Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 PS3 Review
Fist of the North Star is one of my favourite anime and one of the first japanimation films I saw as a young child. As someone who had previously only seen something as violent as Thundercats, Fist of the North Star (and prior to that Akira) blew my mind – uber-violent, sharp, compelling, and thus something that has remained burnt into my memory.
When I was given an opportunity to play the latest in the Fist of the North Star series from the studio that develops the predictable and not especially progressive Dynasty Warriors games, I admittedly felt uneasy about how deep the game would actually be. Having spent some time playing the previous game, I had a fair idea of what to expect going by Tecmo Koei’s approach to their other IPs (One Piece, Warriors: Legends of Troy and Gundam) – a cut-and-paste rehash of the same base gameplay ideas across the board, and minor graphical alterations. However, I had hoped that Omega Force would at least take on board some of the criticisms of their other series and make some deeper gameplay changes. Sadly this is not the case.
What you get here is much of the same that you have no doubt played before, with a lick of paint, and if you have played the previous game, Fist of the North Star 2: Ken’s Rage will not change much. But then some of you will enjoy that, and I respect that.
Fist of the North Star 2: Ken’s Rage is actually a nice-looking game for the most part, but it is the same as its predecessor with no marked improvements. The environments you traverse are influenced by a post-apocalyptic Mad Max setting. Everything is just so desolate and dreary, which, when you think about it, is quite apt. If you are new to the series (or a fan of the anime/manga) you may well like the presentation and faithful character recreation. The main characters are sharp, highly detailed and obviously the object of much focus from the developers. The enemies, on the other hand, are a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, it is brilliant that the game engine can support upwards of 30 characters on-screen at one time, but these are often clones that move in packs and rarely attack, essentially fulfilling the role of blood-spewing punching bags devoid of soul or intelligence.
Legend Mode is your chance to play through a series of chapters from the long-running manga. Considering it ran for 109 episodes and over the course of five years, you would think that there was more than enough content to create a fresh experience. Dishearteningly, it is pretty much the same campaign as the last game. In between the numerous admittedly well-done cutscenes, you’ll find yourself making your way along corridor after corridor, dispatching waves of soulless clones, with the odd Commander thrown in to spice things up.
This mode is enlivened only by the appearance of the end-of-area boss battle, pitting you against a foe who has mastered a certain style of fighting. These sections actually require some change of tact, mostly as you try and avoid the game’s outrageously poor attempts of adding challenge via the cheating bosses who can block your combos but you cannot do the same. Instead what is required is that you wait until their guard is dropped, or they have finished their aimless attacking attempts, before releasing an onslaught of combos or button-specific, special moves (allocated here to the R1 and Circle Buttons) to defeat them. There is not much skill required here and if you have played any of the Dynasty Warriors games, you walk into this knowing what to expect. The only plus of Legend Mode is actually seeing the story presented in its original manga style, which is a lovely homage to its roots and one that emits a glow of nostalgia. It is, however, annoyingly segmented with often lengthy loading sequences. Everything else seems rather half-arsed and not all that different from what I played in the first game in this series.
Dream Mode is, without a doubt, the best offline option in Fist of the North Star 2: Ken’s Rage, allowing you to play through newly-created back-stories for the characters you come across in the manga, with a few extra faces thrown in for good measure. Based on the modes and types you may have played in the previous Dynasty Warriors games, this is probably the part of the game where most of the fun lies, whereby you are tasked with various mission objectives as you fight in massive battlefields. This is a deeper game mode, and far more enjoyable…but it’s not the reason you would really buy Fist of the North Star 2: Ken’s Rage. Like mine, your wish was to play as the stoic hero as he traverses a land ravaged by greed and corruption, dishing out ass whoopings and righting the world’s wrongs, not playing another Dynasty Warriors clone.
It’s quite damning when the best part of the game is, not the main story, but the core mechanic the game is clearly based on (this goes for all the other games from Omega Force). There is not enough innovation here and it is clearly beginning to wear thin across the multiple iterations of what is essentially the same thing. This is probably the best Fist of the North Star game released yet, and the engine is very suitable for the game, but the IP and the opportunity is not being realised nearly enough. Combined with the still horrifically bad and poorly-conceived camera mechanic, this game can often feel like a battle just to keep playing. Many a time I would attempt to fight an onslaught of people and my character would disappear as the camera got stuck in the scenery, or it wouldn’t allow me to lock onto an enemy specifically. This is something I would think Omega Force (or any other developer) wouldn’t be getting wrong at this end of the generation, but then again it’s just reskinned rehash after rehash with them.
The addition of magical scrolls is an intriguing prospect. These can be picked up after certain battles and equipped to provide access to extra abilities and stat boosts. The aim is eventually to find the Ultimate Nexus – the perfect combination. This all sounds quite interesting but the slapdash explanation of the whole system not only confuses, but doesn’t explain the benefits of each type of scroll at all. There were times I wished that I could enter the game menu and re-read some of the tutorials; alas, they disappear for good once read, resulting in failed attempts at randomly mixing scrolls to find some form of balance.
There are three fighting styles that you will be able to “master” throughout the course of the game. Ken’s Hokuto, which focuses on finding your foes pressure points and exploiting these weaknesses to your advantage; Nanto, allowing you to see openings in your opponents’ attacks for timed dodges and quick counters; and finally there is the Unique type, which is far more technical and is there with the aim of adding depth and challenge to the experienced player who wishes to master each character. Learning the game’s movesets allow you to go through the multiple game combos with consummate ease, or you can just simply bash away at the Control Pad, dispatching foes in plumes of blood. It all sounds quite cathartic, but there is a fine line between catharsis and boredom, and all too often I would find myself feeling bored having defeated wave after wave of the same enemy. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was any depth to the fighting mechanics. I appreciate the ability to string together combos, but when your foe (rather, foes) cannot string together a different method of attack (or even defence), then you begin to question the whole point of playing through the game.
In line with its source material, the game is scored with a J-pop/rock-infused soundtrack straight from the animated series setting the tone. It works well in this case and is probably the nicest thing I can say about the game’s overall derivative experience. The characters in the game are all voiced in the original Japanese language track, with subtitles provided as a means of understanding – but even then, some of the translation is quite dubious and amusingly done.
There is also an online co-op mode for the game, but I found that most of the time there was no one else was online to play with. I did manage to get into the odd game and I found it made the game far more fun and bearable. Playing on the PS3, my companion was not using a headset with which to communicate, but the experience was generally smooth, with the odd framerate drop (most likely due to my awful Sky Broadband).
To wrap things up, Omega Force/Tecmo Koei should probably start listening to the dissenting voices that are aimed at these titles built around the Dynasty Warriors mechanic, but they will probably be too busy counting the money the games no doubt bring in to even bother thinking of change. Sometimes change is good and in this instance, it is massively required. There is no doubt that the Dynasty Warriors engine is a great fit for the Fist of the North Star license, but there is not nearly enough going into the game to differentiate it from anything else in the Omega Force stable, which is disheartening to say the least. It’s also telling as to the level of respect they have for their product and audience when it is only released digitally in the EU and USA, whereby they can guarantee a high sales price and without the risk of a retail fail.
Fist of the North Star 2: Ken’s Rage is painfully derivative, samey and devoid of many reasons to recommend it to someone looking for a new experience. With an absolutely woeful camera system that has needed refining since the beginning of this generation, it is hard to even recommend this incarnation over its predecessor, which you will no doubt find for far cheaper than the listed PSN price of £49.99. If you, however, enjoy the Dynasty Warriors series in its many incarnations and the previous Fist of the North Star game, I would think there is something for you to like here, with quite a fun online experience to be had should you be able to get a game. There is some depth in the use of the scrolls to unlock new abilities. But really that is all that is new. It’s pretty much the same game as last time around. Make of that what you will.
Thinking of a catchy finish to a review has rarely been a challenge, and I would have thought it would be easier when the latest in this series commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the original manga’s release. However, the best I could come up with takes a line from the anime and is also descriptive of the experience as an overall master of Hokuto Shinken:
“You are already dead”… and on arrival to boot.
There is really nothing astonishing about this game. The anime (and the manga) does it all so much better – go spend a couple of hours watching that instead.