Fist of the North Star is classic manga/anime property that tells the story of Kenshiro, successor to the lethal martial art “Hokuto Shinken,” which allows wielders of the art to destroy their enemies from the inside-out, in excessively gory and violent fashion. Set in a desertified post-apocalyptic future ruled by violent thugs and powerful war-lords, Kenshiro travels from town to decrepit town in search of shelter and water, while at the same time facing off with lawless thugs who prey on the weak. Naturally, the setting and over-the-top martial arts make for prime action game material. So it is extremely disappointing to know that Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is utterly mediocre at its best, and a tedious chore at its worst.
I write as someone who hasn’t played the first Fist of the North Star: Kens’ Rage title. Though I’m told that the first game was actually better in some respects, I can only judge Ken’s Rage 2 on it’s own merits (or lack thereof).
Ken’s Rage 2 is a beat ‘em up style action game that pits Ken and various protagonists against hordes of murderous bandits and thugs, while re-telling the lengthy story of Fist of the North Star. As a Musou game (think Dynasty Warriors), players will face off against huge mobs of enemies as they travel from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Every character has access to light and heavy attacks, a throw, evasive techniques, a special attack and signature moves. Players can string light and heavy attacks together of perform a variety of combos, which in turn builds up an energy called “Aura.” Signature moves require aura to use, so combat involves earning aura with combos to burn with signature moves.
By playing around and experimenting with the combat system, I found that there is actually some interesting combo and juggle mechanics that the combat engine allows. Ken’s Rage 2 features an interesting counter system whereby tougher enemies will leave themselves vulnerable when they use certain attacks. By dodging said attack, an exclamation mark will appear over the enemy’s head, signifying the counter-attack window. Hitting the enemy during this window will put them in a prolonged stun state, allowing players to slap their victim around at their leisure.
Unfortunately, much of the combat options available to players feel superfluous. What purpose does the throw serve, aside from being a complete waste of time? What’s the point of having so many different combos, when only a few of them have unique properties? What’s the point of pulling off a 300+ hit juggling combo on a group of brainless thugs, when I can mash Ken’s most basic attack and get the same exact result? Despite the game engine allowing for some interesting combo opportunities, the game does nothing to encourage players to get creative. Hundred hit combos come as naturally as breathing in Ken’s Rage 2 – players have to do very little to aside from mashing basic attacks.
See, basic enemies are ill-equipped to deal with the protagonist’s arsenal of attacks. They can attack and hop around, but that’s the extent of their abilities. The playable characters can stun and juggle common foes with ease, allowing players to rack-up absurdly long combo strings on entire groups of enemies, as is standard Dynasty Warriors fair. There’s little incentive to learn the intricacies of the combat system as a result – hammering basic combos and using the strongest signature moves available will guarantee victory in any non-boss encounter.
Bosses are another ugly affair entirely. They resist basic stuns and can essentially shrug-off an entire combo while attacking you at the same time. Successfully comboing a boss means little as well, since they will often put up their guard in the middle of your combo, negating any real value the combo system has. As a result, boss fights boil down to abusing dodges, counters and signature moves at every opportunity.
Defense in Ken’s Rage 2 is implemented awkwardly. All characters have access to a basic dodge (the A button), which allows them to weave under any incoming attack. This is particularly useful, as players are in a prime position to counterattack after successfully evading. The basic dodge can also be spammed repeatedly, allowing players to weave under entire combos with ease. As one can imagine, this makes evasion somewhat overpowered, as players can simply hammer the dodge button and avoid taking most of the damage dished their way.
In what I can only imagine was Koei’s attempt to balance this mechanic, dodging is designed to consume Aura, which as mentioned earlier fuels each protagonist’s signature moves. So we have an odd dynamic where the game essentially penalizes players for using effective defense by taking precious Aura away.
Aiming attacks in Ken’s Rage 2 feels terrible, as there is no targeting whatsoever. Players must constantly manipulate the analog sticks to focus on the action and to orient Ken’s attacks in the proper direction. During fights with hundreds of thugs this isn’t much of an issue, but the moment a tougher boss-level enemy jumps into the fray, the lack of a proper targeting system becomes a notable problem. It’s very easy to miss a target due to the lack of a targeting system, and because countering is actually useful during boss fights, screwing up your counter attempts becomes frustrating. It means you have to waste time and Aura evading another attack only to hope that your counter connects properly this time.
To make matters worse, the environments in Ken’s Rage 2 are all lifeless and boring. Stages are divided into two camps – single rooms and corridor areas. Single rooms pit the player against waves of enemies or a boss, while corridors have players move through a linear map, with several “gates” interspersed throughout, requiring that players kill all enemies before being allowed to make progress. What’s that, Ken’s Rage 2? I need to kill a hundred enemies to get the gate to open? *Sigh* Okay. What’s my reward for killing a hundred enemies and clearing the gate? I get to kill another hundred enemies? Wonderful. My life is now complete.
Most of the story in Ken’s Rage 2 is told through static storyboard images that pay homage to the series’ manga roots. Rather than create new artwork for these scenes, however, Ken’s Rage 2 creates these images using static character models. The lack of English voice acting adds to the “budget” feel of the overall game.
There are ways to make a player feel powerful and stylish, while at the same time giving them a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Games like God Hand, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, and Devil May Cry 3 all give players a massive list of powerful attacks and combos to utilize, which in turn allows them to utterly destroy enemies in each respective game. The key differences in these games is that the enemies are dangerous and competent enough to be genuine threats, and there is a level of skill that a player must reach before they can devastate enemy hordes. Because destroying brainless thugs in the world of Ken’s Rage 2 is so effortless, the combat feels shallow and cheap. And because evasion comes with such a steep price tag, the game feels even more like a mindless button masher.
Whatever creativity the development team siphoned into Ken’s Rage 2 went to the game’s “Dream Mode,” where players can fight as characters and villains from the storyline in all new prequel-esque “dream” scenarios. While these scenarios do absolutely nothing interesting with the storyline or setting of Fist of the North Star, the overall tone of the dream stories are lighter and sillier. For example, players can select the basic “Bandit” thug as a playable character right from the beginning. Unlike the mindless thugs players fight in the main campaign, Bandit has a genuinely unique move-set that has him combo with all sorts of crazy weapons — from claws to flails and baseball bats. His signature move has him throw his stylish post-apocalyptic mohawk like an axe, dealing damage to anything in the blade’s (?) trajectory. It’s silly and over-the-top, but fun and creative at the same time. It’s a pity Koei didn’t inject this creativity into the story campaign.
There is little about Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 that sets it apart from other action games or Musuo titles, aside from the property name. I feel that Ken’s Rage 2 was released solely to capitalize on the 30th anniversary of Fist of the North Star. The game is visually underwhelming, the storytelling is awkward and cheap-looking and the gameplay is repetitive and worse still, brainless. Even the gore is unsatisfying – the bloody, chunky explosions the series is known for are wispy and weak – a puff of reddish smoke rather than a blast of viscera and thug meat. Skip it and pick up Anarchy Reigns instead.
You can buy Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 at Amazon.com for $36.80.