In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you expect to see rubble and looting, natural splendor stripped away and humanity's baser instincts brought to the forefront. In a Fist of the North Star game, you expect simplistic gameplay and a quick cash run. But just as Kenshiro rose from the grip of certain death to bring salvation to the downtrodden, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is here to rescue us from a string of mediocre Hokuto no Ken tie-ins.
It's not perfection, by any means, but Ken's Rage is worth your sixty bucks if you're a fan of Fist, beat-'em-ups, or Koei's action titles.
You begin with access to two modes of play: Legend Mode and Dream Mode. The former is a Final Fight style brawler set in the the gritty and gory world of the Fist of the North Star manga, while the latter takes the same world and introduces it to Dynasty Warriors. In Legend Mode, you can only pick Ken initially, following his story through fourteen levels, but fairly early on you begin to unlock other playable characters. Once unlocked, you can switch back and forth between their quests and Ken's. Of course, all the stories are intertwined, so everyone will run into one another, but different abilities allow one character to access areas that others cannot.
The story in Legend Mode follows that of the magna, so if you're only familiar with Fist of the North Star from the cinema, you will notice some significant differences. I was particularly underwhelmed by transition to a steel body made by the leader of the Fangs. While it made for a very memorable scene in the original anime, it was nearly an afterthought in Ken's Rage
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a shining example of a video game made with fans in mind.
In fact, that ties in to the biggest problem with this title: the repetitiveness, particularly of the boss battles. Since Legend Mode is just a latter-day beat-'em-up, you should realistically go in expecting to fight the same enemies over and over. But in Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage, it was the bosses that needed the biggest upgrade to variety. Once you get down a good plan of attack, you will find very little reason to deviate from it. Keep the boss on his guard, dispatch his minions with your general strategy, and then finish him off by following three or more strings of button presses as they flash on the screen. The fights take long because of the attack/defense imbalances between your character and the boss, but you're not going to use up much time at all on analysis. Just charge forward and interrupt enemy specials as needed.
If the bosses didn't do so much damage (at one point, it looked like Raoh unleashed a 75%-damage combo), they'd be a little boring to fight. Almost as boring as the seas of dirt and concrete ruins you navigate. (I was almost wishing for a shack or a Denny's or something to break the monotony of the backgrounds.) But what the outside world lacks, our heroes more than make up for.
The difference between Ken and Rei or Mamiya and Toki when they fight is great enough to keep you interested when you switch characters. The fact that there are so many playable heroes and each has a dozen or more signature moves easily kept me playing for dozens of hours. I made sure to seatch every corner of the map and break miles of crates, walls, and bunkers to collect Spirit points. These are redeemable for all kinds of upgrades in a Final Fantasy inspired grid tied to your warriors vital points.
The special moves are so extravagant that it's hard not to want to unlock them all. And you'll need as much ammunition as you can get when you finally foray into the two-player Dream Mode. If you go in there unprepared, you will probably get slaughtered by the masses of enemies that come at you. Fortunately, your characters retain their stats and skills among all the game modes, leading to a very satisfying sense of progression and the feeling that there's always something left to do.
I chose to go through Legend Mode all the way before even touching Dream Mode, since I didn't have to play multiplayer right away. Ken's tutorial and story took me more than seventeen hours on the game clock. That's for fourteen levels of action, navigating the menus, and figuring out what upgrades I wanted. (I think the game clock is always running.) Rei's quest takes several more hours. Toki's takes another two or three on top of that. Mamiya . . . well, let's just say that even if you're the type to rush through and leave areas unexplored, you can still get twenty hours out of the single-player campaign. And all the while, you not only work to unlock flashy, new signature moves, but you upgrade the look, range, and effect of your basic moves as well.
Once I made it to Dream Mode, I was glad I took the time to boost Ken, because it was a whole new world in there. This time, you are swarmed with enemies as opposing forces fight to capture turf. Since you are mowing down hordes of bad guys, the possibility of defeat is greatly increased, but the number of Spirit points is much higher, too. To even the odds, you can bring a friend in split-screen, player one on the left.
What we're looking it is a game that isn't going to provide a dazzling first impression, but one that is a tremendous value. If you spend just a little time powering up Ken, you'll begin to see the possibilities. And once you try Rei, and see how differently he plays, you should realize even more that this isn't some slapped-together title. Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a shining example of a video game made with fans in mind. It manages to keep the experience fresh, it gives you plenty to do by yourself, and it gives you plenty to do with a friend. With all the shallow beat-'em-ups out there, you owe it to yourself to play one that gets it right. If it had online multiplayer, instead of just local, it would be almost as unbeatable as Kenshiro.