Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
For those of you who live in the West, chances are that the only exposure you may have had to the Fist of the North Star series (if you’ve had any exposure at all) has come from 2010’s Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. However, as the loading screens in Ken’s Rage 2 (recently released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U) like to remind us, the Fist of the North Star series has been around for 30 years, and encompasses many different media, including manga, TV series, films and novels. It isn’t even as if the Ken’s Rage games were the first to be tied to the Fist of the North Star series either, as related game titles have been releasing since 1986.
So, if you have no idea what Fist of the North Star is about, here’s a quick summary: following a nuclear war, traditional civilization has collapsed and has been replaced with a ‘strength means power’ mindset. In this world exists a series of almost mystical fighting styles, which teeter on the border between physical strength and magic. Most of these styles revolve around hitting certain pressure points on the human body, or the order in which the pressure points are hit, with various effects coming from the location. Kenshiro (or Ken), the main protagonist of Ken’s Rage 2, is the successor of the Hokuto Shinken fighting style, and spends his life travelling from village to village, righting wrongs and bringing down tyrannical rulers and gang leaders.
When we join Ken at the start of Ken’s Rage 2, he is already halfway through his quest, as the original Ken’s Rage told the story of the initial part of the Fist of the North Star opus. I came into the game with no prior knowledge of the series, and to be honest, I didn’t feel too lost, so there’s no real need to worry about having to play the first game, or be familiar with the Fist of the North Star narrative before playing Ken’s Rage 2. I’m sure if you are familiar with Ken’s story then you’ll glean greater meaning from certain interactions or story beats within Ken’s Rage 2, but it’s certainly not a necessity to come into the game with prior knowledge of the story.
As can be expected from a tale that revolves around martial arts and different fighting styles, Ken’s Rage 2 takes on the style of a beat-‘em-up, a genre which hasn’t really been given a fighting chance in the current console generation. Players initially start the game in Legend Mode, playing as Ken, but at later points can also control some of his companions, such as Rei, Mamiya, and Ken’s brother, Toki. Each character tends to have his/her own fighting style – Rei, for example, feels a lot more fluid and agile than Ken’s penchant for brute strength and solid punches. Whilst Legend Mode takes players through the second half of the Fist of the North Star narrative from Ken’s point of view, the Dream Mode (available from the start of the game) gives players the chance to play short story sections as other characters, including Ken’s foes such as Shin or Jagi (another of Ken’s brothers). These characters are sometimes unlocked by personally defeating them in Legend Mode or by progressing through the story.
You’ll quickly come to realise that Ken’s Rage 2 is almost the epitome of a mixed-bag in videogame terms. Whilst the character models are well-realised and quite pleasant to the eye, the environments look fairly dated, almost to the extent that they wouldn’t look out of place in a PlayStation 2 title. The gameplay is similar, in that although beating-up countless waves of enemies is fun for a while, it does get very repetitive, as that’s all you do through the course of the game. It even got to the extent that just over halfway through the game, I was able to have a full-blown conversation with someone else in the room whilst tapping the Square and Triangle buttons, and managed to overcome almost 150 enemies with nary a scratch on Ken. This is the perfect game for playing after a rough day, as it gives you the satisfaction of causing gratuitous damage to nameless enemies, without having to really engage your brain.
The biggest weakness of Ken’s Rage 2 is the fact that it doesn’t offer anything different from the start to the finish of the game. For those who love beat-‘em-ups, this could be perfection, but I honestly couldn’t play the game for longer than an hour or two before I needed to get up and do something else. The format and layout of Ken’s Rage 2 would be almost perfect for a handheld title, as in small bursts, the game is a lot of fun and a great deal of satisfaction can be had from it. If I’m honest, I did find myself being pulled back to the game time and time again once I’d taken a break, which goes to show that the experience is intoxicating, just more in the way of a quick dash of vodka than a slow, pondering chew through a hearty stout.
In a typical fashion of Japanese games, Ken’s Rage 2 ranks you on almost every action that you perform. You get ranked for your performance in an individual battle, for how quickly you complete a set mission with a level, and eventually for the level itself. The parameters are well-explained on the loading screen (which you’ll see a lot, with loading screens popping up every minute or two) such as collecting as much karma (read: experience orbs) as possible, finishing missions with an A rating, taking a short amount of time to finish a level, and taking little damage. Some of these objectives, particularly the time limit, can be difficult to hit satisfactorily due to the constraints placed upon the player by the game’s mechanics. In most fights against a group of enemies, you’ll be fighting several waves. Sometimes these waves take longer to trigger than they should, particularly as they spontaneously appear in the midst of a battle. This can cost you a precious couple of seconds which can knock your score down a rank all too easily.
The battles in Ken’s Rage 2 are the largest obstacle you’ll overcome through the course of the game, and the size of the obstacle varies quite substantially. In most battles you’ll fight anywhere from 50 to 70 enemies, often singlehandedly, although there were a few occasions when Ken was pitted against up to 200 foes. Most of these enemies serve merely as cannon (or fist) fodder, as they can be killed with a couple of punches or kicks, and the fights quickly wear down into a war of attrition, while you ferociously mash buttons to smash your way through the horde. Enemy classes don’t really tend to vary, and although you’ll fight enemies labeled as ‘soldiers’, ‘bandits’ or ‘warriors’, there isn’t enough distinction between them to be noticeable, and you certainly won’t have to change your approach to deal with them. Simply hammer the two attack buttons like a maniac, and you’ll find your way through – be it 5, 10 or 20 minutes later – depending on the enemy total that you’re tasked with defeating.
If you grew up during the 80s or 90s, before arcades started to turn into one or two machines hidden away in the corner of a movie theatre, be prepared for Ken’s Rage 2 to serve as a nostalgia inducer, whether playing or observing. As soon as I started up the game and began throwing punches and kicks, the mixture of masculine grunts, sounds of pain and rocking guitars (which feature so prominently it makes Call of Duty’s feeble attempts laughable) took me right back to the flashing lights and mind-numbing noise of an overly-stimulating arcade. After a couple of hours of play, it’s safe to say that Ken’s Rage 2’s audio is largely forgettable, although an admirable decision was made in keeping a Japanese-only audio track, with English subtitles, as this adds a degree of authenticity to the game. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that Ken’s Rage 2 features a lot of (thankfully skippable) cutscenes, so if subtitles aren’t your thing, you might be advised to steer clear.
The greatest challenge that you’ll encounter throughout Ken’s Rage 2 is in the boss battles, which (although they do also sometimes occur mid-level), typically tend to round off each story chapter. These fights often take the form of a one-on-one against a particular foe, and set Ken against such characters as Zeed, King Shin, Jagi, and Amiba. These fights often ramp up the difficulty quite significantly from the bulk of the game, although with a small dose of concentration and some pattern recognition, the bosses can be overcome relatively easily. The camera actually poses the greater obstacle during these one-on-one fights, as it frequently gets caught on scenery and actually proves to be a pain to control, as it either swings wildly or takes on a huge turning circle. Most of my losses during these boss fights could be attributed to camera issues, which often left Ken wide open to potentially devastating attacks.
Ken’s Rage 2 unfortunately strikes me as a game destined for obscurity. Though loyal fans of the first game and the manga series will find a lot to enjoy here, there just isn’t enough hype around the game to see a promising future for it – particularly considering the glut of AAA titles releasing in these early months of 2013. This is a bit of a shame, as Ken’s Rage 2 is an enjoyable title, if only in small doses, and for those who enjoy beat-‘em-ups, but haven’t had a lot of chance to play one this generation, this game will do a lot to fill a vacant hole on their videogame shelves. Ken’s Rage 2 is an entertaining game, and features a lot of content, both canonical and additional, but unfortunately doesn’t really do enough to keep itself out of the bargain bin in a couple of months time.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 scores a 3.75 out of 5
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