Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a beat 'em up action game that's exploding with as much liquid gore as it is fan service, but its monotonous gameplay doesn't do fans of the manga many favors.
Omega Force, the developers of dozens of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors action games, squeezes the dreary, post nuclear apocalypse of the Fist of the North Star manga into the brawler formula for which it's famous—namely, throwing hordes of enemies at a very powerful player character, who dispenses them with unbelievable ease. Ken's Rage retells the story of Kenshiro, a warrior wandering a barren wasteland populated by mohawked thugs and biker gang toughs who our stoic hero must punch and kick into grisly oblivion. See, Kenshiro, a practitioner of the vicious martial art Hokuto Shinken, can cause his victims to explode with his powerful punches, a talent players will become familiar with as our hero grinds his way through thousands of brain-dead punks and hulking bosses.
Only the Fist of the North Star fan who loves the series for its cast of burly bruiser characters and blood-soaked battles, not for its narrative. Patient players willing to stick with a slow game for dozens of hours to unlock every character and scour every inch of this arid wasteland.
Perhaps this will be the Dynasty Warriors-style of beat 'em up that will help you understand why some people love them? Maybe. Maybe not.
Fist of the North Star? Never heard of it! Seriously? It's a seminal Japanese comic series featuring a buffed up, super powered Bruce Lee in a Mad Max world. The video game version of this involves a bazillion hand-to-hand fights, usually resulting in bad guys having their bodies explode and bursts of gore lighting up the screen. It's an old-school beat 'em up on steroids.
A beat 'em up? I love Golden Axe and Streets of Rage! Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is definitely in the vein of those old school action games, throwing countless disposable thugs at the player who can easily churn through them with a handful of punch and kick combos. But Golden Axe and Streets of Rage and the like didn't take more than a dozen hours to play through for apparent reasons. The fatigue of trudging Kenshiro through bland, dusty backdrops and engaging in repetitive fisticuffs sets in quickly, even if there is some depth to the thing.
Kenshiro is about to turn some bad dudes into liquid with that signature move.
Depth? Excellent. While combat in Ken's Rage can be stiff, sluggish and frequently dull, there is some system of progression here. As players plow through scores of goons, do good deeds for the meek and slay big bosses, they'll gain skill points that can be spent on upgrades for Kenshiro, boosting his health, unlocking moves and acquiring new skills on board called the Meridian Chart. So, when you've grown bored of repeating light-light-heavy combo attacks and firing off Hokuto One Hundred Crack Fist signature move—you know, "ATATATATATATATATATATATA!!"—you'll eventually unlock newer ways to pummel foes. By the end of the game, all those new combos, super attacks and flourishes combine for an interesting martial arts arsenal. And, fortunately, Kenshiro is not the only player in this game.
Mamiya? Rei? Raoh? Jagi! If these names mean anything to you, you're likely a fan of Fist of the North Star and will delight at the way these characters are playable in Ken's Rage. Some, like Mamiya and Rei, can be played in the game's Legend Mode, the slavish retelling of the manga's plot. They certainly play differently than Kenshiro and each has their own interwoven storyline, but revisiting the same levels and scenarios only serves to make Ken's Rage feel that much more mechanical. Other characters, like Jagi, can only be played in the original Dream Mode, which takes a very different approach in its structure. But even in Dream Mode, even having access to a broader range of characters, it's considerable work entertaining oneself.
Mamiya may have shorter pants than any other character, but she has much longer range.
That sounds like some good fan service though! Indeed and Koei should be commended for some of it. Characters are well modeled, stylistically true to their comic book counterparts. Playing with Japanese voice tracks enabled really sells Fist of the North Star's melodrama. And the fact that the single playable female character takes every opportunity to expose her ass to the game's camera—when crawling on all fours, when mounting a motorcycle, when climbing a rock wall—shows that Koei takes its fan service seriously. (That was not a commendation.)
Is it at least challenging? No and yes. Even though Kenshiro's a complete bad-ass who, as the opening movie reveals, can survive being crushed under tons of rock and throw huge men hundreds of feet, he can feel uncharacteristically wimpy when actually playing him. While low level thugs are no threat to Kenshiro, they still take plenty of punches to dispatch. Some boss encounters feel overly cheap and frustrating, with Kenshiro's dramatic signature moves feeling woefully underpowered. Not very satisfying.
So, if I'm not a Fist of the North Star fan, Ken's Rage won't convince me. No way. This is not an inclusive game. Players who aren't familiar with the series may get lost in the plot, which is mostly told through static screens and the occasional cut scene tied to a boss fight. All you may take away from it is that Hokuto Shinken is unstoppable and plenty of bad guys were already dead before Kenshiro even showed up.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a tedious brawler that's brimming with content but little entertainment. It's delightfully hokey and stylish, but it's also incredibly dull thanks to hundreds of generic enemies, bland environments and uninspired gameplay. Serious Fist of the North Star fans may want to take a look, browsing the game's world over a longer period to stave off boredom, but fan service can only carry this game so far.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage was developed by Omega Force and published by Tecmo Koei for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, released on November 2. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through Kenshiro's story on normal difficulty, testing other characters in Legend Mode and Dream Mode on PlayStation 3.