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Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage
Score: 55%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Tecmo KOEI America
Developer: Koei
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Action/ Fighting/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
Every few minutes, the main character of Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage, Kenshiro, proclaims to one of his victims, "You are already dead." It wasn't until after a few hours, thousands of enemies and one-liners later that I realized he was actually talking to me. I was already dead... from playing his game. Brain dead. The funny part was that I was genuinely excited to play this Dynasty Warriors-style brawler based on the cult manga before it seemingly devolved into a rote, derivative slog.

Fist of the North Star is known for two things: it is incredibly hyper-violent and it has a unique visual flair that set it apart from its contemporaries all the way back in the 1980's. In a world destroyed by nuclear warfare, tribes of warriors sprung up out of the aftermath. Kenshiro is a practitioner of a legendary and dangerous style of martial arts known as "Hokuto Shinken" and the one thing the videogame adaptation nails is the faithful representation of the overly masculine Mad Max aesthetic. Leather jackets and bondage gear are plentiful in a dreary world of browns and greys as you fight your way through a sterile heavy-metal playground, but the empty environments, confusing paths, blurry textures, and generic enemy types are the real offenses here. Many of the problems that Fist of the North Star experiences could easily be written off in the name of fan service, but the lazy attitude towards the design is so pervasive throughout the whole experience, that it actually turns people off that were genuinely interested when starting out (like myself.)

The soundtrack isn't much better. As a bona fide heavy metal fan, even I was thoroughly uninterested and annoyed by the same three guitar riffs that play seemingly at random sometimes. The catchy and crunchy metal sound quickly wore out its welcome after the first hour, mainly because of lackluster dialogue and voice acting being played over the soundtrack. The original Japanese voices can be used if you choose, but the general silence in every level means it doesn't really matter much when all you hear are the painful screams of a thousand victims each level.


Gameplay:
The story for Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage follows the first storyline arc of the anime and manga with the vengeful Kenshiro looking to destroy the evil emperor Raoh. Not that the story really matters in a game that revolves entirely around punching guys so hard they explode. Literally. So Ken carves a path of destruction through a dozen or so uninspired levels with little to no variety at all. What you see is what you get. Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick. Super move. Repeat ad nauseam.

Eventually, you earn the ability to unlock new super moves and additional characters, which is the one area that Fist of the North Star really shines; its ambition. There are several additional characters to unlock, who come complete with their own personal storylines, even the villains. All of the timelines are charted neatly on the character select screen so you can accurately place the events of the level on the grand scale. The additional characters have stories that are relatively short and sweet, but expect more of the same for every new playable character. Kill thousands of same-y enemies and continue forward.

It is a shame that the main draw of Fist of the North Star, the fighting, is such a chore. The only reason to play the game is precisely the reason why I run past large groups of enemies just to get to the level's exit. Even with a friend, the two-player co-op is just as lifeless and repetitive as the single player with no special team up moves and a map that is borderline microscopic, which makes an already confusing level design nearly impossible to navigate properly.


Difficulty:
While there may be multiple difficulty levels to choose from, it is unfortunate that the real challenge will be the test of will power and patience rather than dexterity or skill. Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage wears thin after the first hour and conceivably you could play for thirty hours and still not complete everything that is offered. The repetitive gameplay can be overlooked by some fans, especially by fans of Dynasty Warriors because Fist of the North Star is cut from the same cloth, but it is the total lack of variety that will literally cause you to fight off the urge to fall asleep.

Game Mechanics:
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage largely trades heavily on story and charm rather than actual involved gameplay. Sure, the premise is silly and fun, but when the level starts, I roll my eyes and groan more often than I scoot closer to the edge of my seat. The problem seems to be from a very poor and shallow combat system coupled with tedious enemy types that are far too strong for their own good. As you defeat the aggressively dumb enemies, you gain karma points which can then be spent on status upgrades and new moves. However, the new combat moves are only for special attacks, which means they won't be used all that often.

The character upgrade screen also doesn't fit well with the gameplay. Narratively, it makes sense to steal the "Zodiac" system from Final Fantasy XII, which they do, but it isn't practical when nearly all of the upgrades and improvements are largely needless or incremental carrot-dangling that are drawn out way too far. Ex: "defense + 3" begets "defense +5." A more robust and customizable fighting system could have saved a cherished cult franchise.

Fist of the North Star hasn't seen a North American videogame adaptation in decades. The fan base for this violent, escapist fantasy deserves better than a half-ass afterthought. It is obvious that the developers' hearts are in the right place and their commitment to fan-service is commendable, but at the end of the day, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage does absolutely nothing to elevate the franchise or the genre. To anyone who can stomach the repetition, there might be a diamond in the rough, but for most people, it is just a setup to disappointment.


-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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