Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage Review

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage ps3 box art

Solid third-person brawler set in the cult classic Fist of the North Star universe.

Story

The world has been destroyed by nuclear war. Almost every city has been wiped out and the few surviving people live under terrible conditions. People who manage to organize and build settlements are constantly harassed by bandits and powerful self-proclaimed dictatorial leaders – chaos rules the lands. The innocent people need a champion to defend their rights. The savior of the post apocalyptic world is a man named Kenshiro. He is a skilled practitioner of the Hokuto Shinken martial arts and he is determined to get back his girlfriend who was wrongfully taken away from him. Armed with only his iron will and deadly martial arts, he has sworn to protect the innocent and avenge every offender that he comes across.

The Game

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is a third-person beat ’em up set in the cult classic Japanese manga universe Fist of the North Star. Following the original story from the very beginning, this game portrays many of the key plots from the source material and certainly doesn’t cut back on the violence. Yes, over-the-top blood and gore is a big selling point for the game, but the story also has deep and dramatic elements. It is quite well written and is more complex than it may seem at first glance with all its intrigue and unique characters.

If you aren’t familiar with Fist of the North Star lore, then this game presents a pretty good opportunity to get up to speed with what it’s all about. The game will spoil some important plot twists though, so be prepared for that.

The basic gameplay is based around various mission objectives that are given to you as you progress through the game. Typical mission objectives would be “defeat all the enemies in the area”, “defeat the boss” or “rescue the villagers”. Failing a mission objective doesn’t necessarily mean that your game is over – more often than not you’ll merely lose the opportunity to gain the Mission Bonus associated with that mission. Mission Bonuses are special rewards that can either be temporary or permanent for your character.

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The focus of the game lies in the fighting, which it delivers in spades. The thugs are plentiful and they’ll often attack in ridiculously large groups. In response you can string together attack combos by tapping various combinations of the light and heavy attack button. Occasionally you can pick up weapons or use the environments to your advantage, and you can also dodge, parry and use grappling attacks. The basic gist of things is simple enough; beat up people a bunch of people in whatever way you find most effective and proceed to the next area. Defeat the boss waiting at the end of the stage to clear the stage. The stages themselves allow for some exploration, so there are many sidetracks and there’s also a bunch of secret areas hidden out there.

Controls

The controls may seem slow to react at first, but with some training you’ll see that you can cancel almost any move, and even redirect attacks in the middle of an ongoing combo. The various combos you can perform are listed in a move list that you can access at any time during play, and exploring your character’s combo abilities is basically only a matter of trying out various combinations of the light and heavy attack. It’s really easy to learn, and pulling of Signature Moves and Hyper Signature Moves is also a no-brainer as they’re mapped to single button presses. It is knowing when to use them for the greatest effect that is the challenge.

Each character has, of course, its own quirks and moves, but if you know how to play one character, it is only a matter of minutes before you can master another. This is thanks to the fact that the basic combos are often performed the same way. However, some characters rely heavily on so called “timed strikes” rather than on combining attacks into long combos. This means that you’ll be prompted to press the Triangle button in certain situations (depending on character) and if you time that button press just right, you’ll be able to trigger a special state that empowers you, basically giving you access to special attacks or abilities that you normally can’t use.

Content

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage features eight playable characters from the original story, and each character has its own dedicated chapters in the game. The playable characters are; Kenshiro, Raoh, Toki, Jagi, Rei, Shin, Mamiya and Thouzer. Each story is tied together on an overview timeline schedule, so it is easy to keep track of the grand scheme of things as the story told isn’t always chronologically linear.

When the game starts for the first time, you’ll have fresh characters with no special skills and a limited set of moves. During each stage you can collect skill points through power-ups or by simply defeating enough enemies. Skill points in turn are used to unlock new attacks, Skills, Signature Moves and to improve your characters’ stats such as health and defense. This is all done through each character’s unique skill trees called Meridian Charts, and it is all convenient and easy to oversee.

Signature Moves are powerful special attacks that are iconic for each character. Later in the game you will also be able to do Hyper Signature Moves that are super powerful finishing moves best used to shave off large chunks of boss health. Skills on the other hand represent passive effects for your character such as damage increases and health regeneration.

You can freely mix and match Skills and Signature Moves before each stage but you can only have three Skills and four Signature Moves equipped at any one time. There are 30 different Skills in total and eight Signature Moves for each character that you can unlock through the Meridian Chart and through certain events in the game. The Meridian Chart also holds Intrinsic Skills, which basically are stat boosting skills.

The game modes that you’ll find in Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage are Legend Mode, Dream Mode and Challenge Mode. Legend Mode is your standard story driven campaign mode and it includes 35 stages in total spread across five different character specific stories. Kenshiro’s story is obviously the longest one, but it’s worth noting that all character’s stories have their associated Trophy rewards.

Dream Mode offers, much like the Legend Mode, character specific and story driven campaigns for a total of 35 stages, and here you’ll be able to play all eight characters. Dream Mode can be played with two players cooperatively on split screen – the only multiplayer option in the game. The stories portrayed in Dream Mode are not canon with the source material however, but instead presents various “what if” scenarios (hence the name) associated with the original lore. Dream Mode stages take place on open ended maps rather than the area based maps that you’ll typically see in Legend Mode. Thanks to this you can move around freely as you see fit and tackle the opposition with some strategy.

Challenge Mode presents special challenges in the form of boss challenges and specific missions. If you pass a challenge you can compare your performance on the online leaderboards.

On top of these three game modes sits a Gallery Mode where you can read about the rich lore of Fist of the North Star, look into character background stories, review cutscenes and listen to music from the game.

Given the fact that your characters grow stronger the more you play, thanks to that your earned skill points adds up whether you fail or succeed a stage, you will see that your power level eventually catches up with the difficulty level. Also, as you figure out and learn more powerful combos, you’ll become very effective in killing hoards of troublemakers. But even so, the Normal difficulty level is a fairly good challenge throughout the entire game. There’s an Easy and Hard difficulty level too, where the hard one offers better rewards but really puts on a serious challenge – which is ideal for a sweaty co-op challenge.

Playing through all the stages in Legend Mode and Dream Mode will take more than 30 hours, so the game certainly has formidable length. During the course of this time you’ll be infiltrating enemy bases, running around in ruined cities, beating up armies of punks, riding motorcycles and generally just being bad ass. You will see the same stages, bosses and cutscenes being reused multiple times, but it manages to stay fresh throughout the entire game, much thanks to the varying fighting styles of the various characters. There’s also some interesting boss battles and mini-bosses thrown into the mix, and each main boss employs his own strategies and attacks.

In Legend Mode the game uses an Auto Save feature and this allows you to take breaks from the game without having to play a stage all the way from the beginning. It can also be used to resume your game if you happen to die. Dream Mode is a little more unforgiving, especially when playing with a friend, because if any player dies, the stage is failed and you have to restart from the beginning. As mentioned above though, all earned skill points are retained regardless if you succeed or fail – so any played time will potentially be of some use.

The game has support for DLC in the form of extra characters, character costumes and some extra stages to the Challenge Mode. While the DLC isn’t game defining in anyway, it is probably best considered as a nice-to-have option for the die hard fans of the series.

Graphics

The graphics in Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage are good overall. The character models are very well done and really portray the involved characters accurately – despite the fact that the characters here are depicted “realistically” rather than the cartoon/manga style that you see in the comics and animated series. It is quite enjoyable to see them rendered in 3D with such attention to detail.

The animation is also top stuff. There’s lots of whacky attacks, kicks to the balls, brutal mauls and exploding bodies. The blood effects are very much over-the-top, and mostly they are also very cool. When performing Signature Moves, the camera dynamically shows the action from different camera angles – accompanied by a voice that announces the name of the move we just saw. This imagery comes straight from the anime and is iconic to Fist of the North Star, and it certainly adds a nice touch to the overall presentation.

The post apocalyptic setting is very present with all the ruins and barren wastelands that you traverse during play. It’s very true to the source material and it really depicts a miserable epoch in a believable way.

The less attractive parts of the visuals are that the frame rate is capped low, and the motion blur effects are a little overused. The game does have a steady frame rate though – only during split screen games it occasionally drops notably. However this is never game breaking, so it’s really no big deal.

Sound

From the title music to the pounding heavy metal that plays during play, this game has a brilliant soundtrack. It’s full of vengeful metal filled with mean riffs and heavy rhythm. Needless to say, it fits the game perfectly and really uplifts the overall experience beyond the normal scope.

The fighting itself sounds great too with all the smacks and bone crushing blows. Not to mention how the blood splashes about. The thugs taunt you before engaging in the fight and they yell and scream as they topple around you.

All the voice acting can either be heard in Japanese or English, which is a great option for fans of the series. The Japanese voice acting is brilliant, and the English voices actually do a decent job too. Some of it sounds a bit awkward though, so it’s best to stick with the original Japanese voices.

The sound is great overall, but there is a bug where the voice will jump out of synch during some of the cinematic cutscenes. It isn’t a big deal, but it certainly leaves you wondering how it got through playtesting.

Summary

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage is a superb and lengthy beat ’em up game. The story is well written and it involves just the right amount of drama and intrigue. The game easily becomes addicting, and long play sessions will leave your arms tired from all the intense button hitting. The co-op option is a wonderful addition to the game and the sound and music is very gratifying.

Obviously this game is first and foremost meant for fans of the series, but there’s plenty of reasons to play this game even if you aren’t familiar with Fist of the North Star – the gameplay is fun and easy to get into, and there’s lots to do – you’ll easily get your bang for your buck here if you enjoy gritty brawler games.

Developed By: Omega Force
Published By: Koei
Version Reviewed: Playstation 3
Genre: Beat ’em Up
Players: 1-2
Also Available On: Xbox 360
Released: 2010-11-05

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