Review: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
I was very excited to play Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage, because I had heard that it made a decent dent on the Japanese sales chart, and that it possessed some decadent combat. After all, it is based on an ultraviolent Japanese manga and anime series, and that’s always a good thing, right? Because if there’s one thing numerous subpar Dragon Ball Z and Naruto releases have shown us, it’s that games based on Japanese anime and manga still have to be good in order to be relevant!
Well, I’ve played FOTNS for about fifteen hours and I don’t think that Omega Force got the message. What does insubstantial story, lackluster environments and visuals, poor level and character design, bland and tasteless music, banal and repetitive gameplay and mediocre combat have in common? They’re all in FOTNS. This game is a thrown together homage that only the most diehard fans of the series can probably find more than thirty minutes worth of entertainment in. Think I’m being too cruel? You should definitely read on.
First and foremost, let me say that I have never read or watched Fist of the North Star. As an avid anime fan, I’ve always known about its existence (it has been around since 1983), but always felt that the art and doom and gloom premise was so…lame. Couple that with the fact that there have been much more entertaining anime programs than this released in the last two decades and I saw no reason to watch this. You may disagree with this, but I think the fact that I haven’t seen the show makes me a better candidate to honestly review this game than someone who is very familiar with it. Why? Because whether I loved or hated the series will have zero bearing on this review. You get 100% honesty.
Moving on, I am a huge fan of beat’em ups. I love the Dynasty Warriors and Devil May Cry series, with Sengoku Basara becoming a recent favorite. Oddly enough, Omega Force also makes the Dynasty Warriors games so the flaws both games share are rather superfluous. What’s more is that many of the DW series’ merits are absent from this game. There are a few things that it gets right, but the vast majority, say some 70% of the game, is simply awful. Let’s start with the story.
In a world where all life except for humans are extinct, one man is the savior of the downtrodden. His name is Kenshiro, and he wields an invincible fighting style called Hokuto. His girlfriend was taken and held captive by an evil person. Kenshiro will embark on a journey that will see him fight many powerful enemies as attempts to do something. Sorry, but if you aren’t familiar with the manga or anime series, the story is going to sound a lot like that to you. There are numerous characters introduced in quick succession, and you may as well guess at how they’re connected to the story. For example, in one level we had sought out Kenshin’s brother. We found him, but it wasn’t him, it was a villain known as Amiba pretending to be him. Then you fight him and move on to the next level.
From what I can tell the entire story is this cut and dry. Things aren’t cohesive in the slightest. You encounter characters and the game suggests that these characters are important with thirty second scenes in which a narrator talks about them. Characters speak to each other and often hint at some undeveloped or perhaps already developed relationship that they have with one another. Yet, you the player have absolutely no idea what the nature of this relationship is. For example, another character who is Kenshin’s brother (I think his name is Raoh) says that he himself is all powerful and that Kenshin has never been able to defeat him. So this means that they’ve fought in the past, but why? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start at one of those earlier fights between them, than to start at a point in the story where many relevant things have already happened? This is the biggest problem I had with the story. It suggests that you, the player, know something about the canon of the FOTNS series. If you don’t have any previous knowledge, you may as well guess at what is and isn’t important and create an entire history for all the characters yourself.
I pretended that Kenshiro and Rei were childhood friends and this is why they were so close. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I simply can’t imagine them being such good friends without knowing why. A lot of the plot will go over your head entirely. As I understand it, the story is actually quite easy to follow if you’ve read or watched the series, but as I said before, I hadn’t. It’s like sitting down to a movie that’s already an hour in – you don’t know why anything is happening so you just make sense of what you can. It feels as though no measure was taken to cater to those who’d never heard of FOTNS and this is simply unacceptable. As though my comprehension is somehow less important than that of those who have prior knowledge of everything. All things considered, I would now like to watch the anime to get a better understanding of the story, because the game did a terrible job of conveying it to me.
The visuals in FOTNS are not good. They aren’t too bad, but I don’t have much positive to say. Some of the textures look nice and some objects are tight. Generally though, things are rendered blandly, details are few and far between and the overall look is not polished or entertaining at all. I asked my brother what he thought of the graphics and his exact response was “I’m thinking PS2”. He had taken the words out of my mouth. Fist of the North Star looks like it could’ve been run on last generation consoles. Objects and environments are dull and lackluster, character models are unsightly and underwhelming, and it just comes off feeling underdeveloped and quite budget. Even things as simple as the birds in the sky are ugly.
Speaking of birds, I found them odd considering they said all life had been extinguished. In my opinion, character design is ridiculous and unpleasant. The main character has a ridiculously buff upper body and the legs of a young girl. Everyone’s costumes are a few sizes to small, and I can totally see most of the characters being drawn nearly thirty years ago. There is one character in a tight pink outfit with long pink hair that I was confident was a drag queen. All the guys are ridiculously buff and you don’t see women very often which makes them that much more noticeable when you do, and they look like they were rendered for the GameCube.
The environments are so poor that they make the character design look passable. Level after level after level you are bombarded with poorly textured brown sand and dessert terrain, grey junkyard items and rubble as far as the eye can see. Honestly, several PS2 games I’ve played, say Final Fantasy XII, for example, have environments far superior to this poorly made HD console game. And why in God’s name do they all look the same? From stage one to fifteen you’ll engage in an expanse of the same locations, ugly brown details and uninspired archeticture. It is almost hard to look at. Most walls and windows can be broken, but this is no excuse for such monotiny.
The enemies truly drive the last nail into the coffin of this game’s visuals. First of all, they are all identical to one another. One brown, poorly designed enemy model. Drones of them will come out to attack you, and they are the icing on the contextual cake. There are different kinds of enemies, but they will eventually fall victim to the same disgusting repitiion that makes the standard enemy so awful. All in all, the visuals in this game are so repulsive it almost becomes insulting. I have trouble imagining how this was passable as a game intended to run on current generation consoles. Even the in-game cut scenes are hideous. And would you believe that in spite of this overt technical disability, the load times are horrendous? In defense, the opening cut scene looks decent, but know that you’ll never see anything even remotely comparable to it throughout the duration of the game. Did Omega not think that a cell-shaded approach would better convey the flair of the series? I don’t know, but these graphics suck. I can’t say it any better than that.
The music in this game is largely contrived. Boring metal and clash spurts forth with the same impact as a butterfly landing on a flower. Aside from being thoroughly uninspired, the soundtrack can’t be much longer than four or five songs. As you run throughout the large, labyrinthine stages, the same song will repeat over and over and over again. This will only break up between levels and during cutscenes. Of particular note, there is one orcheastral track and it plays during most of the “dramatic” cutscenes and it is beautiful. It makes me feel like maybe, if whoever did the soundtrack would have strayed more into that realm then things wouldn’t sound so bad. I’m not an idiot – I realize that rock in some form or another is standard fair for beat’em ups, but the songs repeat so much and the selection is so tiny that it is unforgivable.
The voice acting continues this low quality trend by being ridiculous. When you first begin the game you’ll get a female companion who can only talk when she really needs to, and when she does it is the most grating and irritating thing you will likely hear that day. The female characters are largely overdramatic, and it sounds like most of the male characters were played by the same voice actor. A few characters can deliver a line without making your skin crawl, but the majority of it is not a pleasant affair – much like the game itself. Summarily, FOTNS sounds really, really bad. You’ll want to mute the game before you go much farther than the opening scene.
So, the story is incomprehensible, the sounds are bad and the graphics are worse. What about the gameplay? The game is broken up into a number of different modes. The first is legend mode which is the story mode, the second is dream mode which is a DW-style mode in which you must capture the map, and challenge mode supposedly pits you up against enemies until you die. Gameplay largely consists of decimating wave after wave of flailing identical foes. The face buttons make up two attack buttons, a jump button and a button used for special attacks. You can block, grab and initiate a special boost with the shoulder buttons. Combat is particularly slow and trudging. Where you expect to quickly and stylishly eradicate your enemies, you will spend minutes chaining together attacks that I’m sure a tortoise could execute faster. I found myself counting “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” between the attacks.
The main character, Kenshiro, is perhaps the biggest culprit. I can understand how the attacks launching so steadily makes them seem powerful, but did the developers not notice it wasn’t fun? The two attack buttons allow for a very limited number of combos and you’ll find yourself repeatedly using the stronger one just to progress the game faster. They send hoardes of enemies at you and this isn’t really a good thing. You character slowly approaches them and begins the “one….two….three…” combos and it’s just a complete turn off. It’s not as though the enemies are challenging or unique at all. I already explained to you how they all look the same, and in true Dynasty Warrios fashion, they refuse to attack you. When they finally attack, it seems like they all attack at the same time and dog pile you for a moment. I’m not sure if the developers intended this or not, but it mostly just feels like a cheap reach for challenge.
When you combine the limited attack potential of all the characters with the redundant and lackluster enemies, playing the game becomes a complete chore. You can literally finish the game using one attack button. Even the bosses are no match for the mashing of a single button. Doing this would ultimately make the game even more boring, but it goes by quicker than trying to put together any kind of crippled combo. As you fight, you will fill two bars. The first is the spirit bar and the second is the special bar. When the spirit bar is filled, you can use it to use stronger attacks and a kind of super-special, as long as you have at least one special bar. The special bar also fills gradually and when it is full you can exhaust it to perform a special attack. The special attacks vary in strength, and the stronger they are the more special bars they consume. The environments are quite destructible allowing you to knock enemies into walls, through barrels and into explosive containers of chemicals. You can also occasionally pick up weapons to battle you opponents with and throw things at them. These elements stand to break up the monotonous combat.
As you complete the levels in story mode, you will receive missions. These missions will almost always be “Defeat x number of enemies”. It is as though the game believes its combat is fun. You’ll get mission bonuses for completing missions and it’s normally karma. Karma can be used to increase health or defense in character progression, but more on that in a second. The camera is disgusting, especially during boss fights. It is as though enemies will attack from wherever the camera isn’t facing and you often have to rotate it fully before you can safely defend yourself. This will take a moment since the camera moves really slow, just like the characters, just like the combat, just like everything else in the game.
As you progress through the game, you’ll collect skill points you can use to advance you character. You’ll use the meridian chart to gradually unlock skills and upgrades. The meridian chart feels a lot like the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. This element gives the game a little bit of an RPG taste, but it doesn’t accomplish much. You can upgrade your health and your spirit bar and gain a few new attacks, which would make playing the game more fun if the combat wasn’t so boring. Unfortunately, no matter how many special bars I had, playing the game was still nothing short of a chore.
Dream mode allows you to take control of the map by roaming around defeating bosses Dynasty Warriors style. It also attempts to convey a little bit about additional characters who aren’t playable in legend mode, but you will surely not care about the story at this point. A second player can jump in and join you in this mode. I had my bro help me out for the purpose of this review. Honestly, it’s better than playing alone simply because you and your partner will have a good time talking about how bad the game is. If you aren’t able to play with somebody, rest assured you aren’t missing out on anything at all. You’re actually saving you both valuable time you would have otherwise wasted.
Challenge mode supposedly pits you against enemies until you die. This sounds like pure, unabridged torture. The combat in the game is so boring that doing something like this sounds like it should be punishment for murder. The combat is one of the worst parts of the game, so why would you want to do nothing but that?
In terms of value, FOTNS actually does a good job of providing a ton of content. There are multiple playable characters in both the long and drawn out story mode as well as the time consuming dream mode. Should your stomach be at all strong enough to enjoy this game, then you’ll probably be playing it for a really long time. I can’t decry the fact that they included this much content, but at the same time, the sooner you play this game the sooner you’ll want it to be over. All the content would have been nice if the game wasn’t just downright not fun.
In closing, I absolutely did not enjoy Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. There is a low level of beat’em up fun to be had, but you’ll have to endure so much boredom that the fleeting traces of fun aren’t even worth it. This is a game that would not have been out of place last console generation, and I say that summarily. The negatives outweigh the positives so much that there is almost no reason to play this game.
Big fans of the manga and anime will probably enjoy the recreation of a series they love in the same way most DBZ nuts enjoy those games. If you’ve never seen or never even heard of Fist of the North Star, stay far away from this game. I can’t in good conscious recommend this to anyone I care about, and that means you readers. Your $60 will be much better spent elsewhere. This isn’t just Kenneth’s Rage either.
- Title: Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage
- Platform Reviewed: PS3
- Developer: Omega Force
- Publisher: Koei
- Release Date: November 2, 2010
- MSRP: $59.99
- Review copy info: A copy of this title was provided to DualShockers, Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.