The visceral thrill of combat is an alluring and pervasive component in games but it’s rare to find a title that focuses solely on one man’s fists. Well, that’s a misnomer; feet, elbows and weapons are included too but pale in comparison to Hokuto Skinken, a martial art that manipulates the body’s weakpoints to induce spontaneous explosion. Based on an eighties manga, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 follows Kenshiro, holder of the art of Hokuto Shinken, as he travels through a Mad Max-esque wasteland assisting the needy, punching people in the face and generally being a nice guy/badass killing machine (depending on how you approach him).
Anyone who has played the first game will be aware of its limitations – based around the same gameplay as the Dynasty Warriors series, Ken’s Rage 2 sees you up against hordes of enemies with the simple aim of defeating each and every one. However, like Dynasty Warriors the enemies are mostly carbon-copies of the same model, all with the same animation routines. The lack of differentiation is so prominent that some level-opening videos look more like chorus lines, with groups of clone-like bad guys walking exactly in time. The battlefields are often graced by ‘commander’ or ‘captain’ units – stronger, more powerful enemies to take out in much the same way as the rest. Again, the visual difference between these units is negligible; not until you reach the frequent boss battles does character design really come into effect with unique combat patterns and actual personalities.
No matter the size or type of enemy, the way to success lies with Ken’s martial art prowess, developed over the course of the game via accrued XP and collectable scrolls which buff your strength, health and ‘aura’ (i.e. skill) abilities. A sub-menu allows you to switch and swap these scrolls on a grid, limiting the amount of scrolls that can be equipped at any one time. Placing the scrolls on the grid in certain combinations increases their overall power, adding a layer of strategy to their deployment rather than simply increasing a stat. This amount of depth, however, looks like the Mariana Trench compared to the rest of the gameplay which does come across as repetitive and shallow. Every area is populated by tens, if not hundreds, of enemies, all waiting to be dispatched. Ken, or one of the many other unlockable characters, then roves the battlefield until a requisite number of enemies has been killed. A gate will open; Ken will move in to the next area and more enemies will spawn. Rinse and repeat until the inevitable end of level boss fight.
Despite the repetitive nature of the gameplay, it’s hard not to appreciate the low-budget, exploitation feel that runs throughout Ken’s Rage 2. The graphics are serviceable but at this late stage in the current console generation they feel basic, muddy and uninspired. As the enemies are often entirely the same so are the assets that make up the lengthy campaign. A forty hour brawler better have a compelling story, addictive gameplay mechanic or ability to brainwash the player if it wants to avoid feeling overlong. Unfortunately, despite the odd sanity-defying fight, Ken’s Rage 2 consists more of the dull, button-bashing inanity made worse by the poorly looped butt-rock chugging in the background. Even the unintentionally hilarious sight of an enemy exploding – all stretched textures and clipping animations – cannot make the billionth brawl feel fresh.
Another problem lies with the game’s approach to the source material. While the eighties manga (and anime adaptations) are fondly remembered, the game has to condense the story substantially. The first game did a poor job at translating the plot accurately and, although this sequel is more faithful, its Cliff’s Notes approach doesn’t help. The first few levels all revolve around Ken happening upon a wizened villager or helpless child, struggling to stave off attack from one of the wasteland’s many clans. Like watching an American soap opera episodes at a time, the same storytelling devices occur again and again – always requiring Ken to beat up a clan, different from the last thanks to a new logo and not much else. Any meaningful interactions are played out in static cutscenes – framed as a motion-comic without much in the way of motion. While these are skippable, any dialogue intrusions during a level unfortunately are not – meet a particularly tricky boss with a mid-fight chat and you’ll be pounding the ineffectual back button come the tenth try. Like the Yakuza series the entire game is voiced in Japanese – a plus in terms of cultural appreciation but perhaps a negative for a certain breed of gamer averse to subtitles.
The game keeps a steady curve in terms of difficulty although there is the odd hiccup where a foe has a few cheap tactics to hinder progress. Luckily, most of these fights have different stages where a restart can occur, replenishing your health-bar to maximum during an immediate retry. Unfortunately, saving mid-chapter is another matter. While there are interim save points they are only accessible when not directly fighting. As cutscenes will often speed you right on to the next encounter it can be hard to actually save. Decide to quit mid-way through a chapter and any new attempt will place you right back at the beginning, albeit retaining any accrued XP. Working your way back through an easy but lengthy fight sequence to reattempt the boss can be a frustrating grind.
Aside from the main campaign lies the complimentary ‘Dream Mode’, wherein you play as one of the many side-characters unlocked by playing the main story. These are wholly original stories and are fairly basic premises engineered to pit certain characters in combat. The sheer number of additional missions is huge but again rely on beating up hundreds of enemies, often culminating in a battle against another prominent character. For replay value they offer a great deal; for fun value it depends on how much you like this style of play. A lacklustre and underpopulated multiplayer mode is also included but fails to inspire anything more than curiosity as to if anyone else is actually playing.
Ken’s Rage 2 is a passable, sporadically enjoyable game that’s undermined by drab visuals and a campaign with a padded second-half. Fans of the source material will feel compelled to check out the faithfulness of the adaptation but should be warned that, considering the price, it might be better to play these episodes out in their imagination or at least wait for a discount. Failing that, the game shares a lot of ground with Asura’s Wrath – a game unafraid to skimp on crazy situations but with an enticing story populated by memorable characters. There’s plenty of meat to the campaign but, bearing in mind the shoddy animations, copy/paste approach to gameplay and one-note story, overall the feeling is that Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is punching above its weight.