Game: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Growing up in the 90s, I come from a hallowed time before the Internet (or at least, before the Internet as we know it now), before memes and social networking sites, before Pixar and Dreamworks, before HD and plasma; a time when frame-rate didn’t matter, and game characters were called sprites. Gamers under a certain age won’t remember this period, and they’d be forgiven for assuming there wasn’t much to do. But they’d be wrong – there was loads to do. Unfortunately for a perennial shut-in like myself, most of it occurred outside, and since going outside would have likely meant playing football (which I was bad at), or riding my bike (also, not a life-skill of mine), I found more and more ingenious ways to stay indoors. I played my Master System and Mega Drive to death, wrote lots and lots of stories, and watched pretty much anything you shoved under my nose.
It was around this time that my step-brother discovered Manga, and started bringing home all sorts of very strange videos. I was never really enamoured, to be honest, no matter how many times he made me watch Akira, Crying Freeman or Ghost in the Shell. One of his favourites (alongside Ninja Scroll, if I remember correctly), was an anime series called Fist of the North Star, about a post-apocalyptic world and a Mad Max-style Kung-Fu hero named Kenshiro. First aired in 1988, the Fist of the North Star celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – so what better time to release a new game set in Buronson and Tetso Hara’s hugely popular world?
STORY: Before we get started, it’s worth mentioning that Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is part-sequel and part-remake of the 2010 release. Where the first game covered the early years of hero Kenshiro’s life, including his training in the deadly art of Hokuto Shinken, and ended at a point half-way through the storyline of the original Manga series (which it follows incredibly faithfully), Ken’s Rage 2 picks up some way before the end of the first game, re-iterating what has come before but continuing on to a point much further into Ken’s story.
Part of the reason Fist of the North Star is so enduringly popular with anime fans is Kenshiro himself. In a barren, dying, burnt-out world he is a beacon of light, a true old-fashioned hero who doesn’t lie, cheat or steal and never leaves an innocent to suffer at the hands of evil – regardless of the risk to himself. He’s the perfect fit for the world he inhabits, one ruled by the strong and the remorseless, where the weak are mercilessly hounded and enslaved.
Set in the year 199X, after a nuclear war decimated most of the world, Fist of the North Star follows Kenshiro and his companions, including a boy thief named Bat, and Lin, a frightened young girl whose kidnapping and rescue forms the basis of the first part of this game. A drifter who goes where his destiny leads, Ken’s apparently aimless wanderings never fail to lead him to a person who needs defending from someone related to his own troubled past, and as a result the story of the Manga – and therefore of the game that so closely follows it – can feel a little convoluted at times. But then, that’s the whole point of a story based around destiny and fate, I suppose.
The main campaign of Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is called “Legend Mode”, and begins when Kenshiro comes upon an old man being tormented by a biker gang as he tries to make it home to his village in the middle of the desert (most of the world is now desert, a deliberate nod to the 1979 Mel Gibson classic, Mad Max, which partly influenced this universe). After failing to save the man, Ken allows himself to be imprisoned by the villagers who believe he killed him, rather than harm the innocent residents. During his incarceration (which the game gets out of the way with a five minute cutscene), he meets a young thief named Bat and a mute girl named Lin, who he cures by using his Hokuto technique. However, when the gang (known as KING) attacks the village, kidnapping Lin and killing many of the innocents, Ken breaks free and, with Bat in toe, sets out to rescue her – a course of action that leads him into conflict with many faces from his past, including his old training brothers.
The storyline follows the Manga as faithfully as the first game did – there’s simply more of it this time around – so if you’re a fan of the original source material, then you’ll be a fan of this, it really is that simple. For those who have never heard of or seen Fist of the North Star, it will feel incredibly dated and generic for the most part. Switching between playable characters helps to keep the action as fresh as it possibly can be, but the story itself is unlikely to surprise event newcomers to the universe.
GRAPHICS: There’s not really a nice way to put this so I’ll just be blunt: Ken’s Rage 2 is an ugly game. Using the same bland and unimaginative game engine that powers Koei’s Dynasty Warriors titles, the environments are lifeless and barren, devoid of any real colour or flare, and at no point did the game present me with anything that made me sit up and take notice of my surroundings.
The primary character models are adequate – Ken, for example, is an exact replica of his original anime incarnation – but the enemies are identikit to the extreme. Just like Dynasty Warriors, you’ll regularly find yourself fighting several score of enemies with only three or four different models between them. Animations are equally recycled, as are the special effects. The various Hokuto techniques employed by Ken and the other playable characters have a certain old school style to them, all bright lights, blurred movements and speed lines scratched through colourful explosions, but they’re not as spectacular as they could be.
There’s very little to say about the world that’s particularly positive, as the textures are so vanilla, the lighting is decidedly last-gen and the enemies are so lazily-drawn. The only plus side to all of this is that the game never experiences slow-down, even when you’re fighting 40 – 60 enemies at once.
SOUND: As predictable and by-the-numbers as the visuals, the audio in Ken’s Rage 2 is deafeningly dull. The battle music is grating, the incidental music is next to non-existent and the sound effects are a bundling-together of stock slaps and bone breakages, grunts of pain and over-the-top explosions. The dialogue is all in Japanese, which in itself is no great barrier provided you can read, but the voice acting is fairly poor. Kenshiro sounds noble and manly, Bat is squeaky and annoying, and the biker gang members speak in that strange shouted Japanese that seems to characterise hero-fodder in such games.
GAMEPLAY: Similarly to the first game, this is Dynasty Warriors by another name. There’s no getting around the fact. Certain elements are deeper than Koei’s popular flagship franchise, and there’s certainly more baked-in charm, but the gameplay is essentially the same. You’ll move from encounter to encounter and routinely face actual small armies of identical men, who you’ll murder with the greatest of ease until either a commander appears or you trigger a cut-scene. Then you’ll move on a little, and repeat the first few steps. Combat is a case of mashing Square for standard attacks and Triangle for heavy attacks, with Cross used to dodge and L1 activating your block. After beating an enemy enough, he’ll start to buzz with visible electricity, at which point you can activate your Vital Points Shock technique and manipulate his pressure points to make him explode. It’s comical the first time, if only because the explosion is so lame and doesn’t leave behind a speck of residue, but after a while it just becomes another step in the sequence of motions in Ken’s Rage 2’s soulless combat – as does the special technique activated by pressing Circle when the meter is full and your character is glowing.
There’s just nothing exciting about mashing buttons until you can use a screen-wiping special, and then repeating over and over again (there are combos, but which ones you use don’t make an iota of tactical difference). There’s a certain amount of depth in this game because using different attacks will earn experience in each of the five “parameters” – Life, Aura, Attack, Defence and Technique. For example, using your standard attack will increase Life experience and improve your health status, while using heavy attack increase your Attack experience and raises your damage output. Scrolls found throughout the game world can be equipped at caryatid statues (save points) to further increase your proficiency in each of the parameters, and assigning certain scrolls to certain parameters in certain quantities will add extra bonuses.
Legend Mode follows Kenshiro and a handful of other playable characters, and while some are more fun than others (though none are more fun than Ken himself), the core gameplay remains identical. That being said, I have to admit to a certain cathartic buzz gleaned from smashing through walls of enemies, and in short doses the combat can be satisfying – it’s just that after so many Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors titles, there are no surprises here at all. It’s all been done before, perhaps not necessarily better, but that isn’t really the point. The inclusion of destructible scenery adds to the satisfaction, as smashing a boss into the side of a building and having chunks of stone and wood explode around him is a nice touch – it’s just a shame there isn’t more actual depth to the combat.
Occasionally you can steal a motorcycle, but the handling is so woefully wooden that it isn’t as thrilling as you might hope. Without the need to explore environments or even travel great distances, the motorcycle moments are largely pointless. The first game’s jumping ability has been removed, and now characters can only jump if it’s necessary to proceed. At certain points there’s a horribly flat “stealth” element, whereby you wander up behind an enemy without even sneaking and press Triangle to “assassinate” them. It’s laughable to have to suddenlytread carefully when you’ve just slaughtered 320 enemy soldiers to reach the place you’re infiltrating; it’s just another uninteresting facet to Ken’s Rage 2’s uninteresting personality.
Dream Mode is a separate campaign that seems to offer a little variety, but is actually more of the same. It’s an alternate story mode that allows you to play as the other characters and, supposedly, experience their stories. Unfortunately, Dream Mode’s big difference is that adds in the one element of the Dynasty Warriors series that was so conspicuous by its absence – the base-capturing. In Dream Mode you’ll take your chosen warrior through a series of enemy bases, slaughtering the mobs of goons who come at you until a boss appears. Kill him, and that base is yours; capture all the bases and you’ll fight a General; kill him and you win the map. Then do it again. Differing battle conditions occasionally increase the challenge, but there’s little reason to come back to Dream Mode unless you’re really into this genre.
MULTIPLAYER: The most obvious and effective way of increasing the player return in a game like this is to add a co-op mode, and thankfully Koei have acquiesced. I only played it in split-screen mode with a friend, but bringing another player into Dream Mode is a sure-fire way to increase the fun. There aren’t a lot of tactics or strategies to really consider, and the main aim of each mission remains identical, but at least playing with a friend adds an element of camaraderie.
There’s also a versus mode, in which you go head-to-head and attempt to capture each other’s bases while pounding the snot out of legions of enemy troops. Again, the core conceit remains the same, but the added thrill of competition is welcome.
LONGEVITY: If you enjoyed Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, and have a certain affinity for the Dynasty Warriors template, then you’ll find a lot of content here. The story mode is a decent length, and the addition of multiple playable characters keeps the action from becoming completely routine. Factor in the Dream Mode and the various characters there, plus the multiplayer and genre fans will find a fairly robust package. Newcomers or those simply looking for an action game to keep them interested will be less satisfied.
VERDICT: I hate to trot out clichés like this, but if this type of genre is your thing then you’ll enjoy this game. I can’t really put it any other way. If Fist of the North Star is your bag, then you’ll appreciate that Koei have taken pains to stay faithful to the source material; if you’re a follower of the Dynasty Warriors franchise and its spin-offs, you’ll be equally impressed by the few small improvements on the usual formula. For everyone else, I just can’t find the words to heartily recommend this game.
The brawler genre is an art-form all but forgotten and there are many who’d love to see it make a comeback, but it certainly isn’t doing it through Ken’s Rage 2. Put bluntly, Streets of Rage 4 this ain’t. It’s not even as exciting as half the button-mashers that are already out there. It’s visually bland to the point of sedation, and the Japanese dialogue and repetitive button-mashing will put off a large percentage of players. This truly is one for the die-hards.