Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is one of those games I really want to be amazing. Tecmo Koei’s Musou (aka. Dynasty Warriors) style gameplay with the over-the-top violence of Fist of the North Star seems like a perfect one-two combination but the final product leaves much to be desired when compared against the Dynasty Warriors flagship series. Ken’s Rage 2 is a step in the right direction, but perhaps just too small of a footstep unfortunately.
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii U (Digital Download)
Players: Single-Player, Multi-Player
Genre: Beat ‘Em Up
Release: (EU) February 8th 2013, (JP) December 20th 2012, (NA) February 5th 2013
Based on the Fist of the North Star manga (Hokuto no Ken in japanese), the 1983 long-running series was a pioneer at the time for its ultra-violence and nuclear fallout storytelling. It was the first animated feature to expose my young impressionable mind to mature-themed anime where characters died in a grisly and gruesome fashion, and I loved it. Decades onwards, the series has remained popular and it’s inevitable the series would cross-over into the video gaming domain.
Tecmo Koei’s first attempt, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage was released back in 2010 and despite the three year absence between titles, Ken’s Rage 2 looks starkly similiar to the original with minimal enhancements in the visual department. After the lukewarm reaction from the Musou interpretation of Ken’s Rage, I figured the sequel would be a massive positive jump but sadly it feels more akin to a re-skin with minor cosmetic upgrades and gameplay improvements.
Visually the graphics retain the same drab colour palette of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Althought suitable for the post-apocalyptic theme, a vibrant colour choice would have been nice as even Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 set in the black abyss of space managed to extract a sense of colour variation from the character models and surrounding environment. Ken’s Rage 2 tends to make use of only a limited colour range with shades of brown and grey predominantly for the many backgrounds and stages. It’s not all negative as Ken’s Rage 2 retains the same semi-realistic character models from the first title which is a refreshing difference from the cel-shaded design usually found in anime based titles. Japanese illustrator Tetsuo Hara unique art style of ultra-toned, muscle-bound warriors with pumped chests is captured beautifully, presenting familiar character in a whole new light.
Playable character roster has been expanded over the original poultry offering of ten to now twenty characters, with many more from the manga series now incorporated into the game. Where Ken’s Rage did an exceptional job telling an in-depth story well paced from story arc to story arc, Ken’s Rage 2 retreads on old ground but at least expands further upon the original manga. The problem here is it essentially doubles-up on story and content already explored and for those that played the original Ken’s Rage, can be a sense of déjà vu. However as a first time experience, Ken’s Rage 2 is immersive as the story sequences are presented in a comic book fashion with panel illustrations that emulates that authentic manga feel, but having to cover the same stories can be tiresome for the fans that already went through it once before.
The combat system features the delectable signature moves and hyper moves of characters from the series, delivering that overpowered and intense gameplay feel synonomous with a Musou title. The generic normal and strong attacks are back and can be chained in succession for devastating results. Like the other Dynasty Warrior titles, stronger souped up combos are ideal for crowd-control, clearing out multiple hostiles in one fell swoop. On top of this, Ken’s Rage 2 now introduces a dodge mechanic to the mix. A well-timed dodge can set-up a counter-attack opportunity which can incapacitate or stun an enemy so a combo chain can assume. Boss battles can at times be epic match-ups which really tie in closely with the manga, driving the narrative forward to interesting sequences.
Ken’s (aka. Kenshiro) messy body exploding technique makes a return and much like the first Ken’s Rage, I still think the blood splattering could be better improved. Something about the colour and the way in which the blood sprays just doesn’t sit right with me however as Australia now has an R18+ classification, I can only hope a third title would mean more realistic bodily fluids that can satisfy my bloodlust.
Level design takes a backward step with a more simplified approach when compared against its predecessor. Paths are more direct with little hidden sections to explore, aside from the odd hidden chest concealed behind destructible walls and environments. It’s more a case of getting between checkpoints while battling it out against hordes of enemies, before arriving at a triggered event usually resulting in a cutscene and boss fight. Lacking complexity, the restrained budget allocated to Ken’s Rage 2 is more evident here than anywhere else. It feels a shame as given the proper development time and funds required, Ken’s Rage 2 could have been so much more.
Vocal talent is high quality provided you can understand Japanese as english dub work is noticeably absent. Subtitle translation reads well but would have been nice had the developers enlisted the help of original english voice artists from the original 1986 animation John Vickery (Kenshiro) and Wally Burr (Raoh), for example. Fortunately the soundtrack doesn’t require any translation, capturing all the flair and appeal of a Musou title, driven heavily by rock music and metal tunes.
Gameplay is served up in three modes. Legend mode is your story-driven mode, playing off the manga series in great detail. The bulk of the original manga can be enjoyed in this mode with satisfyingly different boss fights that differ from the original Ken’s Rage. Dream mode is as its name implies, a fantasy mode where players can play characters from the series that may not be playable in Legend mode. Take on the persona of villians and bosses, each packing their own unique set of moves and mechanics for an entirely different gaming experience. The last mode is an online mode where two to eight players can play together over a variety of different maps, completing objectives to each higher powered scrolls through rewards and random drops which can be used in Legend mode. For the first time, co-op is now available in Dream mode.
Customisation falters in Ken’s Rage 2 as there isn’t enough here to make the experience truly your own. Characters can be improved by equpping scrolls to your character providing passive boosts to your stats. Up to five scrolls can be equipped at any given time and each scroll can have up to three upgrades each. Grouping matching scrolls grants bonuses such as additional upgrades and active skills. Skills can be further upgraded with experience orbs dropped by defeated enemies. Although interesting, it’s not the most in-depth upgrade system and more of a grind-fest should you wish to upgrade everything.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 leaves me feeling indifferent. I’ve enjoyed the Dynasty Warriors series immensely and Fist of the North Star remains one of my favourite animes of all time, but the combination of the two isn’t quite what I expected, especially for what is a sequel. Second round through, Tecmo Koei have produced some positives but at the same time Ken’s Rage 2 has inherited new negatives most won’t be able to forgive or look beyond. For fans of Fist of the North Star, Legend mode provides a welcome interactive stroll through a well-written tale and that alone may be enough reason to give it a try. Musou gamers may want to think twice before experiencing Ken’s Rage 2 or you may very well be filled with rage… too.
6.5 – Above Average. Fun but it is let down by some questionable design choices. While it has its own identity, it doesn’t go beyond its own limits.