Wandering the wastes of a post-apocalyptic landscape, no longer demarcated by county or city limits, I fought Kenshiro through packs of thugs, zealot gangs and imperial guards. Born unto the lineage of the Hokuto Shinken, an ancient fighting style using acupressure points for explosive assassinations, I wade Kenshiro into these peons with little effort, ultimately leading him to encounters against rivaling, tyrannical martial artists. As Kenshiro reiterates time again, Hokuto Shinken is unstoppable. He continually exclaims, “You are already dead” as opposing troops' limbs contort more awkwardly than even Mr. Fantastic can and bellies burst.
Taking Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's many-times-adapted “Hokuto no Ken” manga series and adapting it once again for the Xbox 360 and PS3, Koei situate Kenshiro in a Dynasty Warriors spinoff, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage. The aforementioned series is known for exhibiting the very definition of “grinding” in the gamer's dictionary, and Ken's Rage is a no-exception addition. In the hands of Koei, this take affords fans of the manga a CliffsNotes retelling filled with stints of repetitive, head-busting action spaced out between droughts of vapid levels that bleed together into seamlessly recycled, indistinguishable corridors.
In this game world, your hero may have the power to deliver special Signature attacks where a flurry of a thousand fists drain your enemy's stamina, or sweeping chains of physicality that culminate in a concussive burst of electrons frying them with a Meridian Shock, but for all of his muscly bulk and Bruce Lee watatata's, arbitrary obstacles create a burden for Kenshiro. Climbing walls and jumping across shipping containers prove to be his greatest adversaries. This isn't necessarily debilitating though, since the environments you blow through offer only optical illusions as expanses. For however open and wide levels appear, what's really playable are only ninety degree angles leading into bland straightaways with little texture or variance on the story (“Legend”) side of the game. The village made in the rubble of a once-great city shows off the same dusty, tan pathways as any other locale in the game.
Filling these linear levels of ill-conceived platforming are enemies and unhelpful allies with more names than modeled skins. With each of the 13 chapters in Kenshiro's Legend tale directed more as a spin through a meat grinder, it takes killing off pockets of the same mohawked opposition to get to the more unique boss battles: bouts of attrition against leaders who are well-acquainted with blocking, and who inevitably follow a similar encounter formula as your last big-time opponent. Battles against known characters from the manga are more rewarding than killing Thug number 113 thru 201, but even these grow tiresome as you overpower them with the abilities and upgraded characteristics purchased from the game's skill tree.
As Kenshiro, these one-on-one fisticuffs may be fairly easy, but once you unlock and play through other characters' stories, not only can you expect nuanced fighting rhythms based on their specialty, but multiple attempts at the battles against these headlining enemies.
Don't be fooled, however, unlike the Dynasty games, there aren't hordes of enemies to be dispatched with your great Hokuto prowess in Legend mode. On the contrary, manageable patches here and there will test your short list of combos, and show you why only one or two of them do the job well enough. Better yet, a slowly initiated grab mechanic proves the most effective against the fist fodder. Unfortunately, with games full of the eye-bleeding, frenetic pace of Bayonetta or the older God Hand, Ken's Rage simply plays slow and unwieldy with a camera that never seems to fit the picture you want or need.
That said, Koei find a familiar home for the North Star universe in Dream mode, a traditional Dynasty Warriors experience. Without the trappings of poorly executed adventuring pitfalls and a focus on overtaking bases by killing enemies spilling into view, this unlockable portion is the breadwinner of the entire game. Two players can team up locally, choosing between different characters, level them up and delve a bit deeper into sub-plots, which round out the otherwise piecemeal main story.
It's a shame that a popular piece of fiction, which has been around and re-released in some kind of medium over the last 27 years, is given such poor treatment this time around from a general storytelling perspective. Delivered mostly in dictated scrolling sentences between chapters of the Legend segments, you're given the highlights of Kenshiro's purpose in this Darwinian setting. Thus, despite some surprisingly convincing voice acting reading a capable script, from talent that's able to give personality to their character, unless you're an ardent fan of the manga, you're going to be lost sifting through cutscenes capping each boss battle.
Essentially, playing through the game's first chapter yields nearly the same experience as any of the other Legend portions, even for the other unlockable characters' missions. The only difference is a change in fighting style and some equally as tedious pathing through already played levels. Another person can locally join you in pummeling the same enemies over and over again in the entertaining Dream mode, but as a game that scores you on how well you complete levels, where's the online play or leaderboard? And no matter how you play it, looped heavy metal riffs become a grating whitenoise accompanying your fist-to-headbanging.
With hours of violent action capable of being employed, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is certainly an easily rentable option if you're looking to kill time as mercilessly as the in-game enemy, but anything beyond the re-skinned Dynasty half only proves to be a chore.
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