The chances are, if you are an fan of Japanese animation, you are familiar with the story of the Fist of the North Star. Even if you aren’t an anime fan, you have likely heard of the series as it is one of the biggest titles in the anime genre and one of the titles that helped anime and managa break out of the borders of Japan. In addition to its presence in anime and manga, the ultra violent story has also made its impact felt in the gaming universe numerous times since its origination back in 1983. Fist of the North Star, or Hakuto no Ken as it is known in Japan, has been gracing consoles since the old PC-88 way back in 1986. The assortment of game titles that the series has spawned has ranged from side-scrolling beat’em ups to fighting games and even as far as RPG and MMORPG titles. The latest take on the series, from developer Omega Force and published by Tecmo Koei, may be the most ambitious take on the series yet... and easily the best.
Fist of the North Star tells the tale of a wandering warrior by the name of Kenshiro. Kenshiro, or Ken for short, spends his life wandering the vast wasteland of the post-apocalyptic world fighting against the various gangs and clans who threaten the lives of the weak and innocent. In a world where resources such as food and clean water are scarce, the strong are usually the only ones who survive. Unfortunately, strength comes in numbers and most of the world’s scum has banded together to show their superiority. As the successor of a feared and deadly martial arts style known as Hokuto Shinken, Ken has the ability to, literally, kill his enemies from within using strikes at secret vital points on the human body. Ken uses this ability to try and swing the balance of power back into the hands of those who believe in what is right and are victimized by the thugs of the world. Let me assure you, Fist of the North Star is as gruesome as it sounds. This isn’t a game, or tale for that matter, for the feint of heart. Ken’s tale is filled with lost love, deceit, betrayal, and lots and lots of over the top violence, from beginning to end, and then some.
You do not have to worry if you are not familiar with the tale of the series as the game’s main mode, entitled Legend Mode, painstakingly recreates the original story arc of the series. Recreations don’t get much closer to their original material than this; throughout the Legend Mode, players will experience, first hand, the story of Kenshiro’s journey all of the way through the events in which he challenged his blood brother for the right to be the true Hokuto Shinken successor. This is done with a visually stunning graphical presentation that breathes a whole new life in an almost 30 year old story. Simply put, this game looks great; the animations are fluent, the characters are incredibly detailed and filled with personality, and the soundtrack is absolutely rocking from the start. In addition to reliving the story as Ken, players will also unlock numerous other characters for play as they proceed through the game, which will tell the story from their points of view. Some of those characters include series staples such as Rei, Mamiya, Toaki, and Raoh. While each character has their own timeline of events that players can play through, Ken’s is the main mode and easily the longest and most detailed.
As you progress through the story with each character, you will earn varying amounts of karma points with every enemy defeated which will in turn earn you skill points which can be spent on strengthening your character. This is done between chapters by accessing an expansive “Meridian Chart”. The Meridian Chart is a large grid of skills that the player can traverse and unlock as they play through the game. Skill points are spent on various intrinsic and extrinsic skills laid out across the chart which strengthen the various traits of your characters; intrinsic skills take effect immediately and permanently power up the player while extrinsic skills must be equipped in order to take effect, up to three at a time. As players purchase items on the Meridian Chart, additional items become accessible and the chart’s options expand. You can take your time and build your character to suit your play style using the options available on the chart; some players may choose to build an incredibly durable, defensive tank while others may go straight for leveling up a characters attack power and create the ultimate killing machine. If a player truly wants to max out the potential of a character, they will need to replay the levels numerous times in order to increase their level ranking(s) and earn more skill points to spend on the tree. Over the normal course of the game, your character will earn enough points to survive and evolve with the difficulty of the game, but putting in the time to truly reach your character’s potential will have you dominating the competition.Fist of the North Star tells a tale that is definitely worth playing through. The game sticks very closely to the original source material which has more than proven its strength as one of the premier stories in the history of anime. Fans of the series will undoubtedly love reliving the events of the story firsthand through Kenshiro and the other characters. Even those gamers who may not be fans should find their selves sucked into the tale that is told by the game. In addition to the original story arc presented by the game, players also have access to a Dream Mode which tells a completely new and original story through the eyes of multiple selectable characters. The Dream Mode also supports multiplayer by allowing 2 players to play cooperative on a split screen. There is a ton of ground to cover considering the expansive roster of characters that are unlocked as the game progresses through each mode. Playing through the various modes also unlocks different assets and features in the game’s art gallery and encyclopedia, which will teach them more about the Fist of the North Star universe including in-depth character profiles and information regarding the anime.
All of this content and story is wrapped around an extremely satisfying gameplay and attack system. Unlike many games of the same genre (3rd person beat’em up like Dynasty Warriors), Fist of the North Star is anything but a fast-paced, button masher. Players who come into the game expecting to succeed by simply mashing on the attack buttons constantly will find their selves frustrated and annoyed with unresponsive gameplay. I spent my first hour or so of the game facing this very frustration as I figured that strategy would more than suffice my needs to survive in the game. It wasn’t until I realized that the focus of the game was on slow and methodical attacks that I began to appreciate all that it had to offer. Ken’s Rage features a very fluid and methodical attack system that allows players to direct their attacks at enemies all around the environment and to methodically plan and execute their offense on the go. If you take the time to learn the various strings of combos and moves that transition into one another, you can wreak never ending streaks of devastation on the enemies... who will then explode from the inside out in a ridiculously satisfying, glory manner. It will take patience and practice as well as an evolution of your character(s) to reach that point though, but the ride ther eis completely satisfying.
To get the most out of the game, players will need to put in both the time and effort to learn the ins and outs of their chosen fighting style which is based on their selected character. Sometimes brute force isn’t the only way to win a battle but you will never know that if all that you do is pound on the attack buttons. Players will also need to learn that the environment is their for your benefit as well. Many aspects of the game’s levels are destructible or interactive in some manner or another. The best use for it though is to send your enemies flying into the various buildings and barricades when you got the chance; not only is this effective in lowering their energy a lot quicker than basic attacks, but you will also be rewarded with additional karma which will in turn lead to faster leveling and growth of your character.Although Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a great game which I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end, it isn't without its problems. There are some troubling aspects of the game's design that fans of the series may be able to overlook considering their appreciation of the lore, but other gamers may not be so forgiving. First and foremost, the camera system used by the game is pretty bad, and at times, horrendous. Like many third person action games, Ken’s Rage uses a free-moving camera system that adjusts itself according to your location on the screen. Unfortunately, the AI sees it fit to move the camera position far too much for my liking and the manual controls are far too sensitive on their default settings to manage it on the go effectively. I often found myself running away from the action in order to reposition the camera so that I wouldn’t get killed. This was a major annoyance that really interrupted the flow of the game. Fortunately, I was so interested in the tale that was being told I kept going back even with the annoyance factor. That being said an much improved camera system would have definitely made the experience a lot more enjoyable.
Most of my other complaints with the game with details and minor annoyances. The game places the player against an incredible number of enemies, often simultaneously, but aside form the bosses almost all of them look alike. There is some variation through all of the stages and stories, but for the most part, you fight the same guys over and over. It is really a shame that a game with such detailed and beautiful graphics has to use the same character models over, and over, and over. The targeting system used by the game’s boss fights is equally annoying. It works, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t as effective as it should be, especially when you combine it with the buggy camera system. Considering that many of the bosses that you face in the game either have attacks that manipulate the environment around you or perhaps send waves of sacrificial foes at you, it doesn’t make sense to concentrate your focus on the boss their self all of the time. Often times players will be blindsided from an environmental attack or annoying support enemies because the camera forces them to focus on the boss character. The good thing is that the camera lock can be turned off, but then again, as soon as you turn it off, you usually end up in a position where it is needed or convenient.
Gamers will also notice an incredibly unreliable hit detection system when it comes to interaction with the environment. This is particularly noticeable doing times where the player yields large weapons like poles or spears. The game pretty much just allows these weapons to pass through the environment without issue; the only impact they have on the world is when you swing them in an attack motion. If you come across a particularly narrow allow that is barely wide enough for your player to get through alone, go ahead and grab that giant steel girder lying on the road and head through it because it will magically pass right through the walls and continue on with you to the other side. This problem also becomes noticeable throughout the Legend Modes’ various platforming sections; there are some portions of the game, albeit a very small amount, where players will have to traverse some areas and environments in typical platforming fashion. This will involve the scaling of various walls and jumping from roof to roof. If you combine the often wonky camera system with an unreliable hit-detecting environment, you will find some very frustrating moments in the game. Fortunately, these platforming sections are few and far between and are no means gamebreakers, but in todays day and age of technology, details and issues like this should be addressed during the game’s production.