitted. “Wala kaming kaalam alam sa depth niya. Ang thinking namin dati is: Fighting game? Mobile? How hard can it be?” He laughed.

I personally can’t wait for the game to be completed and I can go through the Story Mode — Banta and Cruz have promised that each fighter arc will also be a combo of real and alternative history.

“If players can just find out that Joe has an injury on the left shoulder because Rizal did too and they begin to ask why, then that’s a victory for us,” said Cruz. “All our characters are designed with those hidden historical gems in the details to get you intrigued. And if they get curious as to why Rio is in a wheelchair then that’ll be great for us. Hopefully they’ll find out, Ay may polio pala siya!”

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The demo of "Bayani: Kanino Ka Kakampi?" is available to play on Steam.