While it may not be obvious at first glance, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is the latest title in the Dynasty Warriors franchise. The Japanese name of the game is Hokuto Musou, placing it among Koei's other Musou titles. Unlike fellow anime-inspired Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, however, it was released in North America without a franchise reference in the title. While this may seem like an odd choice, the reasoning behind it becomes pretty clear after you spend some time with the game. Ken's Rage may look like a Dynasty Warriors game and play like a Dynasty Warriors game, but it's trying to pretend that it isn't. The Dynasty Warriors elements take a backseat to attempts to turn the game into a straightforward beat-'em-up, but the marks of the franchise are still all over it.
For those unfamiliar with the Fist of the North Star manga, it is set many years after the apocalypse, when humanity is on the brink of destruction. Most of civilization is ruined, and the few villages that eke out an existence in the barren wasteland are under constant attack by raiders and bandits. Wandering this wasteland is a man named Kenshiro, who is the heir to Hokuto Shinken, a type of martial arts that relies on pressure points to do things such as make a man explode from the inside out, heal wounds or teach a language to someone. Kenshiro is perhaps the strongest person in the postapocalyptic wasteland because of this. The manga follows his travels throughout the world and his encounters with the evil that roams the destroyed lands.
The basic gameplay of Ken's Rage is pretty much unchanged from the usual Dynasty Warriors style. Aside from a few minor variations, it's pretty much what you'd expect. The premise is the same: a super-powered individual fights against large hoards of disposable enemies. The Square button launches weak attacks, and the Triangle button makes powerful attacks. Different patterns of these two buttons will unleash combos. Some are good at attacking single targets, others clear out groups of foes, and others can be used when you'd otherwise be in danger. You'll generally find that most moves have a purpose, although some are better than others.
Each character also has a unique action that can be triggered with the R1 button. Shin, for example, occasionally charges enemies with energy when striking them. Pressing R1 will cause him to snap his fingers, which makes any energy-charged enemy explode from within. Kenshiro has the ability to roll. This may sound less exciting, but it allows him to dodge enemies attacks and cancel his own moves, making it easy to do a lot of damage while taking little of your own.
Each character also has a series of signature moves, akin to the Musou moves in Dynasty Warriors titles. A nice variation is that you actually get multiple signature moves at once. You can switch between them with the d-pad and tailor your special attack to certain situations. It adds some nice variety when compared to the more static Musou attacks from other Dynasty Warriors titles. Build up your special meter by attacking and defeating enemies, and once the meter is full, you can use a special move. Certain moves may require you to fill the bar multiple times before you can use them.
You can also spend your special bar to activate your Spirit Aura, which lets you deal more damage to enemies and changes your special attack into a more powerful version. You can also use Spirit Aura to weaken the effect of an enemy's Spirit Aura. I tended to find the Spirit Aura more useful than many of the signature moves. Each character also has a focus meter that fills as he fights, and it's distinct from your special meter. When in Spirit Aura, you can spend Focus to use a stronger version of your signature move for lots of damage.
There are three kinds of characters in Ken's Rage: Hokuto, Nanto and Special. Kenshiro is a Hokuto type, so he has access to powerful pressure point attacks and can use them to weaken his opponents. By repeatedly attacking enemies, you can put them into a state of meridian shock, which causes them to take extra damage for a short while. Nanto fighters like Rei can perform timely strikes. If you press a button as the prompt appears on-screen, you'll perform a counter move that puts enemies into a state of spirit shock (basically the same as meridian shock). You can also get a power boost for countering attacks. Special characters tend to be less impressive but have something unique, such as projectiles. Jagi is armed with shotguns and a bazooka, so he can fight much better from a distance. Special characters can also trigger a meridian shock. The character variety is more appealing to fans of the franchise, but the playable characters are unique enough that even those who are unfamiliar with the franchise can enjoy it.
Compared to recent Dynasty Warriors titles, the leveling system in Ken's Rage is a bit weak. As you fight, you'll earn karma from defeated enemies so you can level up. Once you've leveled up, you'll earn skill points, which you can also find in chests scattered around the stages. Between levels, skill points can be spent on a character's meridian chart, which represents various power-ups for your character. It includes new moves, passive abilities and boosts to your hit points, defense or attack. It's a straightforward leveling system, and it's nice to get new moves and abilities, but it feels too straightforward. Perhaps I'm judging this unfairly compared to the similarly anime-inspired Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, but it feels like there could have been some more creativity here.
Among the available gameplay modes, Legend mode takes you through the story events of the original Fist of the North Star manga. Legend mode attempts to convert Dynasty Warriors mechanics to match the basic events of the story, turning the game into more of a brawler. Levels are shrunken down and converted into more linear paths, hidden areas are available, and some minor platforming and trap-dodging is added. It ends up playing like an older-style beat-'em-up rather than a Dynasty Warriors game. It becomes very clear that the mechanics of Dynasty Warriors are intended for fighting armies of enemies at once, not small, personal conflicts. Trying to shoehorn the game mechanics to fight smaller groups merely highlights the weaknesses. Combat is simplistic and button-mashy, and the boss fights are particularly disappointing. The mechanics are accurate to the Fist of the North Star manga, but it makes for a less-than-thrilling game.
Dream mode is a lot more like the Dynasty Warriors gameplay to which fans are accustomed. You're thrust onto a giant map in a battle between opposing armies, and you must beat the crud out of enemies who appear, capturing bases along the way. The areas are a lot larger and more open than their Legend mode counterparts, and you're given more freedom about where to go and what to do. Capturing bases is usually a matter of beating up every nearby enemy. It's pretty straightforward, and the wider variety of enemies and characters does wonders to make it more entertaining. This mode still has its flaws, but more fun than the slog through Kenshiro's main adventure. There's also a Challenge mode that lets you play DLC levels and survival fights, but it's not particularly exciting.
Most levels feature optional objectives on a star chart, which is comprised of several stars, each with a battle objective. Sometimes this objective is almost unavoidable, such as defeating an enemy in your path, but other times, it's an optional objective located somewhere in the level. Completing the objective fills in part of the chart and gives your character a passive bonus, such as increasing the experience you gain for the rest of the stage, refilling your focus meter or weakening enemy forces. This is a neat addition that doesn't come into play much, but like many of the optional mechanics in a Dynasty Warriors title, it adds some incentive for you to replay stages. You're also scored at the end of levels based on your performance and the number of stars you light up.
Graphically, Ken's Rage is surprisingly subpar. The levels and locations are rather dull and brown, and that makes sense for a series set in a postapocalyptic wasteland, but that doesn't excuse the near-identical wrecked towns or empty environments. The character models are fairly good and do a reasonable job of mimicking the manga series, but the same can't quite be said of combat. Fist of the North Star is known for its excessive and over-the-top violence, and Ken's Rage attempts to mimic this by making enemies swell and explode after they've been defeated. The problem is that the swelling animation is one of the worst I've seen in a game, and it looks more like a graphical glitch. There is supposed to be clothing damage for attacks, but most of the damage looks like your character's body paint is fading.
The voice acting is of the usual low quality that one expects from Dynasty Warriors titles, although it features a nice twist. Most of the spoken dialogue is in English, but the attack cries for the special attacks are in Japanese regardless of the chosen language. The Fist of the North Star characters have some iconic and difficult-to-replicate voice acting quirks that would be difficult to carry over to the English voice acting. By keeping the voice acting for these moves in Japanese, it retains some important flavor.
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage suffers from being too much and not enough like Dynasty Warriors. If the game had been a full-on brawler with the mechanics to match, then it would have been a lot better. Likewise, if it had wholeheartedly embraced its Dynasty Warriors heritage and been designed around that, it would have been a lot more fun to play. Instead, it exists in a weird in-between area where it is neither. The low-quality visuals certainly don't help, especially when we know that Omega Force can do better. Ken's Rage will probably be fun for fans of the original manga, but those without a fondness for Kenshiro and his pals will find plenty of other, cheaper and better Dynasty Warriors titles available.
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