Fans of 80s anime or manga will remember the classic series Fist of the North Star. In a post-apocalyptic future, a ravaged populace fights over the limited resources available. Deadly gangs prey on the weak, and violence and death are the order of the day. Into this backdrop enters Kenshiro, a master of the ancient martial art style known as Hokuto Shinken (the “Fist of the North Star”). Kenshiro wanders the wasteland, spending most of his time doing two things: brooding over his troubled past, and using his ridiculous fighting skills to eradicate any who stand in his way. The trademark gory hyper-violence makes this series a fine choice for a video game adaptation.
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage plays very much like the Dynasty Warriors series. It’s a 3D beat ‘em up, though the action has more of an arcade fighting game feel to it than the previous Dynasty Warriors games I’ve played. The levels are linear, and typically begin with Ken taking on a truly staggering amount of weak gang members, with the occasional tall/fat/strong miniboss thrown in the mix. Some very light puzzle and platforming sections break up the fighting, and once the end of the level is reached, a boss battle begins. Innovative this game is not, but there's a reason why this formula is so familiar; it's because it works.
The highlight of Ken's Rage is the faithful depiction of the brutal blood and gore of the original source material. The Hokuto Shinken technique causes opponent's bodies and heads to swell up like water balloons before burtsing into a cloud of crimson kibble. Enemies scream in terror before they die, and Ken hardly breaks a sweat while gloomily informing his foes of their upcoming demise. The violence isn't so much disturbing as it is hilarious; it's just so wild and over the top that it really can't be taken seriously. Watching the carnage is fun, which is good, because you'll be exploding S&M clad gangsters into giblets all the time.
The main campaign of Ken's Rage is called Legend Mode, and covers events from the manga and anime series. Most of Legend mode focuses on Ken, but as you play, Legend Mode areas for other characters, like Rei and Mamiya, unlock as well. As you traverse the environs of the game, you earn Skill Points which can be used to upgrade stats, or learn new moves. The finishing moves in particular are very impressive, and generally fatal to most enemies. Ken's iconic Hundred Crack Fist is here, and is as bizarrely awesome as ever. There's a lot of content in Legend Mode, easily more than ten hours. Unfortunately, it's a single player experience. Co-op is unlocked early on in the Legend Mode campaign, which is nice.
The co-op takes place in Dream Mode, so named because the plots of these levels do not follow the canon of the series, instead offering insight into background and side stories. Dream Mode allows for two players to play at the same time, though only locally; sorry, online co-op fans. The screen splits vertically, and players have full freedom to explore as they wish, without tethering to their partner. The Dynasty Warriors influence is much stronger in Dream Mode, with larger free roaming levels. Areas can be captured and controlled to increase fighting effectiveness. There are generally more AI characters fighting alongside you in Dream Mode than in Legend Mode, too. This will feel very familiar to Dynasty Warriors veterans.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a very pretty game, at least when you focus on the hero models. Ken, Rei, and the gang have never looked so good. Muscles bulge everywhere, spiky hairdos abound, and as you fight, costume pieces rip and fall off. If only the rest of the graphics were as good; the enemies are very repetitive, and the levels themselves are bland, especially when you see the same bits and pieces over and over again. This highlights one of the biggest problems with Ken's Rage: it is pretty much the same thing, from start to finish. Each level feels like it takes just a bit too long, and even with a co-op partner, it gets very tedious. It's one of those games you'll pull out for a couple hours here and there, but never for an all-night marathon session.
Additional issues I had with Ken's Rage are the boss fights and ofttimes clunky controls. There's a moderate variety in the powers and abilities of bosses, but most of them are very, very difficult, especially compared to the rank and file goons who otherwise populate the game. Even finishing moves do comparatively little damage to them. When you do finish a boss off, you have to perform a button mashing quick-time event. Failure means the boss regains a sizable percentage of health. It's very frustrating to wear a boss down slowly, then miss one button in the QTE and ruin it. The controls aren't well suited to a 3D brawler; slow animations and the lack of a targeting system mean many times your hero will perform spine-crushing attacks exactly where you don't want to. Fighting doesn't feel fluid and combos are sporadic, which is not ideal when the hand to hand combat is absolutely the focus of the game.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage isn't a great game, but it isn't terrible, either. The draws here are watching the blood spurt and the crazy finishing moves, and these over-the-top elements are provided in spades. But the repetition gets stale very quickly, and the boss fights and iffy controls drag the game down further. The co-op is acceptable, but the lack of online and Legend mode partner play are really a shame. Ken's Rage will still remain strong until a truly great game based on his story comes along.