If you have played a Koei Dynasty Warriors title—there are many and they are all the same—then you more or less know what to expect from Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage. The DW games are mindless button mashers that allow you to build up characters by wading through hundreds of enemies at a time while completing very simple objectives. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a lot of fun. It is almost like meditating, as you turn your brain to low and allow buttons and bloodlust to take over. Add in a long-standing support of co-op play, and you have a game that will never be great, but is surprisingly addictive. Fist of the North Star uses the same mechanics and engines, but does it much worse than Dynasty Warriors, which is a shame because it could have been a great game. Well, maybe a good game at least.
Fist of the North Star is based on the anime and manga of the same name. The game uses developer Omega’s Force Dynasty Warriors engine, and thrusts the Japanese cult classic into the button masher realm. The biggest problem with this title is the startling lack of imagination, which defines the game. The Dynasty Warriors series is more than 13 years old, and in that time, almost nothing has changed. The graphics look a little better, but that really is about it. But hey, it works for Koei, and people keep buying there series as long as the gameplay is there. But with Fist of the North Star, the gameplay is more frustrating than normal for these types of games, and the result is a tedious journey that squanders an epic story. It has its fun moments, but not enough to justify buying the same game yet ago, especially one that has so many flaws.
How to make a great story “meh.”
The original story of the Fist of the North Star began as a manga from the writer Buronson and artist Tetsuo Hara that ran from 1983-1988. The series became a massive hit, and soon spawned a TV series, novels, video games, and even live action movies including an American version that starred Gary Daniels and Costas Mandylor — yes, the Costas Mandylor.
Following a nuclear war, the Earth has been left a barren desert, with what’s left of mankind bands together to survive. The strong prey on the weak, and life is cheap. Amidst the chaos, the martial artist Kenshiro wanders from location to location, fighting oppression and evil where he finds it. Kenshiro is the master of an ancient assassination martial art form known as Hokuto Shinken, translated as the divine fist of the North Star. And it makes Ken a bad, bad man.
By hitting certain pressure points on opponents, Ken can make people explode. And he does so often. He typically hits someone once, then says his signature catch phrase “you are already dead”, before his opponent swells and pops. It is fairly grotesque, but it is also fairly awesome.
Fueling Ken’s rage is the search for Yuria, his love. Ken once called the fellow martial artist Shin a friend, but Shin’s obsession with Yuria led him to attack Ken, leaving him with seven distinctive scars on his chest. To spare Ken’s life, Yuria agreed to leave with Shin, and following his recovery, Ken began his search for his lost love.
In both the series and the game, Kenshiro soon discovers Shin and the two fight, leading to Shin’s death. Yuria is also said to have perished, and Ken continues to travel the wastelands with two children he met, Bat and Lin. Ken soon learns that the other students of Hokuto Shinken, his adopted brothers are still alive, and as the true heir, Ken attempts to hunt them down and stop them from harming others. Along the way he meets several other characters, some friends, some enemies, and soon many begin to see Kenshiro as the savior of the wasteland.
As you progress through Ken’s story in the game, you will also meet several of these supporting characters. Most of them will become playable characters with their own branching storyline that usually connects back to Ken, but also continues each characters’ own story, helping to expand the Fist of the North Star universe.
The story of Fist of the North Star is one that has attracted fans to anime for decades now, and introduced countless others to the art of manga. It is an epic tale that has bred an intensely loyal cult following that have kept the passion for the story burning brightly nearly 30 years after it first came out. The game attempts to recreate this tale, and it does so, but only fans of the series that are already familiar with the plot will truly enjoy the storytelling in Fist of the North Star.
Fist of the North Star uses the same strategy as Dynasty Warriors, which is based on the classic Asian story The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (one of the best-selling books of all time in Asia), a historical novel that most Asian-born people are at least familiar with in the same way that most Western-born people are familiar with the story of The Odyssey. It is considered common knowledge, and the DW games don’t bother with too many details in the story, partly because it is assumed the players already know it, and partly because Koei just doesn’t seem to really care. Fist of the North Star is told in the same way, with the assumption that you are already at least somewhat familiar with the plot and characters.
The story is told almost entirely through text, with only a handful of cut scenes and in-game dialogue to make up the rest. Following each level, you are taken to an image of Ken or whatever character you are playing, followed by scrolling dialogue that fills in massive gaps before you jump to the next location. It is a cheap way to tell an excellent story, but if you are a fan of the series, it might be enough to keep you interested until the next fight scene begins.
Beware the cramped thumb
Now, the Dynasty Warriors games aren’t what you might consider great games. Don’t get me wrong, they are a guilty pleasure of mine, and I have given more money to Koei than I can justify while purchasing title after almost identical title, but it is hard to accept the expenditure when there are so many flaws in the games. One flaw that Dynasty Warriors has never had, however, is gameplay. It might not be the deepest control scheme, and sure, there are only, like, three enemy models, but it is just ridiculously fun to annihilate wave after wave of enemies, racking up kills well into the hundreds. The controls are fast and responsive, and the combos are usually quick and easy to pull off. With Fist of the North Star, even though it is essentially the exact same engine as Dynasty Warriors, the gameplay fails to satisfy on the most basic levels.
When you begin the game, you play as just Kenshiro, who is essentially a tank. He is slow and powerful, but his moves take a relatively long time to pull off. One shockingly ridiculous example is the grab move, which takes a full two seconds to execute. Two seconds might not sound like a huge amount, but given that this is a video game and all, it is somewhat unforgivable.
As you progress through the game, you begin to level up and gain new attacks which help make the controls feel less stiff, plus some of the other characters are quick and responsive, but those first few levels are simply painful and require a certain determination to get through.
As you progress, you unlock other characters, each with their own storylines, and each with their own moves and styles of fighting. Some, like the fast and deadly Rei are fun to play, while others like Mamiya — who the game admits is not a warrior and knows no martial arts — attacks with dual yo-yo, which are exactly as dumb as they sound. You can build up even the lowliest character, but it is a long, dull process.
The gameplay is Button Mashing 101. You string together combos using a light attack and a heavy attack, and you can fill up a special attack that you can then unleash on enemies.
The game itself features the story mode, known as the “Legend Mode”, which is a single player campaign that begins with Kenshiro, but soon allows you to branch off and play as different characters. You will almost always end up playing the same level multiple times from different perspectives, making it hard to nail down how long of a game it is. It really is up to you, but the campaign is almost a secondary thought to the true appeal of the game, which is supposed to be mindless destruction.
Fist of the North Star also offers a “Dream Mode”, where you can chose any character (once you unlock them) and play co-op through levels, exactly like Dynasty Warriors. Basically you have big map littered with enemies, and you need to progress through them to complete certain simple objectives, which usually entail beating up a boss. While a fun idea in theory, choppy framerates, awkward cameras, and poor level design make the Dream Mode more of a chore than a treat.
The graphics – this will be brief
Graphics have never been a strong suit of Koei games. Fist of the North Star looks fine, but it is bland and unremarkable. The character animations for the playable characters are good, but like most Koei games, the enemies are mostly identical. One might have a helmet, while another has a Mohawk, but that’s about the only real variety, and they all look and move the same way.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the graphics for the Fist of the North Star is the way that people die. Now, if you know anything about the story, you know that one of its signatures is that the martial artists all have very gory finishing movies — especially Ken. When he punches someone in the right location, the enemy swells up and explodes. In a movie it would be horrifying. In a game, anime or manga, it is awesome. It really is the top selling point for a game based on this series, but it looks awful.
When Ken does his signature attack, the opponent will turn dark red, a flat piece of something will extend from them, and they will then pop. You could call it a glitch, but every single character that dies this way looks the exact same. For fans, it is arguably the most important animation, and it is mangled. Oddly, in the Japanese version displayed at E3 this was not an issue, so it isn’t a programming thing.
As for the levels themselves, the game is set in a barren wasteland, and it is a game from Koei. You can pretty much count on them being meh-tacular, which they are. You will quickly forget one bland street as soon as you reach the next, almost identical street.
This game is already dead…
The Dynasty Warriors approach to games isn’t exactly deep, but it can be very fun in a mindless sort of way, especially when you play co-op with your buddy. The idea is simple– you destroy everything in your sight, and rack up hundreds of kills. In theory, taking that simple but effective gameplay mechanism and adding the interesting world of Fist of the North Star on top of it should be a simple matter, but something was lost along the way. Somewhere the gameplay was just neglected, and the movements become laborious rather than fluid. You can still wipe out countless enemies, but it is not nearly as much fun as it could have been.
While repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing in video games, tedium is. The enemies are identical and dull, and other than the fact that maybe one guy will be on top of a crate so you have to throw something to kill him, there is almost no variety in the fighting. I honestly played a full level of this game almost entirely on autopilot. I hardly remembered going through the map, and what I do recall blended together. There are some fun moments in the game, but it is like eating popcorn versus eating a meal — it is just empty feeling.
The story will appeal to existing fans of the series, but few others. People that have not experienced the Fist of the North Star saga but want to should look elsewhere first, as this game does a decent job of recapping the events, but only to people already familiar with them. To everyone else the story will ring hollow, and the method of conveying the plot through text rather than cut scenes will turn off many fans.
Buried deep inside of Fist of the North Star is a good game; the material lends itself easily to video games. Even a few tweaks from Koei could have made this worth owning, but the development is lazy and uninspired. If you are a fan of the Fist of the North Star — a true, hardcore fan that has all then manga and anime, and maybe even a tattoo of Kenshiro — then you will probably enjoy seeing some of the biggest moments in the series recreated. For everyone else, if you want a button masher, check out one of the several other superior Dynasty Warrior-style games out there.
Score: 5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Tecmo Koei)