In 1983, a Japanese manga called “Fist of the North Star” (also known as “Hokuto no Ken”) was created. The series took off and became a huge hit in Japan, which then received an English localization a few years later. Since then, the series has received a TV series, film and video games to reach out to other audiences. In 2010, the popular manga series got its first game for the current gen consoles known as “Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage”. While it wasn’t exactly a big success, fans of the series found it to still be an enjoyable experience. Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is now out for the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U, published by Tecmo Koei and developed by Koei/Omega Force. However, is this a sequel that improves upon its predecessor or is this game already dead?
This review is based on the Wii U version of the game.
Let’s get this out of the way: The extent of my knowledge to “Fist of the North Star” was that it was a popular anime series that started in the 80s. However, upon receiving this review copy, I researched a bit more on the series to get a better understanding on the universe of this much beloved Manga. As I got into the storyline, I started to also watch the anime and compare how the story is told there compared to here in the game…and can say they’ve done a very good job.
Fist of the North Star has a pretty intricate storyline, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world in the year 199X. The story revolves around Kenshiro, a warrior who’s the successor to the assassination arts style “Hokuto Shinken”. Venturing through the barren wastelands, Kenshiro stumbles upon groups that seem to be terrorizing civilians in villages. As a civil warrior, Kenshiro does anything he can to help those in need, whether it be a friend or stranger. As the story progresses, you begin to learn more about Kenshiro’s past and what his motivation is exactly.
The story relies entirely on the manga series, replicating the scenes as authentic as possible. It’s told quite well, using cinematic cutscenes and comic-style panels. The characters are pretty engaging and you’ll feel for the fate of many of them. Honestly, the story is the best thing to be found in Ken’s Rage 2.
Like I stated in the story section, I didn’t really follow the series before this game. I knew of it, I just never got around to actually watching the anime. With this being said, I also never played the first Ken’s Rage aside from its demo. For this sequel, the developers decided to tweak a bit of the gameplay style of Ken’s Rage. This time around, the game feels a bit more like a Dynasty Warriors/Warriors Orochi type of hack-and-slash, or in this case, beat-em-up. There are two main modes to tackle: Legend Mode and Dream Mode. Legend Mode will let you experience the entire manga of Fist of the North Star throughout the game’s 36 episodes. Dream Mode lets players explore the storyline of various characters from the series. However, each mode does play a bit differently.
Legend Mode will let players assume control of the main protagonist, Kenshiro. The format of Legend Mode will have you fighting waves of enemies scattered throughout the environments. Combat is handled with light and strong attacks, formulating combos that will pulverize enemies into a bloody pulp. As you give your enemies the beat down, you will build up your Aura Meter. When filled up, you can unleash an Aura attack that will unleash a devastating move to clear out a group of enemies or severely damage stronger opponents. As you move through the level, there will be moments where the game will transition to a cutscene to help flesh out the story a bit more and tie in the reason why you’re going to the next location. There are also moments where the game will try to change up the pacing a bit by having you play as other characters involved in Kenshiro’s quest. Depending on the scenario, you can even choose which character you’d like to play as for the mission. Platforming has been completely removed from Ken’s Rage, replaced now with a dash button. You’ll rely on this during boss battles in particular as it’ll help you dodge and counter their attacks. Boss battles provide to be more entertaining as they are much more challenging than the foes you’ll normally face. You’ll usually end off a boss by initiating a quick-time event. QTEs will occasionally pop-up mid-fight that will let you counter the boss’s attack and dish out some major damage. Watching Kenshiro finish off bosses is pretty sweet, especially with the quips he’ll say when finishing off his opponent. Legend Mode starts off a bit slow at first, but as you keep playing, you’ll find yourself getting more into it. While the combat may get monotonous at times, I still found myself coming back to keeping playing through this mode.
Dream Mode changes up the game a bit. Instead of simply fighting enemies to advance the storyline, you’ll approach this with a bit more “Dynasty Warriors” style. You’ll have bases that you need to capture before you can face off against the level’s boss. I found myself enjoying this mode a bit more than Legend Mode, mainly because I felt more at home with the “Warriors” gameplay premise. Also, this mode allows for two-player co-op, both local and online. While the online servers were barren, local co-op was quite enjoyable, especially on the Wii U version thanks to GamePad/TV split-screen. There are a ton of quests and missions you can experience in Dream Mode, which feels like a separate game in itself that will take many hours to complete.
Ken’s Rage 2 features an upgrading system, but is not intuitive or fun to fiddle with at all. You’ll collect scrolls that have three slots on them. A specific ability will be placed in a certain spot on the scroll. The further in the game you get, the more abilities that will be placed on a single scroll. However, when you’re equipping these, you have five lines you can choose to place a scroll in. You need to try and match scrolls with ability icons to really have them increase your effects dramatically. There are five parameters: Life, Damage, Aura, Defense and Technique. Sometimes the scrolls may also have a special perk that allows you to link combos faster together or increase your attack speed when successfully countering. You can also permanently level up the character’s parameter by collecting blue experience orbs from enemies during combat.
There are some issues that plague the game though. I already mentioned the “scroll” system feels a bit too complex and simply not fun to deal with. While the Legend Mode contains an engrossing story, the way it’s incorporated into the levels bogs down the gameplay. I mentioned earlier that cutscenes will initiate mid-mission, but it actually ruins the flow of combat. You’ll go from fighting hundreds of enemies within 1-2 minutes, to then watching a 7-10 minute cutscene. Then you’ll finally jump back in, fight enemies for about less than five minutes and watch another somewhat lengthy cutscene. This can drag on missions to take upwards to 30 minutes to complete, sometimes longer. It’s almost like driving at 100 mph, then unexpectedly slamming the brakes and pulling the e-brake immediately to come to a complete stop…then repeat. Also in Legend Mode, missions may have Caryatids that you can activate. When activated, you can access your scrolls, as well as do an “interim save”. While an interim save is nice to have for those lengthier missions, the odd thing is the place for some of these Caryatids. Sometimes, you’ll enter an area littered with enemies that contains a Caryatid but the game forbids you from saving when you’re “in battle”. So you would think, “ok, I can save right after I take these enemies out”, to only then watch a lengthy cutscene immediately after and end up in a totally different area with no Caryatid. While you can still access your scrolls, it’s bizarre to see the option to save and meanwhile, you actually can’t. Meanwhile, in Dream Mode, you can do an interim save at anytime by simply pausing the game and accessing it from there…and that mode doesn’t necessarily “need” it as those are faster missions. Another issue lies within the camera, you’ll find yourself adjusting the camera pretty often to face in the direction of the action. While this isn’t too detracting, the moments where it’s becomes the worst is during boss battles. The lock-on boss camera never follows the action fast enough, so if you kick the enemy all the way across the area, it’ll take some time to pan the camera in the right direction.
Issues aside, Ken’s Rage 2 is still an enjoyable game. Playing as different characters changes things up with different move sets pertaining to their styles. For example, if you play as Mamiya, she’ll be able to utilize an automatic crossbow instead of grabbing an enemy like Kenshiro would do. Also, it’s always fun to experiment with Aura attacks for each character as numerous become unlocked as you progress through the game. There’s an indicator near the Aura attack of your choice that shows the radius and direction the attack goes so that you know if the best used for large groups of enemies or strong, yet smaller groups of enemies. Overall, the amount of time you’ll get out of the game is staggering. The Legend Mode alone will take 15-20 hours, and the Dream Mode adds even more to that.
Fist of the North Star’s visuals are quite subpar for today’s standards, but are passable. Character models are nicely detailed, with some decent animations. Enemies explode into pulps of blood as you beat the crap out of them, and you’ll also see their bodies deform prior to that (just like you’d see in the anime). The deformed animation looks a bit weak, and at times jarring. Environmental texture work is pretty solid, but still comes off as bland. While the game may be a bit drab to see in action, it is replicating the style of the manga series. However, the framerate seems to be really inconsistent. The less enemies on screen, the smoother the game will run, at times reaching 60 fps. However, once waves of enemies come in, the game’s framerate can dip well below 30 fps…at times even 20 fps. It’s a bit inexcusable for a game that’s not exactly showcasing anything overly impressive. The game doesn’t look awful, but it’s certainly not an attractive game either.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2’s audio direction is serviceable, but nothing more than that. The voice acting is solely done in Japanese, but is very effective. Sound effects are appropriate and gets the job done, making the game sound like it’s straight out of the anime. The soundtrack consists of metal rock tunes that appropriately convey the setting, if a bit generic. Some tracks are catchy, others not so much. While there are good amount of tracks in the game, they do tend to repeat a lot. The overall audio is good, just not great.
Overall Score: 12/20 = 6.0 out of 10
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is a game for a very specific audience and certainly not for everyone. While it’s faster paced than the first installment, the question of spending $60 on this game is something that’s hard to recommend to the average gamer. For fans of the series, anime, or “Warriors” games, then you may find a pretty enjoyable game here. If none of those apply to you, it’s impossible for me to recommend the game. It’s nothing great, but it’s a solid title that I found myself enjoying more than I expected. While the game carries a full retail value price tag for a digital only title, the game’s content and length can back it up. It’s not a very good game, but it’s certainly a guilty pleasure of a title that you’ll enjoy despite its issues.
+ Faithfully recreates the series’ story
+ Dream Mode is fun, especially in co-op
+ Character models are nicely detailed
+ Some catchy tunes
- Visuals are a bit bland; Framerate dips
- Scroll/Upgrade system is not intuitive
- Legend Mode’s mid-mission cutscene bog down action
- Strictly for fans of the series
- More of an update than a sequel to the original…and it’s retailing for $60