The Fist of the North Star manga series turns thirty this year, which is certainly cause for celebration. It also seems to be the sole reason for the creation of Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2, because when placed alongside its predecessor from 2010, it offers precious little in the way of fresh and original features and instead seems content to merely retread everything that has gone before.
Those of you that played the first Ken’s Rage on PS3 and Xbox 360 will likely be aware that it was quite a repetitive slog, based on Koei’s popular Dynasty Warriors series. The company continues to befuddle many by churning out the same game engine time after time again, stopping only to scoop up a familiar licence to skin over the creaking skeleton.
Ken’s Rage was mildly diverting fun however, purely because it was a Fist of the North Star game which didn’t totally suck. If you have a good memory you may recall the risible Last Battle on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis (the Western release was actually a Fist of the North Star game with the licence and gore removed) and the equally repugnant entries on the Game Boy and Super Famicom; like so many manga and anime adaptations, Fist of the North Star has suffered some terrible video games. Ken’s Rage did atone for these crimes in a small way; while it was samey, limited and incredibly basic, it felt empowering to have the power of the Hokuto Shinken at your fingertips. If ever there was a subject matter which suited Dynasty Warriors’ “one man army” ethos, this was it.
Fast forward to Ken’s Rage 2, and very little has changed. The game’s “Legend” mode merely repeats the core story of the original game, albeit with some enhancements (not to mention a few negative changes, too). This is understandable, to a point — after all, liberties can’t be taken with the original story, as it is set in stone and beloved by millions of fans the world over. To make any massive changes to the narrative would be akin to saying that Darth Vader wasn’t Luke’s father, or that it was Samwise Gamgee who dropped The One Ring into Mount Doom. Fist of the North Star is a legendary franchise in its native Japan, and its plot is untouchable. Sadly, that means that players who experienced the first Ken’s Rage will have to sit through it all over again in this outing.
There are other issues, such as the endless conveyor belt of lookalike enemies lining up to run into your fists, to the downright laughable stealth sections, which ask you to attack enemies without being detected and alerting the attention of others. Just think about that for a second. You’ve spent the past hour fighting hundreds and hundreds of enemies single-handedly without batting an eyelid, and now you’re expected to worry about fighting ten or so more? It just doesn’t make sense on any level, and is a perfect case of a developer trying to shoehorn in a game mechanic that has absolutely no right being there. If Koei had incorporated a mine cart level it would have attracted less derision than this.
Thankfully, the “Dream” mode is a little more exciting, as it not only features all-new back-stories for all of the major characters (as well as some all-new faces created especially for the game), but also follows the more traditional template laid down by Dynasty Warriors. While the Legend portion of the game apes the linear format of the original Ken’s Rage, in Dream mode you’re fighting to control a massive battlefield by taking down enemy bases and defeating powerful commanders. It’s somewhat ironic that the best part of Ken’s Rage 2 is such a slavish clone of Koei’s previous titles, but that should probably suggest that the company should stick to what it knows best.
There are some moderately good ideas here, too. One of the most significant additions to Ken’s Rage 2 is the ability to augment your character with magical scrolls collected during each mission, as well as during online play. These can be added to various attributes to give your fighter a stats boost, with the ultimate goal being the attainment of the “Ultimate Nexus” by linking together the most potent scrolls available. It’s an intriguing concept but the manner in which the game explains the needlessly complicated process is shoddy to say the least, and before long you’ll just be randomly adding and removing scrolls in the hope that it makes any kind of difference — which it usually doesn’t.
Visually, Ken’s Rage 2 offers no advancements whatsoever over its forerunner. In fact, in many ways it looks worse; shadows are particularly poor, manifesting themselves as odd-looking crosshatch textures laid over the super-shiny skin of the character models. Speaking of which, Ken and his co-stars are almost unchanged from Ken’s Rage, but texture quality appears to have suffered. Cut-scenes are portrayed in static images which pay tribute to the original comic book, but instead of using 2D art (which would have been infinitely more interesting), Tecmo Koei has decided to use in-game models frozen in various poses. The effect is unconvincing, and merely serves to highlight the deficiencies of the game engine. Add a terrible in-game camera which requires constant manual adjustments and an abysmal frame rate which makes it feel like you’re battling in slow-motion when the screen is packed with enemies, and you’ve got a pretty wretched package from a purely visual perspective. This is not a game which shows off the Wii U’s raw power, to say the least.
An online mode attempts to liven things up a little, but there’s literally no one playing this game right now; we were unable to test it effectively. Aside from the introduction of a second player to share the suffering, it’s hard to see how it could possibly redeem things anyway.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is a fine example of how not to do a sequel. While Tecmo Koei’s hands are tied when it comes to tinkering with the source material, that’s no excuse for feeding fans an almost-identical version of the original game.
The only aspect which saves Ken’s Rage 2 from being a complete disaster is the Dream Mode, which channels the spirit of the Dynasty Warriors series quite effectively and offers hours of playtime for those brave enough to give it a chance. However, what it doesn’t solve is the poor visuals and mind-numbingly repetitive gameplay, which is visceral and engaging for about ten minutes, but quickly descends into into braindead button-bashing exercise by the time you’re an hour into the experience.
After thirty years of fame, the Fist of the North Star series deserves a much better celebration of its history than this sorry piece of software. Hardcore fans of the series may find that their love of the source material helps paper over the gaping cracks — the same goes for dedicated followers of the Dynasty Warriors lineage — but if you don’t fall into either of those two camps then you should leave this well alone, and simply track down a copy of the 1986 anime movie instead. It will provide more enjoyment during its 110 minute running time than Ken’s Rage 2 can muster during several days of gameplay.