Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Fist Of The North Star: Ken's Rage 2 feels like a blast from the past, but not in a good way.
It's supposed to be a nostalgia trip that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Hokuto No Ken (or Fist Of The North Star) anime franchise, considered to be an 80s classic by many aficionados. Coiffed and musclebound hero Kenshiro stalked a blighted post-nuclear wasteland as the sole bringer of justice in a world gone to hell, using insanely powerful martial arts to punch evildoers so hard that they exploded from the inside out. Oh yes. This is definitely videogame material. Despite the original Ken's Rage being vastly underwhelming, Fist Of The North Star still had enough legs for a functional piece of gratuitous interactive fan service.
Depressingly, though, this lazy and lacklustre brawler ends up reminding us of the very worst shovelware we suffered through more than a decade ago.
Ken's Rage 2 is built around Koei's Dynasty Warriors template, and basic is definitely the operative word here. Playing as Kenshiro, you'll grind your way through a selection of tight corridors and tiny rectangular arenas while fighting legions of identical brain-dead foes. Kill all the goons, and a door will open to the next corridor. At which point, you'll find more identical goons to kill. Every enemy you encounter will be a palatte swap after the first half hour, as all grunts and even enemy commanders draw on the same small selection of weapons and abilities. In fact, there are essentially six foes in the entire game, who sometimes swap out a punky mohican for a military outfit in a limp attempt to differentiate between factions.
This simple approach works well for Dynasty Warriors because of the impressive variety of combatants and weapons you can bring to the battle, but here, poor old Ken proves to be a surprisingly boring and conservative fighter. With only a handful of melee combos on offer, centred around punches and sweeping kicks, you'll grimly mash out the same few chains without ever once needing to touch the block or dodge buttons. A charging aura (mana) meter lets you draw upon some of the signature moves from the anime, but after you've enjoyed the cathartic novelty of eviscerating several dozen grunts with the famous Hokuto Hundred Crack Fist technique ("ATATATATATA!"), you'll soon realise that just hammering the basic XXYY combo would probably have done the job much quicker. Timing and finesse counts for nothing.
There's no challenge to be found here, nor sense of progression. Since every recycled foe can be killed in a couple of light attacks and deal practically no damage on the few occasions when they bother to swing their weapon, while easily stun-locked commanders telegraph their blows with several seconds to spare, the ravening hordes quickly become an amorphous grey mass that block your way to the next cramped grey arena for all of a few seconds. There's barely enough gameplay content here to fill twenty minutes, and yet Ken's Rage 2 subjects you to an enormity of recycled mediocrity; dozens of hours of brainless, hopeless mashing in identical grey boxes for what feels like an eternity. Your fingers will turn black and drop off (especially when wrapped around the Wii U Gamepad), but not before your grey matter starts trickling out of your nostrils in a desperate bid for freedom.
Every once in a blue moon, Koei attempts to break the monotony by scraping the bottom of the developmental barrel. A halfhearted attempt at a stealth section, wherein you'll walk behind slow-moving guards who patrol a ten metre route to avoid spawning extra foes (and pivot on the spot, hilariously), could have been ripped from the worst film tie-ins of 1995. And ends up being totally pointless, because any reinforcements only take scant seconds to kill. A few major villains from the anime also show up as boss characters, whose insanely cheap attacks mark the only times when you need to brainlessly mash the dodge button to render every single one ineffective. The dated action feels primitive even compared to the first Dynasty Warriors, a brawler pulled out of time and perhaps developed in no time at all.
Anime fans will be pleased to know that Ken's Rage 2 does show some ambition in the story department, including practically all of the story arcs from the series. Except told at a faster (less satisfying) clip and presented via drab storyboards bereft of lip-syncing (or even mouth movements!), basic animations and emotion. You'd be better off importing a DVD box set and watching it while pounding your fingers to rags with a ballpeen hammer.
Graphically, Ken's Rage 2 would have been panned had it released at the start of this generation's life cycle, and hailed as painfully mediocre on the PS2. It's a symphony of grainy textures and shockingly low-poly models, a festival of stiff animations and a total lack of gore. Instead of exploding into showers of chunky kibbles after taking a Hokuto attack to the face, foes basically glitch out before winking out of existence, replaced by three chicken drumsticks and a small puff of pixelated red smoke. The total absence of facial animations date the experience just as badly as the gameplay, and numerous cut corners betray a shocking lack of polish. From enemy combatants appearing in front of your very eyes to the boxy level architecture, there's always something to remind you that this was not designed with love, care and attention to detail.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the horrendous visuals don't help performance any. Expect slowdown and screen tearing to be your constant companions, especially on the Wii U version.
Fans will probably get the most enjoyment out of the unlockable Dream Mode that lets you play as some of the other characters (even major villains like Shin), who each boast their own backstory. Which, for the most part, boils down to overlong Dynasty Warriors-style territory control battles against - you guessed it - the same old grunts and copy/pasted commanders you'll have already met. More of a bad thing is not the same as good value, despite Ken's Rage 2 potentially providing days' worth of battling.
Online multiplayer (of both competitive and cooperative flavours) is also available, for all the good it will do you on Wii U. I've spent a whole weekend looking for group and not found a single co-op partner, despite several pleas on MiiVerse and spending hours hosting an empty lobby.
Diehard Hokuto No Ken superfans might have been able to forgive Ken's Rage 2 had it released at an appropriate budget price, but for £40, it's an obscene waste of time and money. The digital Wii U version crosses the line from injury to insult with a £50 digital-only release, which probably accounts for the lack of an online community. Thankfully players seem to have twigged that there's no point paying money for old rope, especially when it's so badly frayed around the edges.
- Briefly cathartic
- Lots of (practically identical) levels
- (Poorly-delivered) Story charts the entire anime series
- Primitive, brainless, nacrolepsy-inducing gameplay
- Hopelessly dated visuals, bare minimum of polish
- Insulting amount of recycled content
- Shocking £49.99 digital-only release on Wii U
The Short Version: Fist Of The North Star: Ken's Rage 2 is a primitive and embarrassing throwback that ignores more than a decade of innovation, current-gen hardware and the license. Releasing this at full-price, let alone fifty pounds on the Wii U, was unacceptable.