Preface: A warning preface to anyone who may be reading this at work or may be among our more youthful readers. This playtest contains a number of links to YouTube clips of various attacks from Fist of the North Star. Some of these attacks are rather violent in nature, so if you or your work is opposed to that sort of thing, you might not want to click on any of the hyperlinked attack names, despite how ridiculously neat the attacks themselves are.
Fist of the North Star is one of the most iconic anime of all time. Filled with incredibly manly men (even the cross-dressers look like bodybuilders!), special attacks with long names that make enemies explode from the inside-out, a surprisingly engaging storyline about protecting those you love, and the coolest damn opening theme ever, the series has certainly earned its legions of fans. Fist of the North Star’s popularity has led to the release of a large number of games in Japan, but Koei’s Ken’s Rage is only the second licensed title to hit consoles the US. This time around, the series is envisioned as a beat ’em up.
It seems that modern brawlers such as Dynasty Warriors and Sengoku Basara possess a kind of Stockholm Syndrome effect. When you start playing, the game feels like a chore, enemies take a long time to kill, you have an incredibly limited moveset, and the entire flow of the game feels off. As time goes by, the game will give the player little upgrades and more power, allowing them to feel more powerful and want to continue playing. Fist of the North Star is no exception to this rule. Kenshiro is initially the only playable character, and throughout the first couple of levels, he doesn’t feel like the deadly, super-powered martial arts master that the story made him out to be. I mean, when you’re playing as a character who’s based on Mad Max and Bruce Lee, you expect him to be able to take out four or five opponents in a matter of seconds as opposed to half a minute of repeated, lumbering hits.
The game is meant to be lumbering, too. Kenshiro’s hits are designed to be weighty, slow, and deliberate. This definitely takes some getting used to, and forces the player to be (slightly) more careful in terms of attack strategies than other games in Koei’s Warriors series. The game contains three different basic kinds of attacks: normal (punches and kicks), heavy (these make people explode!), and signature moves. You can select between four signature moves on the fly with the d-pad, but no matter which one you choose, they always lead to wholesale decimation.
Only available after filling enough gauges of the fighting game-esque "spirit reserves" through combat, signature moves vary from the famous Hokutou Hyakuretsuken (Hundred Crack Fist) to the un-canonically long-range Ganzan Ryouzan Ha (Boulder Splitting Wave). These attacks feel more honest to the Kenshiro of the manga and TV show, always flashy and leaving a trail of inflating, floating, or bursting corpses in their wake. Activating the character’s spirit aura with the left trigger (or L2, if you’re playing on PS3), will allow you to use even more powerful signature moves such as the brutal Hokuto Zankai Ken (Fist of Penitence), but it requires another gauge to be filled beforehand by taking out enemies without being hit or breaking things in the environment.
Now, you’ll notice that up until now, I’ve only talked about Kenshiro. While the game is primarily focused on Ken, a large number of characters have their own story modes, some of which follow the manga (this is referred to as "Legend Mode"), and others centered around entirely original stories ("Dream mode"). In an interesting move for the Warriors series, characters with different fighting styles actually play slightly differently. For instance, while Kenshiro and other Hokuto Shinken users are controlled with the traditional Warriors mechanic of light attack chain-length modifying heavy attacks (i.e. light-strong results in a different attack than light-light-strong), Nanto Seiken users like Rei are given the option to press the strong attack button when prompted during combat to activate a "Timely Attack" which allows players to slow down their enemies and slice them up like a paper shredder. It’s interesting to have somewhat distinct play styles for each character, but unfortunately that doesn’t manage to stave off the inherent issue of boredom through repetition.
While Fist of the North Star has an impressive amount of variety for a brawler, the unchanging hours of gameplay manages to make these improvements monotonous. Each level pits the player against hundreds of cannon-fodder enemies in unremarkable post-apocalyptic environments. On occasion, the player will be sent to certain areas on their map to destroy statues, free prisoners, or find a way to remove something blocking their path. All of these problems are solved by punching through things. The game seems to lack any sense of challenge, even the bosses (which are some of the more interesting fights in the game) provide less challenge than the unavoidable quick-time events that hasten them to their death.
The lack of compelling gameplay is a shame, because a lot of love has been put into Ken’s Rage. The story, while minimal, is still somewhat compelling. The manga’s visuals transitioned really well into 3D, and the attacks are appropriately violent. You can tell that the people who designed the game were passionate about Fist of the North Star, and it’s a shame that even with the improvements they’ve made to the Warriors formula that it doesn’t maintain a consistent level of fun.
Frankly, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, is close to being a great game, but is sadly hamstrung by Koei’s insistence on making it a Warriors title. It’s fun, over the top, and ludicrously violent, but I’ve got a feeling that even stalwart fans of Fist of the North Star might find themselves a little disappointed if Koei’s Warriors mechanics don’t mesh with them, but those who enjoy both series will find a lot to love. It just feels like a game that could have been so much more.
Food for thought:
- There is an instrumental version of "Ai wo Torimadose" that plays during certain fights in the game, but it’s definitely not up to par with the original, in my opinion.
- Speaking of music, the background music seems to go in and out at curious times. Sometimes I’ll be fighting enemies to a complete absence of music, when in the same level, I’ll be doing something incredibly mundane while heavy metal plays. It’s kind of annoying, and long stretches of sand and rubble without any music does not make for compelling experience. I think I’d prefer if there was always music of some sort, and more of it was from the show.
- I like how you can occasionally find missiles on the ground, and then pick them up and hit people with them. You can toss them, javelin-style, but it’s more entertaining to just smack someone with a missile that explodes on contact.
- There is a certain extra objective you can accomplish in Kenshiro’s first level called "Harbinger of Death." Accomplishing this makes the boss of the stage (Zeed) harder. I took the enemy down to low health, but since I was unable to do the 30+ button quick-time event, I had to exit the stage. With that in mind, I recommend that you play the game with the controller you’re more comfortable with, or simply try to avoid this altogether.
- In all my years playing Street Fighter, I never thought that Chun-Li’s Hyakuretsu Kyaku was a reference to anything. I believe Kenshiro’s Hyakuretsu Ken may have proved me wrong. I wonder who’s faster?