Hokuto no Ken, better known to English speakers as Fist of the North Star, is a long-lasting and iconic Japanese manga and anime franchise, which received a video game adaptation earlier this generation in the form of Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. Recently, as part of the celebration revolving around the series’ 30th anniversary, Tecmo-Koei has once again taken their gameplay template for Dynasty Warriors and applied it to the post-apocalyptic beat-downs this series is known for, creating the sequel, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2. The end result, while not truly awful, is ultimately too mediocre, basic, and repetitive to get much fun out of.
The story mode in Ken’s Rage 2 takes place in a Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic wasteland, with villagers struggling to survive and gangs of punk-attired thugs causing trouble. The majority of the story focuses on a wanderer named Kenshiro, who has mastered a powerful martial arts technique known as the Hokuto Shinken, and his efforts to stop various evil gangs as he traverses the barren Earth. Hokuto Shinken is a rather special art in that unlike most other types of physical attacks, it causes the victim’s body to graphically explode several seconds after the initial impact.
Despite such an outlandish setup, there’s no tongue-in-cheek element to the game’s story. Death is frequent, relationships are strained, and Kenshiro himself has some past hardships to deal with as things progress. Character designs and attacks are at a degree of craziness that many have come to expect from anime, but the actual plot takes itself seriously. What’s there isn’t great, and probably worked better on the printed page, but it helps to provide some motivation to keep going.
Unfortunately, it could have been presented a lot better in parts. While some key scenes are told through fully animated cutscenes, a good part is told through still shots, with the models frozen in place while dialog is read. This was probably due to budget reasons, but it still ends up providing a sense of disconnect. The subtitled Japanese voice acting is fine, but it can be a little hard to get fully immersed in the more important or emotional scenes when none of the characters are moving.
The actual gameplay is very straightforward. The main story mode is essentially a beat-em-up brawler, where you move forward through a level, beat up a bunch of drones, and rinse and repeat, often with a unique boss at the end of each level. One button provides a normal attack, while another provides a strong attack, with different combos made possible by tapping them both in a certain order. Successful attacks build up a gauge that unlocks a super-powerful special attack.
Unlike many other brawlers, it’s possible to level up Kenshiro and company through experience earned in battle. The catch here is that the type of attack you use to finish off an enemy (normal, strong, and special) will determine what type of experience you get.
Another element of character growth is the scroll system. Scrolls can be earned by getting a high enough end-of-level ranking, and can also be found in item boxes in each level. Equipping different scrolls provides stat enhancements and even new abilities.
Despite all of this, the gameplay is formulaic and shallow to a fault. The default drones are a joke in terms of providing a challenge, even when dozens are thrown at you at once. You’ll find yourself repeating the same combos and special moves to the point of boredom, with only the occasional boss providing any real threat to you. It doesn’t help that the setting of choice makes for drab, boring visuals as far as the levels go, so there’s little in the way of eye candy to make up for the game being so basic.
Outside of the story, the other major feature of the game is Quest Mode, which does have some unique features. Numerous playable characters can be unlocked for use in this mode, some of which even come with miniature story campaigns of their own. However, the core gameplay is the same basic brawling with a slight twist: Players traverse larger levels and take over specified bases by taking out the enemies populating each one. Despite the ability to play offline and online (presumably, as I couldn’t find anyone through matchmaking) in several variations, there still isn’t enough variety to leave players wanting to come back for more.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 simply feels half-baked. Despite having a lot of content and potential play time within it, the fighting that the game revolves around is just plain bland, and that really brings the package down as a whole. Also, from what I understand, there is little in the way of true improvement here compared to the first game. If Tecmo-Koei decides to take a third stab at this in the future, I hope that they’ll take criticisms to heart and make something that’s more enjoyable to play, because what’s here doesn’t cut it.
This review is based on a PS3 copy of the game that we received for review purposes.