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Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage (PlayStation 3) artwork

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage (PlayStation 3) review


"Hokuto Musou -- coming to the West as Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage -- is a proper sequel. Since this is a Musou game, I expected it to play like a Musou game. It often doesn't. Instead of presenting a series of sprawling warzones, the game gives us straightforward levels; simplistic obstacles must be passed, traps must be avoided, and switches must be flipped. Koei has built a world that's out to get noble Kenshiro -- they've built a world in the spirit of Hokuto."



I used to love Koei's Warriors games. Truly, I did. But now, with 20/20 hindsight, I can see them for what they really are: repetitive button-mashers. Back in the 16- and 32-bit days, I loved repetitive button-mashers like Final Fight. Guess what? I still do. I played through Guardian Heroes just the other weekend. It's an awesome example of the "repetitive button-masher" genre. Many of Koei's haters would agree.

So then, why does the rest of the reviewing world rage against Koei's Warriors games? Even through a half-dozen revisions, Street Fighter II thrived because people were enthralled by mastering each iteration's mechanics. That's the real problem with Koei's Warriors games (and brawlers in general) -- mastering the game is easy. Players boot the game up, kill a bunch of people, become more powerful, and conquer the world. The end. A proper sequel mixes things up with new characters, new scenery, and new mechanics. An improper sequel puts us through the Yellow Turban Rebellion yet again.

Hokuto Musou -- coming to the West as Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage -- is a proper sequel. Since this is a Musou game, I expected it to play like a Musou game. It often doesn't. Instead of presenting a series of sprawling warzones, the game gives us straightforward levels; simplistic obstacles must be passed, traps must be avoided, and switches must be flipped. Koei has built a world that's out to get noble Kenshiro -- they've built a world in the spirit of Hokuto. His friends are for the most part weak and ineffectual, but Kenshiro can always turn to a downed telephone pole or concrete pillar when he needs to put a little extra "oomph" behind his swings. This feels more like Double Dragon than Dynasty Warriors. I'm cool with that.

When the game starts, even the lowliest mohawked Mad Max reject requires multiple punches to take down; by the time Nanto master Souther is unlocked as a playable character, enemies are gorily bursting by the dozen. Abilities are enhanced through a blend of experience and skill points -- slowly earned by killing enemies or quickly earned by killing enemies in stylish ways, such as sending their bodies flying into explosive oil canisters. Each character has his or her own "skill constellation", where unlocking one ability or stat boost opens new paths to other enhancements. In action games, I prefer to get better by really getting better, but at least this method of stat-building requires a bit of effort and thought instead of simply killing people for hours.

Unfortunately, there's not much to the core game other than death. Fist of the North Star was known for presenting a world simultaneously dramatic and humorous, equally brutal and touching. The interludes that gave the Hokuto anime its charm are missing from Koei's brawler. Kenshiro does not stumble across a seven-foot-tall punk disguised as a kindly old woman; he does not give people ten seconds to live as a digital timer counts down. Koei does not recount enemies' backstories; they don't even explain how Kenshiro received seven scars on his chest! Without that dramatic setup, rival Shin is nothing more than a speedy man wearing white. Jagi is just some bum with a shotgun. Bandai's Hokuto epic on the Playstation filled these gaps -- surely Koei could, as well.

I don't expect such things from the average brawler, but Hokuto Musou is based on a beloved series and thus comes with a bit of extra baggage. Still, there are some beautiful moments -- and some hilarious ones, as well -- once the "Illusory Mode" is unlocked. On the surface, this bonus mode is what Musou fans expect: one hero dropped into a sprawling battle, one hero hunting down enemy generals and securing checkpoints. Since it's not the "main" game, Koei used this as an opportunity to have some fun with the storyline.

One of Kenshiro's brothers is a misfit named Jagi, who intentionally scarred himself on the chest to impersonate Kenshiro and ruin his good name. In a different arc of the anime, a demented sadist named Amiba pretended to be the generous and benevolent healer Toki. Koei paired these two for one truly bizarre Illusory Mode.

[Jagi blows someone's head up with his shotgun]

Amiba: "Well done, Ja . . . I mean, Kenshiro!"
Jagi: "Thank you, my brother Toki!"

Of course, they're saying that in Japanese.

Jagi and Amiba never met in the anime, but Koei saw their similar gimmicks and put them together in the Illusory Mode. Instead of cheering when noble "Kenshiro" and master healer "Toki" arrive, the citizens run in fear, shouting "RUN AWAY! IT'S KENSHIRO AND TOKI!!!"

When the real Kenshiro and Toki finally show up, they are amusingly bewildered by everyone's panicked reaction.

Both play modes offer a lot of fighting to sate my manly bloodlust, and each stage is capped by a boss encounter. The story mode's battles are particularly impressive, showing off a slew of environmental hazards. Jagi is like a 3D version of Final Fight's Rolento; he often leaps behind cover and hurls firebombs at Kenshiro (make sure not to stand in the pool of oil). Ryuga waits in a room laden with spear traps, and the final battle against the Ken-Ou is particularly impressive; their mutual love Julia watches helplessly as two proud brothers fight for supremacy and a special rock version of Ai o Torimodose!! plays in the background. Finishing blows are performed with a button-tapping extravaganza . . . and, in a poor design decision, bosses regain a huge chunk of health if a single button press is missed. That's the one drawback to these otherwise exciting encounters.

With some sensible skill selections, Hokuto Musou is not a difficult game to master, but it's still a long and worthwhile journey. Unlike most episodes of the entertaining Dynasty Clones series, each of the eight characters behaves like a unique individual -- Kenshiro fights up close, Mamiya fires arrows from afar, and speedy Rei enters a trance-like state to slice enemies into ribbons. Bandai's Playstation epic is still a more polished product, but Koei's Hokuto Musou fills the battle action niche quite nicely even if it doesn't quite live up to its inspiration.

//Zig

Rating: 8/10

zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (August 21, 2010)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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pickhut posted August 23, 2010:

I have a mini-grudge with Koei, but you actually make this sound fun enough to want to buy when it gets released in the US!

Also, why is Mamiya not wearing any pants? o_O
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zippdementia posted August 24, 2010:

My big question... is it two player?
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Sablicious posted June 26, 2011:

^ Yes. It has 2-player co-op (no versus).

However, you must beat one level in the game for the mode to become available -- i.e., you must unlock a Dream Mode stage (the mode in which co-op play is enabled). Co-op play is in a split-screen format (works well; vertical split; no online or system link) and is available in Dream Mode and Free Mode; the later being Dream Mode but where any character combination can be used in any Dream Mode stage.

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