Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage

Platform: PS3 (also on Xbox 360)

Developer: Omega Force

Publisher: Koei Tecmo

# of Players: 1 - 2

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: B

If there's ever been a game franchise more targeted to a very specific fan base, I'd say Koei Tecmo's long-running Sengoku Mousou (Dynasty Warriors) series is somewhere at the top of that list. The Dynasty Warriors... well, dynasty has spawned a legion of sequels and spin-offs across multiple platforms as well as a few very cool Gundam games fans of that anime snap up like hotcakes. In addition, the series has given many other developers and publishers inspiration for their own takes on the Mousou mold. KT's latest manga/anime/game mash-up, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a deliberately paced, brutally beefy beat 'em up that packs in an incredible amount of content, solid 3D visuals and a great recreation of the series based around that familiar Mousou gameplay.

Of course, if you're not a huge fan of this extended play style of game, spending upwards of 20 hours per character bashing goons to bloody pulps in an assortment of desolate wasteland settings may be seen as a bit of obssessive overkill. The intentionally slow pacing will also be maddening if you've never seen the anime or read the manga and go in expecting to be slapping fools around at lighting speeds as if you're playing something like God of War or Bayonetta. The best way to enjoy Ken's Rage is to sink yourself into the story (and your sofa) for the long haul, learn the moves as they're unlocked and build up your character(s) until they're nearly unstoppable by the packs of common thugs you'll be laying waste to in the wasteland. Once you get past the game's quirks and learn to manage and eventually master the controls, things become a ton a fun yet still challenging enough to warrant the time spent bashing a near endless supply of enemies.

The game follows the storyline of the manga with elements from the original 1984 anime excellent TV remake from a few years back, meaning the hard-core fans will eat up what's here and pick apart the bones for elements they feel are off by the slightest hair. Those new to the game will definitely need to pay attention to the story sections as well as do some reading as the game progresses. Considering how well the game captures the spirit of the source material (and hell, SOME liberties had to be taken in order for the game to be challenging), I won't even bother to nitpick about things that aren't perfectly preserved from the manga. What works right from the beginning is the level of immersion. Enemies explode in Pollock-like splats of blood, the desolate environments have a number of destructible elements and yes, all the familiar faces are here (and some are even playable as the game progresses).

Where the game deviates from the Mousou formula is in the combat, specifically the lack of great long range attacks and the need for precision using regular or special attacks. If you try to play the game as a button-basher, you'll be frustrated by Ken's lack of range (he can only throw objects and enemies he's picked up) and initially small set of starting moves. While you'll need to get within punching and kicking range of your foes, you can mix things up by throwing enemies into walls, exploding barrels or each other. Additionally, breaking certain objects or finding them lying on the ground allows them to be used as temporary weapons. You'll even get actual missiles to sling at enemies in some stages, and yes, they do incredible amounts of damage. Learning every trick in the book the game suggests is key (and yes, playing the tutorial really helps out a LOT) as you'll face some pretty tough enemies... well, once you get through Easy mode.

The game actually recommends playing through the first time on Easy in order for you to boost your character's level for the more challenging difficulty levels. With the exception of some bosses and faster-moving foes, enemy AI on Easy is a bit (and intentionally) lazy, offering you chances to put away packs of low-level grunts without breaking a sweat. Granted, you'll definitely want to learn dodging, blocking and other defensive moves, as the game works best when you're not getting hit in the face so much. Bosses on any difficulty level present a huge challenge thanks to a few reasons. One, they're simply relentless, chasing you down to bust out special moves and powerful attacks as soon as you're within striking distance. Two, they're usually accompanied by annoying underlings that can whittle down your health if you're careless and get surrounded. Three, Finishing Moves are the only way to take these brutes down for the count.

Pulling off a Finishing Move entails wailing away on a boss until his health drops and the Circle button icon appears. Tapping Circle sends the game into a cut scene where button commands quickly appear onscreen one after the other. You'll need to hit each command as soon as it appears and not screw up at all. Succeed and you get an awesome cinema of Ken putting the moves on the soon to be deceased former pain in the ass. Fail, and you get knocked back as the boss regains a chunk of health (and generally proceeds to beat the crap out of you for a few seconds unless you get out of the way). Given that the combo strings get longer as trickier as the game progresses, you'd better get good at hitting the right buttons and not being prone to any controller throwing antics.

As you bash through baddies and move on chapter to chapter, you'll be rewarded with Skill Points to buy some great new moves, unlockables (and Trophies) such as new characters to play as, new costumes and other goodies. Spending Skill Points on unlocking moves in Ken's Meridian Chart and choosing which ones to use in the next stage is quite cool, but sometimes hit or miss as you're limited in how many can be equipped. You'll learn a number of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Skills as well as Signature Moves as the game progresses and yes, you can revisit old levels to reap SP over and over or attempt to get all the hidden SP and other goals in a stage for the best ranking.

There are even some fun motorcycle sections where Ken gets to hop on a big bike and mow down enemies as he blazes a trail to new challenges. It would have been great to have the original anime on the disc as a bonus for those that still haven't seen it yet, but given the ridiculous amount of game here, you'd probably never get around to actually watching it. There's a load of reading material that goes into the history of the game world, the assorted fighting moves and the characters, all of which help deepen one's knowledge of the overall storyline. Also, the game manual is actually a great deal of help when it comes to understanding the different skills, moves combos and other important things. Read it, or weep, I say...

If the massive Legend Mode isn't enough for you, Dream Mode awaits and Challenge Mode lurks, both packed full of challenge and mean as hell enemies out to ruin your selected character's day. Dream Mode allows you to play as Ken or any unlocked characters through a series of Mousou-inspired stages complete with sprawling maps, tons of allied and enemy troops, and nigh indestructible sub-bosses and bosses that need subduing. Expect to spend at least an hour or so on each map here (again, per character!) and a hefty amount of challenge no matter who you choose to play as. Challenge Mode is basically your character going solo against Boss after Boss and yes, it's a finger-busting nightmare unless you know the moves like the back of your hand and can take out these guys in rapid succession.

Omega Force has done an excellent job with the presentation here, bringing the world of the manga and anime to 3D life with great looking character models, an intentionally muted color palette and plenty of blasted-out real estate that's straight from the source material. Sure, if you stack what's here up against other current games in different genres, there's a lot lacking in terms of overall polish, but for Omega Force, it's clearly not only a labor of love, but some of the developer's best work to date. Core fans of the anime will get that chill down their spines the first time they see the camera zip around the Kenshiro model and set him on his merry way. Every other main character gets the same amount of welcome attention to detail and only the endless grunts get the recycled treatment. Given these low-level enemies are only going to be on screen until you turn them to blood pudding on the ground and walls, it's nothing to complain about (especially given the anime did the same thing in its reusing of these character types).

The sound design is also great, with the choice of English or Japanese voices (both sound great), meaty sound effects that aren't "special" but fit the action appropriately and a pounding rock soundtrack what while not the same as the original anime, does a good job of pumping things up. Even if you turn the blood spurting effects off (and why you'd want to do that is beyond me - it's part of the appeal of the franchise), the game definitely earns that Mature rating with a few curses here and there and the occasional eyebrow-raising bit of content (and no, Mamiya doesn't lose nearly all her clothes in her maps - they just get ripped suggestively as she takes damage).

In terms of multiplayer action, don't go in expecting a raft of PSN or XBL features - the main game is strictly single player focused, story driven manly-he-man action. While there's no one on one or versus AI mode, you can grab a buddy for some couch co-op in Dream Mode. It's actually recommended, as some of the maps can take seemingly forever to complete in solo play. The game box notes that DLC will become available at some point (or perhaps is already on the scene), but I'm reviewing the out of the case retail version as is because there's more than enough content here to keep anyone into the franchise quite busy for a few weeks at best.

Granted, if this is the ONLY game you play and play from start to finish, you'll be hearing "You're already dead..." when you're doing everyday stuff like grabbing a soda from the fridge or taking out the trash and laughing loudly just before you turn around to check if some big burly guy is standing behind you about to tap you on a pressure point. Of course, if you're a decent person, that's not going to be an issue - in fact, I'd much rather have Kenshiro watching my back instead of putting a fist-sized hole through it. If you're of the same mind, well... what are you waiting for?

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