In 1983, the manga publication Weekly Shounen Jump began publishing Fist of the North Star, a serialized martial arts manga in a post-apocalyptic setting created by the team of writer Buronson and artist Tetsuo Hara. A smash success, its run ended in 1988 with a total of 245 chapters. During and since that run, it was adapted into two anime television series’ spanning 152 total episodes, an animated feature film and, later, a live action production, as well as numerous spin-offs. Like many popular manga, it has been adapted into a number of video games over the years, as well. And now, in 2013, Tecmo Koei is helping celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the series with the release of Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2.
Ken’s Rage 2 is a follow-up on 2010’s Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, a spin-off of the Musou franchise (Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors) created and traditionally shepherded by the development studio Omega Force. Though Omega Force developed the original game, however, the sequel was developed by another team within Tecmo Koei. But while Ken’s Rage 2 lacks the Omega Force pedigree, and there are certainly areas in which it could be improved, the game is not an inherently inferior effort.
There are two basic game modes in Ken’s Rage 2; Legend Mode and Dream Mode. Legend Mode follows the canonical story of the manga, hitting most of its major story arcs along the way. For the majority of the story, the player takes the role of the protagonist Kenshiro, master of the deadly martial art Hokuto Shinken, but control will at times switch to other characters that he meets along the way. Select chapters also offer a choice between two or three characters to play as through the following section. By playing through Legend Mode, additional characters are unlocked for Dream Mode, which is a collection of original stories filled with what-if and fantasy scenarios.
Both modes play out in very different manners. In Legend Mode, the game’s stages and missions are tailored to the story. Some chapters play out in a fairly standard fashion, with sequences of action punctuated by a boss fight, while others may be little more than a more involved boss battle, and yet others may involve unique objectives such as simplistic stealth missions or piloting a vehicle. Though the core beat’em up combat is fun, the game stumbles a bit when introducing some of these more unique objectives. They break up the action and are sometimes entertaining in their own right, but are either too simplistic or don’t last long enough to really matter.
Dream Mode, by contrast, plays out in a fashion that’s similar to previous Musou games. In this mode, each stage is comprised of a map with a number of enemy bases, five of which need to be conquered before the stage boss will make his appearance. The player can boost their stage grade and earn scrolls by accomplishing optional objectives while fighting in bases. These include defeating enemies with certain attack types, maintaining a high level of health, or clearing out enemies within a set time limit. As Musou gameplay goes, it’s fairly standard, but there are enough twists that I’m able to appreciate it.
Dream Mode is also home to the game’s online features, which are fairly basic. The player can either play through stages cooperatively with another player online, or go against each other in team matches for up to eight players. The online is pretty fun and like the rest of the game easy to get into, though in my time playing co-op, the behavior of my online companion seemed bizarrely erratic, as though our sessions weren’t in sync with each other. This was particularly noticeable during fights with bosses, as we were focused in different parts of the arena even though we were both apparently doing damage to the same enemy. The issue doesn’t hamper the overall experience too much, though it’s fair to say that the online isn’t a strong point.
Visually, the game is about on par with the original Ken’s Rage, with many of the original game’s assets such as character models and basic graphic elements being nearly identical if not exactly the same. That being said, the game still looks pretty good, and those character models, recycled or not, are great 3D representations of the characters from the manga. Where the game tends to fall a bit short is in the presentation of the carnage. Fist of the North Star is known for its hyper-violent martial arts combat that often leaves characters exploding into geysers of blood, and the game tries to emulate this effect, sometimes doing quite well. But there are some in-engine event sequences that don’t quite work when the blood explosion is little more than the distorting character model being replaced with a gib animation and blood splatter. To be fair, to pull off the level of detail found in the manga’s violence would take a lot of effort on the gameplay end, but there are some things that are probably better left to more complex in-engine and pre-rendered cinematics.
On the audio end, Ken’s Rage 2 is entertaining all around. The game’s musical score, which again largely reuses tracks created for the first game, is entertaining and fits the mood. The voice acting, meanwhile, is top-notch, with the game’s Japanese voice cast being suitably melodramatic in their line delivery for Fist of the North Star’s larger-than-life characters. As with other recent Musou titles released in the West, however, there is no English voice option.
Despite lapses in the game’s graphic presentation, the game really shines through in Legend Mode’s story. Ken’s Rage 2 follows Kenshiro’s story from the very beginning to the very end, with the vast majority of the major story arcs represented. This is a significant upgrade from the original Ken’s Rage, which ended with Kenshiro’s final battle with Raoh and left out such story arcs as the war with the Celestial Imperial Army and Kenshiro’s journey to the land of Shura. The story is presented through a combination of in-engine cut-scenes and a scant few pre-rendered cinematics, but most of the story is told through motion comic-style sequences that present lightly animated stills of the characters framed like panels out of a manga. It’s an interesting technique, and a little jarring at first, but I had no trouble adjusting to it after a little time with the game.
The primary gameplay backing up the story is in many ways classic Musou beat’em up action. The player is constantly pitted against crowds of enemies to plow through before taking on bosses whose fighting styles and tactics require a more thoughtful approach. There are also a few important upgrades over the original game. For example, the execution of signature moves no longer causes the game to pause dramatically and helps keep the flow of the game going, but the biggest change is the removal of the jump button. Instead, the player now has the ability to dodge attacks with well-timed presses, and can also perform a quick evasive dash.
Unfortunately, some of the changes made for the sequel are a little less welcome. Character progression in particular has been changed for the worse, replacing the ability to spend points to select upgrades through the first game’s Meridian Chart with a more passive experience system that upgrades the characters’ five primary stats based on specific actions taken during combat and the character’s physical state. It reminds me of Final Fantasy II in a way, but without the need to take damage to boost health and defense. The game does augment this with the ability to equip stat-boosting scrolls in a basic grid system, but while it’s serviceable, the whole of character progression seems like a significant downgrade.
With its share of issues, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 isn’t quite up to par with the best that the Musou franchise has to offer. But despite that, its strengths balance out its weaknesses, and as a result, I’ve had a lot of fun playing it. The tweaks it makes to the formula and its dedication to the source material, particularly in its lengthy Legend Mode, makes it well worth the time of fans of Fist of the North Star.
This review reflects the PS3 version of the game. A download code was provided by the publisher.