Review: Fist of the North Star – Ken’s Rage

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Koei’s Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is the kind of fanservice that is rarely seen outside of Japan. It’s also not the first time a developer tried to bring the martial-arts mashup to consoles if you remember “The Last Battle” on the Genesis or “Fist of the North Star” for the NES.

If you have no idea what the Fist of the North Star is, you might be better served by watching the anime or picking up the manga. Ken’s Rage doesn’t take a lot of time to explain itself other than being a force of violence through its wrecked landscape. Still, if you like Dynasty Warriors-like action or beat ‘em ups in general, you might find something to like within its pugilistic paradise. Just watch where you step. That might be someone’s guts over there.

To give you an idea of what you’re in for if you decide to sign on to this adventure, Ken’s Rage is based on the epic manga series from the eighties which takes place in a post-apocalyptic hell ruled over by the strong who regularly victimize the weak. Cities are ruins thanks to nuclear war and nature itself has turned against man. As for the bad guys, think mashup with the Road Warrior’s wardrobe and Chinese kung fu films.

At the top are martial artists of ungodly power, each one dedicated to a particular discipline and most are in it only for themselves. That is, except for Kenshiro and a scarce few that fight not only to survive but to save those that can’t fight for themselves in this waste. Kenshiro, or Ken, is the Fist of the North Star. The game roughly follows his adventures from the original manga run up to the halfway mark when he finally faces off against his brother, Raoh, totaling fourteen chapters of mayhem.

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When it does stop to take a breath for what story there is, it’s thick on the melodrama and bromance when Ken shows mercy to even his most hardiest of foes. But the story plays second fiddle to the button-mashing action that dumps oceans of blood everywhere he goes. Though it can be turned off, if you have ever watched the animated OVAs or the series, you know what I’m talking about. The martial arts in this post-apocalyptic world can turn someone into a an exploding raspberry with a single, well trained finger poke and in Ken’s case, it’s what he does with his fists and feet on a regular basis.

Fans of Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series may feel a sense of deja vu since Ken’s Rage uses a more polished version of the same, third-person engine. That ‘mod’ feel can be hard to shake, though it has been tweaked with enough beat ‘em up flair to appeal to a fan like myself who have been looking forward to using Ken’s skills to wipe out the bad guys. Yet there are a few rough edges.

Ken punches and kicks as if he’s been dropped underwater in a pool of molasses. The fast, furious moves that he’s known for only come off when he does one of his spectacular specials and even then, that depends only whether he has enough spirit energy to burn off. Still, it works, but the deliberation that he takes with every strike do little to sell his mythic status to anyone expecting the man to move like greased lightning.

The lack of any real targeting option also means that you’ll likely go flying off into random directions when you’re mashing your way through enemy commanders and their cannon fodder followers. Most of the time, I just pointed the stick in one direction and simply combo’ed my way through with area sweeps or specials. Fiddling with the camera settings marginally helps keep you focused on Ken’s enemies, but doesn’t do much else other than add to some of the problems when I found myself micromanaging each mode just to get it right.

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And despite layering Ken’s Rage over Dynasty Warriors’ formula, it hasn’t quite broken that repetitive feeling when facing off against hundreds of generic thugs after so many hours. Ken’s Rage isn’t exactly a short game and the overall monotony of its levels, and gameplay, haven’t quite shrugged that stigma completely away. That said, the gameplay also has a few gems that lend some utility to why you’re cracking so many heads.

The upgrade system introduced in previous iterations of Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series is back with a series of nice tweaks. Ken can improve his skills by learning passive abilities, such as improved health and damage, and equip “extrinsic” ones such as an ability to inflict more damage with his signature moves. Replaying finished chapters and grinding through enemy hordes in order to collect skill points that can be used doesn’t feel as mechanical as it otherwise might be, but that depends on how much grinding you really want to do.

Ken’s signature skills draw from “spiritual” power that is gathered up by beating down the enemy and are learned from completing chapters in his story or on his upgrade chart in between them. Fortunately, there are plenty of enemies, and the upgrade system can also extend just how many of these he can bank. In addition to these devastating moves, Ken also has a gauge that, when a section is filled, can power up his moves for a limited time when activated while sacrificing his saved up spiritual energy.

You’ll need to use these moves and love the grind to upgrade him because the bosses that he faces off at the end of each chapter in Legend mode – the main story-based portion of the game – can be brutally efficient at taking him down, especially in the late chapters. It’s pretty much a requirement to grind up and unlock as many of Ken’s upgrades as possible as the hordes of once-disposable fighters will eventually be able to take a few hits before going down in a splatter of glory. That’s what you have to look forward to for about half the game.

Now I’ll have to say something about QTE’s at this point: used well, they’re not irritating to work through. Used cheaply, and they can be the worst thing ever inflicted on a gamer who can probably get more enjoyment out playing a Flash-based derivative of Simon Says. Guess what category Ken’s Rage falls into with its boss battles?

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They’re tough, no doubt about it, and in Legend mode, come with segmented health bars. Batter them down to the next section, and they’ll start fighting a lot harder and pull off a few new tricks to try and kill you even faster. When you’ve finally driven them down to the bottom, Ken has to beat them with a series of QTE segments. Failing any of them gives the bad guy a second wind with a small health boost, requiring you to beat them down again.

For those that wonder why you can’t just kill the boss with a signature move, even if you have saved up enough energy to do it with, there is no other explanation. The chains get even worse if you complete all of the side missions within each chapter, making these feel like a sadistic form of punishment for doing so well.

There are also a slew of other modes for fans who can’t get enough. Dream Mode introduces the more traditional “Dynasty Warriors” feel with side stories outside of Legend mode and the general canon of the manga. These are stuffed with fortresses to take over, armies to crush, and enemy commanders to defeat. Even the signature bosses are here, albeit without the insane abilities or mandatory, and irritating, QTE’s. A beat down is a beat down making these prime hunting grounds for skill point minded players.

Challenge Mode is the boss rush of the game with online leaderboard support to see who is the best and in addition to these, there are a good number of unlockable characters, cutscenes, and other goodies such as lore entries to entice fans into repeating the experience. Just finishing Legend mode, with grinding and practice, took me about twelve or fifteen hours in one run.

Checkpoints help mark your progress, but many scenarios often take fifteen or more minutes to simply get through to the end. Rinse and repeat with other characters in either Legend or Dream mode (each one has their own upgrade chart to follow), or even with Challenge mode, and Ken’s Rage is a smorgasbord of North Star goodness – or insane repetition, depending on how much you’re willing to tolerate its shortfalls.

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Yet for all that it offers, it can still feel pretty bland even to a beat ‘em up buff like me. The endless running around, the vast, corridor-like levels, clone army of thugs, and the sometimes cheap bosses and juggle attacks that can toss Ken around like a rag doll didn’t help the sense of repetition that the game ultimately pummeled my attention span with.

Still, it also has its shiny moments; the characters look sharp in battle, the English voice acting is a lot more solid than the dialogue, and digesting the action a bit at a time as a post-apocalyptic hardcase can still offer a bit of fun. Its knuckle sandwiched fan service might not be as exciting as the series that it is based on, but its bloody road has enough to stand as an undeniable tribute if only for its fans.

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
Koei / Omega Force
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature