Mankind has devastated itself in a nuclear holocaust. The large cities, and rural communities that once dotted the globe have been reduced to burnt husk ruins. Seas have evaporated, and cruel desert climates now cover most of the earth.
Though pushed to edge of self extinction, mankind has begun to reclaim the earth; struggling to find sources of food and water, and re-establish civilization. Out of the chaos, masters of secret and incredibly powerful martial arts –unknown to society before the war– have come to the forefront in this post-apocalyptic world. Some oppress the weak and force their demented will on others; while other masters use their power to help and defend their fellow human beings. This is the world Kenshiro – sole heir and master of the power martial art Hokuto Shinken finds himself; as he struggles against impossible odds to defend the oppressed, and those he loves in Koei’s brawler Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage.
In general, I’m not typically a fan of Koei’s versions of the brawler genre–which, in the light of the global appeal of the Dynasty Warriors series–has become a sub genre in its own right. I wasn’t expecting too much when I bought the game, but I love the Fist of the North Star license (anime and manga) and decided to take a chance. In short, I was–surprised with the title. To find out if its worth your time and money, click the jump.
For those who may not be familiar, a Koei brawler typically consists of the following elements: 1 overpowered player controlled character, accompanied by an army of useless computer controlled troops, going against an army of equally useless enemy forces, with a handful of overpowered bosses sprinkled around the battlefield for good measure. This is the basic formula for Dynasty Warriors / Devil Kings titles. Personally, I find the combat too simple and uninspired. The enemy AI is all but non-existent, and boss battles can be frustrating due to poor camera controls.
Koei addresses most of these issues in Ken’s Rage. It’s probably due to the fact that Koei merged with Tecmo back in 2009. While this game by no means a Ninja Gaiden, it is a substantial improvement in Koei’s traditional brawler formula. Enemies have slightly better AI, and will attempt to surround and overwhelm you. Enemies that attack with ranged weapons will often try to keep you at a distance. Sub-bosses require you to vary your combos, and boss enemies can be quite challenging.
Combat is still simple. Your combo tree doesn’t change at all during the game. You pretty much have access to all your offensive and defensive moves from the beginning. But as you power up your character via the Maridian Chart (I’ll get to that latter) those same combos become more powerful by adding additional moves, or increased Hokuto Shinken affects. For example: square, square, triangle is Kenshiro’s basic crowd control move. As you power up, a groin kick, and a more powerful Hokuto Shinken energy wave erupts killing lesser enemies, and putting stronger ones in a stunned state.
Battle points are earned on the battlefield. As you defeat enemies, you pick up points in the form of karma orbs. You have opportunities to earn bonus points by completing small sub-campaigns. It could be defending villagers caught on the battlefield, or preventing enemy forces from advancing to a certain way-point. Upon completing a mission, you have the opportunity to spend those points on the Maridian Chart. Basically, you can unlock passive and active abilities by linking them to your Harmonic Center. The more points you have, the more abilities you can link, thereby increasing your power. Everything from your health and spirit bar, to your boss destroying Aura Attacks are unlocked via Maridian.
Speaking of Aura Attacks, these are the game’s crowd killing and boss weakening attacks. Max out and activate you spirit gauge and press circle, and your character will devastate everything onscreen. Certain bosses are weaker against certain Aura Attacks than others. You notice this by seeing a pattern of seven stars that sometimes appears over a stunned boss. If you’ve unlocked that corresponding AA, you can really make quick work of a boss.
Playable characters are divided into three camps: Hokuto, Nanto, and Warrior. Characters like the main Kenshiro, use Hokuto, which focuses on setting your opponent up for strong devastating attacks. Nanto characters like Rei us Nanto which depend on timed quick attacks. Warriors like Mamiya depend on ranged weapons like bows and crossbows. While the difference in gameplay isn’t as varied as it sounds, I do appreciate some of the subtle differences. For example, when using Rei, timed strikes in the form of QTEs appear mid-combo. There is no penalty for missing it really, but in latter missions when enemies surround you more robustly, those QTEs are crucial for crowd control.
As you play through the story in Legend mode, you unlock characters to play in Dream mode (also where 2 player couch co-op is accessed), enemies and allies alike. In dream mode, you can play through certain levels and events not necessarily experienced by the main character. Its a cool feature and really adds to the re-playability of the game.
On the downside of things, graphics are a bit of a mixed bag. While main characters, enemies, NPC allies, and bosses are nicely rendered, the environment is bland. If it weren’t for the on screen battle map, it would be difficult to determine if you were headed in the right direction, as color palettes, and environmental objects repeat a lot. The camera is still a bit of an issue; especially when fighting in a confined space like a room or an alley–though not nearly as bad as Koei’s previous Dynasty Warriors efforts.
The one thing that can be a little frustrating is finishing off a boss. Once a boss’ energy is depleted, you have to finish him off with an Ultimate Aura Attack, by inputting the button strings that appear onscreen. That in and of itself isn’t so bad, but–the stronger the boss, the longer the UAE button string. Goof on the input, and the boss gains a certain amount of energy back, and you have to beat him down AGAIN. Some of those boss battles are tough, and there’s nothing worse than getting killed because you messed up on some Simon inspired QTE.
Another thing thats not so hot is the music soundtrack. It sounds like some ‘90s heavy metal guitar riff, and there’s only 2 or three songs that re-play to the point of noxiousness.
Bottom line: I’m giving this game a B+. If you are not a fan of traditional Koei brawlers like me, you’ll love the Tecmo inspired improvements to the combat (I hope Koei sticks to this improved formula for Dynasty Warriors 7). A good friend of mine who is also a rabid fan of the Dynasty Warriors series really liked the brawler tweaks made in this game, so this game should also sit well with Koei purists. If you’re unfamiliar with the Fist of the North Star license, but enjoy 3rd person brawlers give this game try. There’s just something satisfying about beating up a bunch of thugs to the point that their bodies explode.
Oh yeah–speaking of that, this one definitely not one for the kiddies. Enemies contort as they fill with Hokuto and Nanto aura energies as you attack until they explode like flesh balloons filled with red food coloring. Sometimes you can knock someone inside out, which is really fun. Its not as gross as it sounds, but it is rated M for a reason. Give the game a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.