Review: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage (Sony PS3)

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
Developer: Koei
Publisher: Tecmo Koei Games
Genre: Action
Release Date: 11/02/2010

My first encounter with Fist of the North Star was the first (and only) time I rented the NES game released by Taxan in 1989 (I also played Last Battle for the Sega Genesis a few years later, but didn’t learn until just a few months ago that it too was a Fist of the North Star game that had been reskinned for the Western release.)

I was a senior in high school when I first saw the 1984 Fist of the North Star OVA on VHS, and I was instantly hooked. I loved the movie, and being relatively new to the anime genre at that time (up until that year my anime knowledge didn’t extend past Astro Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Voltron) I had no idea it was a condensed version of a 24 episode series, which I stumbled upon in bootleg form a few years later.

To say I am a huge fan of the series is an understatement. Hell, I even managed to enjoy the abysmal 1995 live action HBO film starring Ray Park look-a-like Gary Daniels (I still have the DVD buried somewhere.) So when I found out that Koei was adapting Kenshiro’s story into a new game utilizing a modified version of their Dynasty Warriors engine, I knew I’d have to pick it up. And despite the trashing it’s gotten from other reviewers, I’m glad I did.

1. Story

For those of you who are new to the series, Fist of the North Star is the story of Kenshiro, the chosen master of Hokuto Shinken, a form of martial arts that attacks pressure points (or “vital” points as the series calls them) to wreak all sorts of havoc on the bodies of opponents, but most often results in the bad guys exploding in a viscous spray of blood, brains, and other various organs.

The plot takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth that Max Rockatansky would find incredibly familiar, where water is a precious commodity and humanity struggles for survival. Numerous warlords (each seemingly inspired by Lord Humongous and Master Blaster from Mad Max 2 and 3 respectively) fight for supremacy, all too often with mankind caught in the middle. Into this war walks Kenshiro, never smiling, always speaking in a calm, collected voice; a martial arts messiah who prefers to drive a man’s cheeks through his cerebellum rather than turning his own, often with a Bruce Lee inspired battle cry of “ATATATATATATATATATATAH!” (yeah Mark, I DID type it).

This is hard to rate. The game has two primary flavors: Legend Mode and Dream Mode. Legend Mode follows the story of the original series and manga. But it’s doubtful that anyone who is experiencing Kenshiro’s world for the first time through this game will understand 90% of what’s going on. The story is told through cut scenes and narrated text crawls, but as impressive as the cut scenes are, the text crawls will likely provide better insight into the story for first timers. But this could be considered a good thing. I remember my delighted reaction the first time I saw Kenshiro use Hokuto Shinken to spray a man’s brains (and everything else) across the desert sands. Those unfamiliar with the series are likely in for some unexpected laughter, and possibly revulsion.

However, newcomers are likely to have an easier time with Dream Mode, where several of the major characters get their own new and unique non-canon storylines to play through, so knowledge of the manga or anime are more or less not required to enjoy this mode. In Dream Mode, characters who died during Kenshiro’s quest for revenge, even villains he dispatched, get to play out their own stories in new “what-if” scenarios.

So while I don’t think the Legend Mode’s storytelling does the original series or manga justice, the Dream Mode’s new stories more than make up for it, so I have to give the overall story quality a pass.

2. Graphics

The graphics are phenomenal one minute and average the next. The cut scenes are tremendous, running in full 60 fps with fluid animation and sharp detailed textures. And then the game starts. The characters themselves look great, and are animated quite well (though the little “jig of death” dance that some of the thugs perform just before their heads explode is downright hilarious in its intentional badness.) But much like the Dynasty Warriors series, you will be spending most of your time fighting reskinned versions of the same four or five troop types on your way to taking on the real meat of the game: the bosses.

Adding to the sameness are the environments. They look just like a barren nuked wasteland should look. That’s not the problem. It’s that every single level looks more or less exactly like the last one. You fight through castles, fortresses, prisons, villages, and encampments, and yet they all end up looking like the same trashed corridors you fought through on the last level, and the level before that, and so on.

But my biggest complaint with the graphics would be the post Hokuto Shinken attack death animations. While a purely satisfactory amount of blood and gore splatters across the screen, the “pre-explosion” effect leaves a lot to be desired. Whereas in the anime the enemies’ bodies would swell up and contort in disgusting and unique ways before exploding, in this game the victim, upon losing the last bit of his health, suddenly transforms into a human-shaped blood balloon that looks like it’s being stretched out of shape with the magic wand in Paint Shop Pro before finally being poked with a needle. It looks like a rushed effect that the developers threw in there when they couldn’t get the engine to handle morphing the actual skin textures. One minute he looks like a flesh and bone human being, then suddenly his skin and clothes disappear, replaced by a weird looking shiny crimson texture, and he dances the “jig of death” as either his stomach or his back stretches out three feet from the rest of him before finally splattering all over the screen. It’s still highly gratifying, but is not as detailed as I’d hoped. Of course, those unfamiliar with the anime won’t find this to be a deterrent.

3. Sound

Each punch and kick is marked by a deep “whoomp” noise that’s just music to the ears. Characters scream in terror, beg for their lives, and taunt you as you slaughter wave after wave of their comrades, but there’s not much variety in their lines, nor Kenshiro’s himself. During one fight, Kenshiro stated “Life is a privilege, and you don’t deserve it!” five times in a row, followed by three or more of the enemies simultaneously screaming ‘What the?!” before being Hokuto Shinkened to smithereens. Still, there are a few lines that still made me laugh out loud every time I heard them. On one occasion, I used metal spears to lower a draw bridge, and as I came running across the bridge I heard one of the thugs yell “Oh sh*t! I’m outta here!” And I still laughed when I heard it the fourth, fifth, and twentieth time.

Most of the music is the same generic metal “palm-mute-a-thons” you’ve heard in the Dynasty Warriors titles, interspersed with ominous drones and eerie compositions that fit well with the post-nuclear war surroundings. None of it is bad, but there’s not a single track that stands out enough where you’ll find yourself humming it later. However, for fans of the anime, there are a few cues here and there inspired by music from the various different animes that have been released over the years, which is a welcome addition.

4. Control and Gameplay

The controls are skin tight and accurate. There won’t ever be a time where you hit an attack button and Kenshiro doesn’t respond as he should. The combat moves slower than the Dynasty Warriors titles, but it works to accentuate the “oomph” of each punch, and as you build up your character the amount of moves he can perform in each linked combo increases, which in turn increases the overall speed of the fighting.

When you first start playing, you might end up on the receiving end of a few unwanted blows due to being stuck finishing a combo when the enemy you were targeting has either jumped away or already exploded. But you’ll soon learn that the jump button also acts as a very effective combo breaker, allowing you to leap up from the middle of a combo and switch into either a flying kick attack or a ground pound that’s great for giving you some space if you start to feel surrounded. And eventually, you’ll earn enhancements that allow you to transition from a flying kick or ground pound straight into another attack, which in turn can then link into a new combo.

Kenshiro also has special attacks called Signature Moves that can be activated by pressing the Circle button. Each takes a different number of slots off his Spirit Reserves bar. For every 150 pieces of energy you earn from defeating enemies, you fill one bar. As your character progresses you can earn up to eight slots and lower the number of energy pieces it takes to fill a slot. Each Signature Move can be assigned to a directional button, so you can have up to four different Signature Moves mapped at any given time (one of which needs to always be the Seven Stars attack, since it is the only move that can shatter specific special walls found throughout the game, behind which can usually be found scrolls that award 15 or more skill points that are used to purchase character enhancements between levels.)

Kenshiro has a spirit bar that builds up as you kill and take damage. This spirit bar can be used in two ways. You can fill it up then hit the L2 button to go into Spirit Mode, where all your attacks deal additional damage and are harder to block. Or, you can hit L2 then hit the Circle button to release a Hyper Signature Move, a more powerful form of the regular Signature Moves that does much more damage. You should save these for the bosses or timed fights where you have to defeat the Commanders in a given amount of time (many of the Commanders can only be hurt by Signature Moves or when fighting in Spirit Mode.)

Aside from that, Square is your normal attack, Triangle is your strong attack, and X is your jump. L1 can be used to block or parry depending on the situation, R1 can be used to dodge attacks, and R2 allows you to pick up enemies and use Square to punch them into the ground, Triangle to kick them into a wall, or Circle to use them as a battering ram to charge into other foes and clear a path before tossing them away like a discus. R2 can also be used to pick up various weapons that can be wielded or thrown.

The game also offers a limited amount of platforming, but it can be a bit of a mixed bag. This usually amounts to nothing more than jumping from platform to platform, but since you don’t have a double jump, you have to learn to use the jump kick to get you across the longer jumps, timing it just right so you don’t jump past the mark and have to repeat the maneuver. One particular level that stands out is comprised of a sort of maze made up of truck trailers. There are collapsing walkways here, enemies that are standing on top of the trailers shooting at you with crossbows, and hidden areas that can only be reached by successfully “double jumping” from trailer to trailer using the jump kick. It takes some time to master, and doesn’t feel as natural or intuitive as a more traditional platformer like Ratchet and Clank, or as sophisticated as a game like Uncharted, but eventually becomes second nature.

The only real downside to combat is the camera. It can often have a mind of its own, sometimes blocking your view of Kenshiro altogether by getting stuck behind a wall (though this is rare). The camera system is at its worst during the boss battles. It is supposed to be locked onto the boss during the fight (you do have the option to turn the locking off) but some of the bosses, such as Shin, have the ability to quickly warp from one side of the room to the other, leaving you to face a wall and having to manually spin the camera around with the right analog stick until you can find where the boss went. And in battles where a boss is at his most vulnerable if he dazes himself running into a wall or gets his hand stuck in a stone pillar, every second counts, so it adds no small amount of frustration when you see Shin standing there trying to free his hand while you’re all the way on the other side of the room.

Speaking of the boss fights, they are the bread and butter of this game. In style they somewhat remind me of the Power Stone series, as they all take place in boxed in arenas, some with traps you have to avoid, such as floor spikes and pop up cages that leave you vulnerable to flame attacks. Each boss has his own signature style and special attacks, but each fight does play out in a more or less similar fashion. In most, you’ll fight until the boss’s life bar is down to half, then he’ll disappear and leave you to fight some of his minions (or in the case of the second fight with Thouzer, three clones of himself). Then they’ll return using more powerful attacks. Once you deplete a boss’s life bar to zero, he’ll fall to one knee and the Circle button will appear over his head. This triggers a sort of QTE event where you have to hit the buttons on screen in timed, quick succession to pull off your finishing move. If you miss a button, the boss gains a little bit of his life back and you have to wear him back down and try again. It can be frustrating to fight for ten minutes and get a boss down to that point, only to hit Circle instead of Square and get your ass handed to you because you only had a few hits of life left yourself.

5. Replayability

While it is true that you’ll be performing the same essential actions in every level over and over again, the game offers a number of different options that greatly increase the game’s replayability. There’s the aforementioned Legend and Dream Modes, but there’s also unlockable characters, each with his or her own Legend and Dream Mode to play through (the Dream Modes take about an hour to 90 minutes each to complete if you just stick to the objectives, and the other characters’ Legend Modes take about one to two hours each to finish). Dream Mode also has an offline-only split screen co-op, so if you have a friend over you can enjoy some arcade beat ’em up goodness that takes the experience in a new and welcome direction. And that’s not all. Once you beat Kenshiro’s Legend Mode, it unlocks Challenge Mode, with several scenarios to fight through. Overall, there’s a staggering amount of gameplay here, especially for trophy whores, as there are trophies for beating Legend Mode with every character, Dream Mode with every character, killing 10,000 enemies, playing for at least 30 hours, and so on.

6. Balance

The only difference in the balancing you will notice here is when going from the relative ease of fighting through the throngs of leather and tire rubber clad thugs to the edge of your seat boss fights, especially once you get up to the second fight with Thouzer and beyond. Very rarely will you ever feel overwhelmed or in a jam when fighting through the levels themselves (though some of the timed challenges can give you a run for your money). But some of the boss fights will essentially put you in a JRPG mindset where you grind through that boss’s level a few times until you’ve “leveled up” enough to do more damage and last long enough to take him down. And even then, some of the boss fights can still be frustrating as Hell (especially the fight with the floor spikes and the last fight with Raoh), but overall you’ll never quit the game from lack of success.

7. Originality

The game is based on an anime/manga series, and runs on the engine of a long-running franchise, so for fans of the show there’s not much new to see here (though fans of the Dynasty Warriors games will find a totally different experience in the Legend Mode). And since the anime itself drew so much inspiration from the Chinese Kung-Fu films that Bruce Lee brought into the main stream, not to mention the Mad Max film series, those new to the franchise will still experiences moments of deja vu.

8. Addictiveness

Some might disagree with me here, but I haven’t been able to put this game down since I got it. Right now there’s a 200% experience boost going on in MAG for those who’ve bought both the expansion packs, and Black Ops is out. I haven’t touched MAG in two weeks and I haven’t even bought Black Ops, because I’m simply having too much fun splattering bad guys.

The game is addictive not only for the satisfaction of the combat’s carnage, but also due to its leveling system, which borrows a page from the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. After each level you can spend skill points on various power ups on what looks like a smaller version of FFX‘s Sphere Grid. These can be passive abilities (like raising the amount of health food gives you) or new Signature Attacks, increasing your max health, defense, attack power, and so on. I find myself playing just one more round so I can unlock more and more of that grid. Yes, the combat is repetitive, but no more so than the combat in the most addictive of JRPGs. If this style of game appeals to you, it’ll sink its hooks into you and won’t let go.

9. Appeal Factor

Obviously this game will appeal most to fans of the manga and anime, or fans of the Dynasty Warriors series. However, while Dynasty Warriors fans will be mostly drawn to the Dream Mode, which with its “conquer the base/defeat all enemies” style of play will be most familiar to them, the Legend Mode will also be a draw to gamers old enough to remember arcade beat ’em ups like Final Fight or Streets of Rage, as it is essentially a 3D version of that style of play, right down to filling up your health and special attack bars with slabs of meat and bottles of soda.

If the recent re-release of Final Fight for the XBLA or PSN hasn’t scratched your itch for a good beat ’em up style game, Legend Mode is your ticket. It even includes the use of weapons you can pick up throughout the levels, such as wooden, steel, and concrete beams, abandoned cruise missiles, exploding barrels, and so on. There’s even one level where you can get on a motorcycle and drive around running over enemies. In short, Legend Mode is a 3D Final Fight that works so much better than the crappy 3D re-imagining that came out for PS2 a few years back.

10. Miscellaneous

Hey Mark!

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Good
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Great
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is, in my opinion, the best Dynasty Warriors style game to come out in a long time. While it’s not breaking any molds in the action genre, it’s just the breath of fresh air that the series needed, far more so than the Gundam games they brought out. It has classic Dynasty Warriors gameplay in the Dream Mode, and good old fashioned arcade brawling in the Legend Mode. It has well over a hundred hours of gameplay on the disk, and leaves me hopeful that Koei will continue this expansion into other anime properties, particularly Vampire Hunter D and Berserk. If you’ve been longing for some down and dirty dismemberment, this game isn’t the second coming of action titles, but nonetheless is good for what ails you.

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