November 5, 2010

Review – Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage​

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 6:53 pm

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage​
In many ways the Eighties were a simpler time, when a man could wander the post nuclear apocalyptic landscape secure in the knowledge that the good glowed with blue auras while the sinister shined red, and acupressure specific fist attacks created a reality where if someone screamed “WATTA!” after hitting you, well, you were probably already dead. At least that’s what Fist of the North Star taught me, my first taste coming via the anime that joined Akira and Fighting Seizure Robots in painting my earliest imaginings of what an incredibly cool place Japan must be.

While many years of studious effort to understand the culture that produced such offerings since then has yielded successful addictions, there are still many things about Japan I fail to understand.

Koei is one of those things, a company that I am aware makes videogames every year, but which I have never had much luck in grasping the sensibilities of. In many ways, Fist of the North Star strikes me as an attempt to rectify that situation, applying the Dynasty Warrior trope to a manga series rather than whatever a Dynasty Warriors game is typically about.

It all seems to revolve around the Japanese word “Musou,” which gets poorly translated here as something akin to “The Only One,” or “Without Equal.” My understanding of Koei’s use of the term is a series of games where waves upon waves of enemies come to kick your ass and in turn have their own kicked.

Given the subject matter of Fist of the North Star and Kenshiro’s lonely quest across the wasteland, this all seems like a workable arrangement. And the results are not entirely unsuccessful given the amount of fun I’ve gotten from the release, but there are limits and obligatory missteps, nagging bits of bad-habit design lingering from the past like phantoms in the code; stubborn, unbending, unchanging code.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage​
Legend Mode is the main course for Ken’s Rage to unleash the pain, offering a stroll through the contents of the manga series, a Japanese soap opera that sees Kenshiro separated from his true love by a friend and rival, wounded but survived, walking the wasteland while becoming a hero to the weak in a world where the strong generally spend a lot of time admiring how strong they are and making others suffer to feed that vanity. Fist of the North Star is what I will rightly or wrongly call the Japanese Mad Max, replacing the super charged car with deadly fists, and the sidekick dog with some kids.

Kenshiro is the weapon, having inherited a deadly assassination art known as Hokuto Shinken, which causes people struck by his precision punches to explode into a bloody goo.

Considering the subject matter, the appeal for creating an beat ’em up game is fairly apparent. For Koei’s part, they tap their musou spirit to create 3D spaces where waves and waves of thugs charge at Kenshiro to meet their violent end, their bodies often mutating after the blows before exploding and splattering the screen with a bit of blood. The set pieces are a looping bit of standard apocalypse fair, broken cities and towns strewn with burnt-out cars and the last traces of civilization amidst the endless sea of sand retaking the earth.

Intentionally or not, the game does a good job of making with the nostalgia, a convincing reminder of 2D beat ’em ups where thugs charge with clubs and arrows, at times accompanied by larger mini-bosses, waves of them waiting to be dispatched violently before reaching the end boss orchestrating the chaos.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage​
Koei layers the North Star narrative content over a standard fighting experience; Kenshiro is capable of performing light and heavy attacks as well as jumps, mixing those ingredients to create familiar combo attacks to put down the gangs and release blue orbs. Add to this a power meter, which offers players a chance to temporally turbo-charge their deadliness, as well as storage tanks allotting infamous skill attacks from the source material that are very hard to pronounce but often effective, doubly so if used during one of those turbo-charged moments. Along the way skill points are gained and can be used before stages to build Kenshiro’s stats, health, defense, spirit, attack power, as well as add new skill attacks.

Even as so many rush to Kenshiro, there are little joys in dispatching singular enemies that stand out. Kenshiro can grab an enemy, beat him senseless, or throw him across the screen, even causing minor damage to the environment – which sounds weak, but there’s a certain thrill in kicking a thug into the side of a building only to see the building cracked and broken from the damage. Barriers scattered throughout the areas can be broken, and if handled right, the debris can be sent colliding into enemies, while barrels offer a typical exploding effect and electrical poles and stray missiles offer a way to knock out more enemies for your buck. The greatest small detail is the way enemies will cower and back away after seeing allies explode.

All of the areas in legend mode are offered in quick bite-sized chapters based on the manga – I was surprised to find my knowledge of the series largely dealt away with in the first two chapters. In a way the quick chapter edits ask players to jump into the material without much hand-holding, but at the same time it saves getting bogged down in a prolonged and likely unnecessary bit of narrative that really isn’t so hard to follow – there’s a lot of evil strong guys that Kenshiro needs to fight, because that’s his gig.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage​
Koei’s delivered an easy game to jump into, no waiting as it were to gain a quick bit of sensory delight from the ultra-violent whilst beating the thugs of the apocalypse to death.

It likely isn’t shocking that the environments quickly becoming familiar, but I found a better time in delaying the typical rush to the boss those set-pieces so often emphasize, in fact I prefer the stages to the boss encounters, which suffer from a fairly standard setup – evade, charge up, unleash skill attack, evade. There’s not a lot of depth to create any memorable boss encounters, so manipulating the environment to survive waves of thugs becomes the bread and butter appeal here – not that fans won’t find appeal everywhere, because there is a hell of a lot of North Star content crammed in here. Legend mode even offers three spins through the material via two additional characters that manage not to simply replicate Kenshiro’s fighting style, but can’t escape the problems either.

In a post God Hand world, there’s a lot lacking in the depth here, perhaps hampered by adherence to the source material, or perhaps simply by Koei’s interest in finding content to fit their style. The skill tree offers only minor adjustments, with any real combo crazed depth absent, and no real emphasis to ever use one were it present.

There’s a lag to the movements as well, where starting Kenshiro into any series of attacks feels akin to gearing up a dump truck – and potentially like that said vehicle, it is very hard to stop once started, because the backend is full of cement and momentum is a harsh mistress. This adds toward creating a very stiff game, where players want for a level of agility that simply isn’t available – most often wanted when larger enemies start combo attacks of their own and the player simply surrenders to waiting out the beating for a fresh chance to strike back. There are also plenty of times where fighting with the camera causes Kenshiro’s attacks to hit nothing but air.

The long term solution for my part was plenty of jumping attacks to smack the ground, and a combination of lightpunch + lightpunch + heavy attack = sweeping leg kick in order to pass through most of what the game had to offer and shorten the amount of time I spent fighting to reposition the camera.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage​
Adding to the title is dream mode, which Koei uses to push more Dynasty Warrior aesthetics, creating alternate realities based on the source material, where players can jump into the skin of other characters, including villains, and take on stages where they have a more tactical challenge of securing spawn points and fighting bosses while “What If?” scenarios play out. It’s an addition that helps round out the title, though it largely takes the existing experience and lengthens the checklist of the familiar while dragging along the inherent problems of shallow and clunky mechanics.

It’s really hard to screw with the content, but it’s also hard to make something legendary out of it, knowing where to give and take with the license to make a product that appeals to fans and invites an added audience. What Koei ends up with is probably what many expected, one of those “good bad games,” filled with flaws, including a camera I consistently fight with, and with mechanics that are at first a bit of fun and crazy diversion, but not long for sinking into repetitive tedium for never being given a break, or having anywhere to truly develop. But the bite-sized bits of Fist are not wasted by the effort, offering up what could easily be considered the King of titles to be grabbed at a discount, ruler of the middle scored, one of the best mediocre games you’ll get your hands on and play in smaller doses overtime. The kind of game we go wild for over six hours or so before wondering what else is on the shelf.

I have a feeling more seasoned fans of the series might take issue with me so easily accepting the way Koei translates the fighting into their game, but a casual knowledge of the series makes it easy enough to accept what’s there and derive some guilty pleasure from it.

Koei (Omega Force)

Tecmo Koei

Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 Reviewed)

Singleplayer, Multiplayer

Release Date
November 2, 2010

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review

1 Comment »

  1. Just ordered this bad boy today. $23 on Amazon! ATATATATATATATATATATATATATA!

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — April 29, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

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