The popular anime/manga known as Fist of the North Star is celebrating it's thirtieth anniversary in 2013, and Tecmo Koei is bringing fans a new full length beat'em up with Ken's Rage 2.
Going into this review, I was about as far removed from the Fist of the North Star franchise as one could be. I've never read the mangas or watched the anime, nor played any Fist of the North Star games, including Ken's Rage released two years ago. But after playing Ken's Rage 2, I have to say I'm interested in looking further into the IP than ever before. My new-found interest in Fist of the North Star isn't because this is a AAA quality production or that it's an outstanding game. Ken's Rage 2 serves as a vehicle to deliver players into some of the series' most established storylines. But, let's be clear, Ken's Rage 2 is not short on problems: it's repetitive, has boring level design, a bad camera, poor AI, heavily dated graphics, and other miscellaneous, mostly-minor gameplay issues. In short, Ken's Rage 2 has a lot of issues that you're asked to overlook or deal with, but as I continued to play, I found these issues worth dealing with.
Let's start with the repetition. For about the first four hours of the game, you control Kenshiro, aka Ken. He's not a happy camper. The world around him is a post-apocalyptic mess, with everyone trying to find water and food to survive. Good people try to nurture a living in villages, but a variety of gangs and bandits team up to kill and steal from them. I was actually a bit taken aback at the violence against the children in this game, which is shown in cutscenes. Anyway, Ken is a very gifted and powerful martial artist, one who is truly good and fights for justice. He's not afraid to kill the enemy, which you will do thousands of times over in this game thanks to the numerous sequences of what can start to feel like endless waves of "clone" enemies. There are some Commander class enemies mixed in, and a good number of boss fights, but for the most part you will be punching and kicking the crap out of 'throw away' foes, literally by the hundreds at times. It's not uncommon at all to see a counter pop up on screen showing you the ratio of killed versus remaining enemies -- 50, 70, 100, 140, you'll fight enemies in groups of that many, although you probably won't see more than about fifty on screen at once. As you clear those away (fallen enemies instantly disappear), more enemies appear out of thin air until you have cleared the criteria for proceeding. 5 and 600 hundred hit combos? Yeah, you're likely to get a few of those within these first few hours. It's pretty crazy.
So anytime you're fighting that many enemies in this short of a period, it's going to be hard not to get repetitive. Ken's Rage 2 does cross that line, and I found it tough to not take five and ten minute breaks every hour or so. If you enjoy the Dynasty Warrior games, you're likely to feel right at home in this regard, as those games are known for their large waves of repetitive enemies. I'm not a Dynasty Warriors fan, but what I like better about Ken's Rage 2 is not only are the story and characters more interesting, but I like the focus on these fictional empty hand or weapon-less martial arts styles that Ken and other main characters use.
No matter who you are playing as, the controls remain the same: Square for a light attack, Triangle for a strong attack. You also have X to dodge, L1 to block, L2 to taunt, Circle for Signature Move, d-pad to change Signature moves, R2 to throw, R3 to adjust the camera (although this doesn't seem to work very well). The key to any battle is mixing up Square and Triangle to gain Aura, a meter that you can fill up multiple times. Once full, you can unleash a Signature move that can devastate nearby enemies or take a fair bit of health off of a boss, assuming they don't block it and you're within range. Learning to gauge the distance and how much Aura drain a Signature move uses gets to be fairly important as you progress in Legend mode. There's no feeling in the game quite as low as fighting a boss, finally getting enough Aura, and then unleashing a Signature move only to have it blocked entirely or simply miss. On the other hand, connecting on your Signature move is fun to watch.
Dodging enemy attacks is both easy and essential. You will see a red glow around Commanders and Bosses an instant before they strike. You need only press the left stick and X to make an evasion, and usually you can counterattack immediately. The formula I discovered was that while the boss fights are typical pretty long, they're not that hard as long as you don't make too many mistakes like not capitalizing on your Signature moves and making sure you evade properly.
Ken's Rage 2 has an upgrade system as well with five different character attributes. These include Defense, Attack, Life, Aura, and Technique. How you upgrade these is a little more complicated. By defeating enemies with normal attacks, that is, with Square, you earn XP towards Life, which extends your life meter. If you defeat them with Signature moves, you earn Technique XP, making it easier to string combos together. Additionally, there are scrolls that you can find within objects like boxes that can be opened by getting near them and pressing Triangle. You can carry around twenty scrolls and can equip five of them at once. The scrolls system is split into three columns and five rows. The scrolls themselves have three columns, meaning you have a left, center, and right position. In those positions, there may or may not be an icon that matches the character attributes. So you might find a scroll with a green heart (Life) on the left, nothing in the center spot, and then a fist (Attack) in the right spot. If you equip and position your scrolls such that you form columns where the same attribute icons line-up, vertically, you form a Nexus. These might be a two, three, four, or Ultimate (five) Nexus, and by doing so, you earn an additional boost to that attribute. It took me a little while to get the hang of this upgrade system, and while it seems overly complicated, it's really not that bad and I came to like it. You can easily sort scrolls you have earned and also offer them up for other characters to use, too.
Speaking of other characters, there are a lot of playable characters for you to play as between the Legend and Dream modes. You have to unlock many of these by playing through Legend mode first, which is why even though both modes are available from the start screen, you can't have a separate save game in each. After starting the Legend mode and saving my progress, I was warned upon starting Dream mode that my savegame progress would be overwritten. I found that rather unfortunate for a few reasons, including that the Legend mode is rather long. I have yet to complete it even, but from what I can tell in the Gallery mode, there are some thirty-seven levels in the Legend mode alone, and another twenty or so stages in Dream mode. Given how repetitive the game is, it's going to take me a while to get through that. Furthermore, you can play co-op locally with a friend or online for up to eight players, but I was not able to test these modes. I suspect that the co-op would do a lot to break up the repetition as co-op mode can often make a bad or mediocre game at least a degree or two better.
No matter what mode you're playing in, the presentation quality will leave you underwhelmed at best, and sorely disappointed at worst. Ken's Rage 2 honestly looks like it could have been a launch title for the 360 in 2005 or the PS3 a year later. The level design is bland and very corridor-like, even though there are some open areas (although these too are relatively tightly bound). Lots of textures are re-used constantly, not the least of which for the thousands of enemies, but also the walls and doors of these villages and bases. Cutscenes feature characters who speak, but whose mouths are shut. Tutorial messages in between gameplay and cutscenes pop up so fast that you can't even read them (which is good in that load times are brief, but silly in that you don't have time to read some of the messages). Character animations, at least of the playable ones and the main enemies, can look pretty good though, and the framerate stays smooth, so those are pluses. Overall the graphic presentation, both in terms of art direction and technical prowess, are just another aspect of this game you'll be asked to overlook. At least the Japanese voiceovers sound great as do a lot of the effects and soundtrack.
At the end of the day, I think fans of the franchise will find a lot of reason to look past the game's flaws. The Gallery mode itself contains a treasure trove of content, assuming you have unlocked it in the Legend and Dream modes. There's a full blown encyclopedia with detailed info on the people, places, styles, vital points, groups, and terms used in the Fist of the North Star universe. You can also rock out to the soundtrack, which has forty-plus tracks, actually quite a few of which are good instrumental rock/metal. All unlocked cutscenes and videos -- and there are dozens of these -- can be viewed here too. It's really a wealth of info that I think fans will appreciate.
To the summary...