[11 March 2013]
Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is the hardest kind of game to review. Not because it’s especially bad (although it is), it’s because there’s so little substance to comment on that there’s nothing really to say about it. Playing through it is as if the memory-erasing light from Men in Black is bleeding through the TV. I forgot most of the game while I was playing it.
Ken’s Rage 2 is about a man named Ken who wanders around a Mad-Max inspired apocalypse punching things until the credits roll. Except sometimes the player controls other characters as they wander around punching things. That isn’t quite fair. The game is based on the popular manga of the same name, and Ken is actually some figure chosen and cursed by fate to bear the power to make people explode with his punches. Now he must go on a journey to do some forgettable thing. True to its source, the many cutscenes are framed in manga-esque tiles that jump from still to still, which is a neat feature that loses its spark quickly after the fourth or fifth exposition dump.
The game is presented entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, which is fine given the story’s origin, but since an English dub was available in the first title, it’s odd that it’s excluded in the second. The reason why it’s odd is that most of Fist of the North Star 2 is copied and pasted from its predecessor. Save for a few extra chapters played from other characters’ perspectives, it’s the exact same game. It’s an odd choice to re-release the same game as a sequel when the first one was, apparently, terrible. One would think that the developers would at least take the opportunity to improve their work.
The world is a dull tan desert with a handful of plain set pieces shoved into the corners of each identical open room. The game tells us how grim and brutal the world has become after society’s collapse but the cartoonish character models completely contradict the tone. Combat involves mashing punch and kick buttons to create combos, occasionally throwing a pointless special or throw in between for no reason other than some desperately needed variety. Identical enemies file in en masse, politely waiting for a random attack to mash them to bits. Boss encounters play out more or less in the same way but with absurd health and damage buffs mixed in. Levels play out in the same “open space leads to wave of enemies leads to boss fight accompanied by more waves of enemies” pattern until the end. Occasionally there will be helpless NPCs that must be protected while they stand stupidly in the middle of a swarm of enemies.
Victory comes with no sense of accomplishment, defeat feels frustrating and unfair, the story is uninspired, the music and level design are boring, basic and straightforward. I still don’t actually know what The Fist of the North Star is supposed to be about. As noted before, I know that it is set after a nuclear war, and it follows the story of Kenshiro, who has the gift of punching things really well. But as for what happens, why it matters, and what I’m supposed to take away from the whole thing, I’m lost. The game also doesn’t do a good job of representing the source material, for all I know the manga could be terrific, but the game hacks out the barest pieces and places them in such an empty space that everything seems so hollow. New characters are introduced and their history and motivations are listed in a heavy handed fashion before resuming the bland, exhausting punch-fest.
There are a few good ideas, abilities level up subtly the more that they’re used, giving a sense of constant improvement without resorting to a “level up” cue awkwardly prancing across the screen every so often. Still, it’s nothing that hasn’t been executed before and better by the Elder Scrolls series.
The best thing that came out of Fist of the North Star is that it made me appreciate how much must align properly for a game like this to work. There are brawlers that mesh everything together so smoothly that every encounter feels meaningful with every scene and set piece fluidly connecting the work together. The execution of something like God of War or the Arkham games makes it seem like the brawler is an easy recipe. Fist of the North Star proves that it isn’t. The combat is repetitive, simple, boring, and frustrating. The story is at once one-dimensional and exhaustingly long-winded. The level design is straightforward, empty, and bland. Really, the best thing about it is that it’s so easy to forget it and move on.