Review: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
Genre: Action
Developer: Koei
Publisher: Tecmo Koei Games
Release Date: 11/02/10

Fist of the North Star isn’t an immediately recognizable anime unless you’re either a fan of more obscure anime releases or you’re, uh, in your thirties… and like anime. Shut up. Anyway, aside from the movie released in the nineties in the US of the same name, the franchise has seen little exposure Stateside, aside from a few not especially popular OVA’s and a small handful of weak video games, some of which didn’t even carry the series name (The Last Battle and Black Belt spring to mind). Most of the more memorable games in the series have stayed in Japan, such as the Fist of the North Star fighting game from Arc System Works that came out a few years ago. As such, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is kind of fighting an uphill battle from the word go. It’s based on an anime that doesn’t have the traction of something like, say, the Gundam series, and its developer, Koei, is mostly known for the Dynasty Warriors series, a series that has basically been scoring poorly for years because, well, the games are often rather similar. Oh, yes, and this game is also based on the same mechanics as those poorly scored games. That said, the Dynasty Warriors Gundam series has inspired some good will, less because of anything it does and more because of its subject matter, and the demo build I played at E3 was pretty solid, all around. Frankly, I’ve been anticipating the hell out of this ever since, in hopes that I could review this when the time came and proclaim “This is a game everyone needs to own” or something similar.

Well, not quite, but it’s pretty good, all the same.

The story of Ken’s Rage follows the story of the manga more or less point for point, so if you’re a fan you’ll have a good idea of where things are going. If you’re not, for some reason, the gist goes like this: nuclear war has ravaged the Earth, and everything is basically Fallout, only less pleasant. In this world, we primarily follow the exploits of Ken, the rightful successor to the assassination art known as Hokuto Shinken, which involves striking various points on an opponent’s body to basically end their shit in the most violent ways imaginable, usually involving the person exploding. So, he’s fun at parties. When we join Ken, he’s basically really pissed off about having his girlfriend taken from him by his best friend, Shin, after one of his half brothers, Jagi, instigated the whole thing, and Ken decides that the best way to resolve the whole thing is to pretty much find Jagi, Shin, and everyone else involved in the whole mess and make them stop living with his fists, all while hopefully finding his girlfriend, Yuria, in the process. The story of the game follows his quest of revenge and love to its initial conclusion, about the halfway point in the manga series, and spends a good amount of time focusing on him and his allies and enemies, with allies Rei, Mamiya and Toki and foe Raoh taking center stage for a lot of that. The plot of the anime holds up surprisingly well, even with the odd fixation on people impersonating other people at various points throughout the story, and it should be no surprise, then, that the story of Ken’s Rage holds up well also. It’s not so much the concept that’s fantastic as the execution, however; the wandering martial artist seeking revenge and/or love isn’t too new, nor is the hero in the wasteland concept, but Ken is a well developed character, and the supporting cast is appropriately likable or loathsome depending on the moral compass of the character. As such, it’s a great story to play through and all of the characters have an interesting story to be told, both for fans and newcomers.

Ken’s Rage is pretty good looking for a next-gen title, but it’s easily one of the best looking Dynasty Warriors games ever made, no question. The main characters are faithfully represented here, though many sport new, updated outfits that are pretty spiffy looking. The characters are also very well animated and their various regular and special attacks look great in motion. The enemies and allies you’ll meet also look faithful to their anime and manga counterparts and animate well, in life and death. The environments are faithful to the source material as well and appropriately convey the “post-apocalyptic wasteland” concept of the series. That said, the environments repeat a bit, as to the enemies, and the enemy death scenes can look a bit weird at times, but overall, the game still comes off looking good. The audio is also mostly good, though some elements are better than others. The in-game music is your standard electronic rock fare that Dynasty Warriors has been using for a while, and it fits the tone fine, as do the remade tracks from the franchise that pop up in the game. The Japanese voice acting sounds pretty convincing all around and is good to listen to, though the English acting is B-movie quality, as it tends to be in most Dynasty Warriors games, as I’m fairly sure that Raoh is voiced by Lu Bu here, which is certainly fitting at least. The sound effects are generally spot on overall, and the combat effects in particular are satisfying, between the meaty sounds of your characters lumping on their foes and the enemies expiring in a wave of what sounds like one would expect another person exploding from within to sound like, so it’s satisfying if nothing else.

The gameplay of Ken’s Rage should be familiar to fans of the Dynasty Warriors series, and even those with no experience with the games should be able to pick up the basics in no time. The left stick controls your chosen character and moves them around while the right stick repositions the camera as needed. You’re offered two attacks, with the X button controlling lighter attacks and the Y button setting off heavier attacks, which can be chained together in various fashions to create combos of different sorts. The A button jumps and the left bumper allows your character to block enemy attacks, or parry if you press it at just the right time. The right trigger allows you to grab onto an enemy and either toss them or, for some characters, beat on them mercilessly while you hold them in a grapple. The right bumper allows you to perform a character specific action, generally either a dodge or a projectile attack of some sort. You’ll be able to pick this all up in the first stage, both because the tutorial addresses most of these concepts and because it’s all pretty easy to wrap your head around, whether you’ve spent any time with the series or not.

The game also features the typical “Musou” special moves, this time around called “Signature Moves”, which basically act as super moves for each character. As you take and dish out damage, you earn energy toward these sorts of attacks, and when the energy bar is filled, a stock is added to the Spirit Reserves gauge. By pressing B, you will kick in a high damage special move with various effects attached which will eat a certain amount of stocks, depending on the move. Each character has access to up to four moves at one time, which can be cycled by using the D-pad, and each move has various different attributes and costs associated with it. Some moves are long range attacks, while others are area of effect moves, and others still are close range, single target moves. The more expensive the move, the more potential damage it’s able to do to enemies, allowing you to choose cheaper moves to be frugal with your energy or more expensive moves to put the hurt on someone in a hurry. Your characters also build up energy in their Focus Gauge as they take and deal damage, which you can burn with the left trigger to increase their performance in battle, increasing their damage output all around as well as making attacks unblockable and increasing attack range. This will also burn any Spirit you have saved, however, and the more Spirit you have, the longer you’ll stay in this state. Pressing B during this time allows you to use your Hyper Signature special move, which can lay a major hurt on bosses and basically kills regular enemies outright, making it highly useful when you need to lay down some massive damage, though it’s also prohibitively expensive enough to not be easily abused. The game also features the Star Chart that is a staple of the series, in the form of the stars of the Little Dipper. As you complete challenges across a stage, a light will light up on the Little Dipper indicating as such, and each one will provide various bonuses, including boosts to your Spirit and stats. Further, characters are divided into three categories: Hokuto fighters, who use pressure points to knock enemies into Meridian Shock (which makes them weaker to additional attacks); Nanto fighters, who can counter attacks, knock enemies into Spirit Shock (same as Meridian Shock), and push themselves into hyper-aware states that improve performance; and Special fighters, who use weird combat styles and weaponry to win their battles, so there’s plenty of variety to spare.

The game offers both the typical Dynasty Warriors “take over bases and wipe out the enemy forces” style of play as well as a more straightforward “progress through the stage to the end” style, depending on the mission and the mode, and each acts exactly as you’d think. The base capture missions essentially give you a giant map to fool around in, and task you to progress through said map, wiping out everyone in your path to achieve victory. The more straightforward stages act as they do in most action games, as you’ll progress to a point, fight a bunch of enemies, and move through the now unblocked way forward to the next objective point. In both cases, you’ll have to take out various waves of enemies, be they weaker grunts or higher powered “generals” who take and deal more damage than the normal fodder. In both cases you’ll also face down powerful bosses who are basically on par with your characters and hit very hard. Most of the bosses have segmented life bars, and when you clear one segment, they change up their attack patterns, use new moves and generally become harder to deal with all around. Bosses can also regenerate lost life on higher difficulty levels, though if you hit them with the special move they’re weak to, they’ll take added damage, giving you an edge in the fight. Once you’ve toppled a boss, they’ll fall to their knees and you’ll be prompted to press B, which will then kick in your Finisher. Basically, this is a stylish attack, where your character will employ one of their Signature attacks to defeat the boss, while you perform an active time sequence of button presses to complete the action. The tougher the boss, the more sequences you’ll have to complete, and failing allows the boss to get back up and fight again, while successfully pulling off the sequence ends them but good. Should you fill the Star Chart and fulfill the requirements needed, you can also activate the Death Star, which essentially jacks out the difficulty of the Finisher, making you press a massive amount of buttons in order to defeat the enemy, but drastically increasing the rewards to the player and making the finishing strike far more impressive as a result.

As you play through the game, your characters will earn Skill Points, which can be acquired in a number of ways, from collecting them out of boxes to wiping out enemies and collecting Karma which converts to points, to performing lots of Signature attacks on enemies, and so on. These Skill Points can be devoted to earning various upgrades on the Meridian Chart, which is essentially a large board full of upgrades for your characters. You can use the Skill Points to buy skills on the Meridian Chart, which can increase your attack and defense, raise your health and Spirit gauges, unlock passive skills and new moves, and other fun things. Each character has a fairly large chart to clear out, so if you’re looking to maximize your characters you’ll find yourself investing a good amount of time into this thing, due to the increased point costs as you go and the sheer amount of things to unlock. There are also three modes to take on, each with its own options and special elements. Legend Mode is your basic story mode, allowing you to progress along the main storyline of the first half of the Fist of the North Star manga with either Ken, Rei, Raoh, Toki or Mamiya through their parts in the story. Dream Mode offers up various side story segments for most of the characters in the game, fleshing out various parts of their histories and allowing you to play with most of the cast, including the aforementioned characters as well as several of the villains of the story. Challenge Mode is a straight-up survival mode where you face down various enemies with whatever character you choose and try to win against less than positive odds. You can also take these modes on with a friend if you want to try to even up the odds, though you can only do so offline only, as the game offers no online support.

There’s no easy way to gauge how long it’d take to complete Ken’s Rage, mostly because each character’s Legend and Dream Mode missions are of different overall lengths, but it’s a safe estimate that it would easily take over twenty hours to complete these modes with each character. As you progress you’ll unlock new characters to play with in new modes, as well as gallery items to view and listen to and costumes to use, among other things. With multiple difficulty modes to choose from, you’ll have plenty of challenges available to you, and there’s already DLC available for the game in the form of additional characters and Ken’s classic costume, with more planned by all indications. The various characters you can play as are also very much different from one another, in terms of combat styles and abilities, giving you a lot of variety from one character to the next and plenty of depth as you unlock their various abilities. Each stage also tracks your performance and rates it based on how many enemies you defeat, how many you defeat with Signature moves, how little damage you take and other things, so those who want to earn the best completion rates will have something else to challenge themselves with. The offline co-op is also good if you have friends available to play alongside, and there are plenty of achievements to unlock for the completionist. Overall, Ken’s Rage has a lot of content, as do most games in the Dynasty Warriors series, and a somewhat more accessible design that might be more appealing to those who aren’t fans of the series.

Of course, the game is not without its flaws. One of the more noticeable issues comes down to the boss battles, or more specifically, the difficulty of said battles. Having challenging boss fights is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but the boss fights are often a war of attrition as much as anything else, as the bosses will frequently abuse their abilities in a way beyond what is accessible to the player, to a point where it becomes blatantly apparent that the computer is cheating and is completely okay with this thing. By the time you get to the final battle against Raoh with Ken you’ll likely be a bit frustrated with the experience, and Raoh will pretty much remind you just how much profanity you know, which is unpleasant, to say the least. The lack of offline play, while a common factor in most Dynasty Warriors titles, isn’t a big thrill this time around either. There’s also the fact that the Dynasty Warriors series tends to be a generally tame series as far as its depictions of violence go, and Fist of the North Star, well, isn’t, meaning that the game is quite violent (though this can be turned off if you must) and, as such, might put off regular series fans. To round out the complaining session here, the game is essentially similar to most other Dynasty Warriors titles in a lot of respects and doesn’t do quite enough to get out of their shadow, and there some technical issues to the game (let the Stage 6 boss for Ken finish speaking when you beat him down unless you want to hard lock your game) that hurt the experience a bit.

That all said, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is pretty much everything one could hope for in a title based around these franchises, and it’s going to easily be worth the cash from anyone who’s a fan of either series, if not anyone who isn’t. The story holds up very well years after the fact, the game is visually and aurally accurate to the series and good in general, and the game is a breeze to learn. The combat is deep enough to be interesting but simple enough to learn, and enough new content is added to make the game not feel like just another Dynasty Warriors clone, both mechanically and in design. There’s a whole mess of content to unlock and play around with and anyone who enjoys depth and challenge in their games will have a lot of fun here simply because there’s plenty of both in Ken’s Rage. That said, the bosses can be pretty rough on any difficulty, there’s no online multiplayer to be found, the game is far more violent than any other game in the series, there’s not quite enough original content to not make this smack of Dynasty Warriors a bit, and there are some technical issues that hurt the game a bit. Fans of either or both franchises won’t really find any of this to be a problem, however, as the game more than justifies its asking price by being exactly what they would have hoped for, and in the end, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is a violent and fun experience, and while it’s not for everyone, a game where people explode and coat their vicinity in blood probably wasn’t ever going to be. Just a thought.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is one of the best Dynasty Warriors styled games to come from Koei for a long while, as well as a generally solid game overall, and while there are some flaws to the product, the positives outweigh the negatives. The story holds up well some twenty years after its initial creation, and the game’s visuals and audio hold up well on the console while also being some of the best Koei has produced. The gameplay is simple to learn but developed enough to be enjoyable for a long while, and it adds enough to the formula that it doesn’t feel like a retread of old ground. The game offers a ton of content to earn and unlock and multiple difficulty levels to do it across, and the promise of DLC will only add more to that, giving the player a legitimate reason to come back on top of unlocking everything and basically owning the game all around, both alone and with a friend. However, the bosses can be a little cheesy at the best of times, the game lacks any sort of online play component, the game is plenty more violent than other Dynasty Warriors titles, there’s not enough “new” to the game to make it feel like an original experience, and there are some technical issues that hurt the game. The bottom line, however, is that Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is a faithful adaptation of a franchise that was begging for a good game, and while it’s not going to be for everyone, it safely fills that need and should be a welcome acquisition for fans of either, or both, franchises.

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