When it comes to making videogame adaptations from popular Anime series, most developers would take the easy way out and turn them into fighting games. This process worked well enough for shows like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto, which were tailor-made for one-on-one battles, but other series like Gundam or One Piece did not transition as smoothly.
These days, the trend of creating fighting games based around Anime has been replaced with turning them into Musou titles. For those unaware, Musou refers to beat-‘em-up titles pitting one player against thousands of enemies at once, popularized by the Dynasty Warriors series of games and all subsequent spin-offs since.
When Tecmo Koei chose to adapt the Fist of the North Star series as a Musou title, it seemed like the perfect fit. After all, both the Manga and Anime gained popularity by witnessing protagonist Kenshiro mow down hundreds of hapless gang members and thugs with the savagery of a martial arts meat grinder. As a result, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage proved to be a success in satiating the approval of series fans and the bloodlust of gamers, making a sequel all but guaranteed. With Ken’s Rage 2, the cannon fodder has doubled as well as the amount of content and characters, but can an abundance of content be enough to mask repetitive gameplay and technical failings?
Directly adapting the original storyline, the setting of Fist of the North Star takes place in the distant future, where nuclear war has turned once-thriving cities into desert wastelands filled with dilapidated buildings, scarce food and water, and lawlessness and death in every corner of the world. As the successor to the deadly martial art known as Hokuto Shinken, hero Kenshiro wanders from one town to another, defending the innocent from marauding biker gangs, murderous thieves, and similarly-skilled martial artists. The series has maintained its popularity around the world thanks to its excessive violence; for someone who promotes pacifism, Kenshiro has killed more people than Frank Castle, Wolverine, and Serious Sam combined, often delivering brutal techniques that cause various internal organs to explode from within, or to occasionally administer merciless yet justifiably karmic punishments to the most sadistic of villains. With the Manga fully translated and highlights from the Anime series readily found on YouTube (including one instance where Kenshiro punches a tank to oblivion), Ken’s Rage 2 quickly found its way westward to all major consoles, including the Wii U, which serves as the basis for this review.
The basic gameplay formula remains unchanged from the previous Musou titles; players control one character as they run around each stage consisting of multiple objectives in order to proceed further in each area. Those objectives mainly boil down to slaughtering countless amount of foes, who will happily surround you on all sides and offer little-to-no-resistance as you punch and kick them into a bloody pulp. These games were never known for their challenging AI, but serving as a pure button-mashing experience that litters the screen with hundreds of enemies. Ken’s Rage 2 is no different in this regard, though the emphasis on using fists over weapons does lead to a slightly slower-pace than Musou fans might be used to. Whereas Dynasty Warriors required little precision in swinging around giant swords and spears, Ken’s smaller range requires combat to be up close and personal, though he also possesses an abundance of special moves (each consuming a certain amount of the Aura gauge) that allows him to suck in larger groups of enemies into his vacuum of speedy fists.
For the sequel, Tecmo made some modifications to the original game, slightly increasing the speed of combat as well as cutting out the excessive pause after each special attack (which was authentic to the original series, but proved repetitive rather quickly). The amount of enemies appearing at once have also been substantially increased, though this leads to dozens of cloned enemy designs, creating an odd but obviously low budget appearance. What is truly unforgivable, however, is the way the framerate is affected: having more than three characters on the screen at once cuts down the framerate significantly, while having entire armies present slows the action down to a painful crawl. Only during those few moments where Kenshiro is by his lonesome or during a few indoor one-on-one boss battles does the framerate shoot up to the desired 60 fps, and even then it’s still unstable. For a genre that hinges entirely on maintaining fast-paced action, this attempt by Tecmo to increase the level of excitement has instead resulted in the opposite effect.
Another addition made is the amount of extra content added to the game. The story mode alone has chosen to adapt virtually the entire Manga storyline from start to finish, including every single battle, no matter how big or small. This includes boss fights with not only the series’ biggest villains (Shin, Jagi, Raoh) but also an equal amount of one-off no-name goons (Spade, Jackal). These battles are typically one-on-one standoffs, where the enemy has their own special moves that can prove punishing should they connect. A dodge button allows players to expertly avoid any attack, but doing so will expand the Aura meter every time. With that in mind, it is far more effective to merely forego defense and just mash special attacks over and over. Once again, nobody plays the Musou games for strategy.
As if the story mode wasn’t lengthy enough, the game also features a Dream Mode, which allows players to select other characters from the series, including allies (Rei, Mamiya, Toki) and enemies (Shin, Raoh, Thouzer, even a generic gang member). While these modes feature cutscenes and dialog for each character, the stages are much more simplified; taking a direct page from Dynasty Warriors, the stages in Dream Mode all share the goal of seizing enemy territories, which are marked on the map. To capture a territory, players merely approach each checkpoint, defeat the requisite number of enemies, and move on until the stage boss appears. Though simplified in structure and objective, these siege levels make for quicker and more entertaining sessions than the painfully drawn-out levels in story-mode, and also eliminate the cumbersome extra objectives such as forced stealth missions (yes, stealth, a mechanic that should never rear itself in either the Musou or Fist of the North Star series).
But in the end, the added amount of characters and areas can only be appreciated fully if the gameplay remains consistently entertaining. There certainly is a rush in performing a head-splitting special move and watching fifty plus mooks explode into red mist instantly, but the novelty quickly wears off after fighting the same mindless opponent over and over and the slow pace to which you can unlock new attacks. Worse still is the lack of satisfaction in recreating the series’ goriest martial arts: much of the appeal ofFist of the North Star came from the gruesomely detailed violence resulting from Kenshiro’s fists of justice. While most Musou titles tend to feature an acceptably low budget visual style, the lack of any fine details concerning the violence really takes out the fun in dismembering the hordes of enemies.
Ultimately, it is the fans that will tolerate the repetitive gameplay and technical issues the most. The story mode recants the entirety of the original story and does a fairly decent job in adapting the emotional weight behind its most tragic moments, as well as Kenshiro’s indomitable bad-assedry as he administers karmic justice on the most sadistic of villains. Each of the additional playable characters also feature their own unique attacks and special moves, and can even be paired cooperatively online with other players, which unlock rare scrolls that can boost health, strength and other parameters once equipped. Unfortunately, the online presence in the Wii U version appears to be virtually empty, which continues to be a growing concern for the infant system. As for Wii U exclusive features, the game features off-TV play using the screen in the Wii U gamepad, but no further shortcut features (such as a persistent mini-map or managing combos).
The Musou genre will continue to thrive from this generation and the next, as there will always be an audience of game-mashers looking for a quick action title. Hopefully the quality of Anime tie-ins will improve in the future, otherwise the next adaptation is already dead.
Note: The Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 review was written based on the Wii U version of the game provided by the publisher. The PS3 review can be found here.