Monday, February 17, 2014

Defending Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 has gotten quite a lot of negative criticism from game critics, to the point that former Destructoid critic Jim Sterling placed it on his list as one of the worst games of the year.  This is unsurprising, seeing as how he seemed to have hated it more than anyone else even though he loved the first game, but I feel that a second opinion is in order.

I’m sure everyone who has had interest in Ken’s Rage 2 has all heard the complaints: the graphics are weak, the story presentation is bad, and almost everything is recycled from the first game.
I don’t want people who may actually like Ken’s Rage 2 to just brush the game off though, because it’s one of my favorite games of 2013.

Get down from there Kaioh, you're not that important.
You don't need to necessarily be a fan of Fist of the North Star in order to enjoy Ken’s Rage 2, even though many other critics may tell you otherwise.  The game’s story retells the manga very well.  One of my biggest problems with the first Ken’s Rage, other than the uncomfortable combat, was the extremely downsized story.  I had seen a good 38 episodes of the anime and had the first volume of the manga when I first saw Ken’s Rage, and from what I did see, they took out everything but the absolute bare minimum.  It wasn’t even a cliffnotes retelling.  It was like cliffnotes of cliffnotes!  Entire characters, story arcs, and motivations were all gone, and the result was hardly the true Fist of the North Star story.  I would even go as far as to call it downright insulting.

Ken’s Rage 2 fixes that, as implied by its Japanese title, Shin Hokuto Musou (shin meaning “true”).  Its story mode essentially tells the entire story, including one of my favorite fights not seen in the first game: Devil Rebirth!

Damn.  If only Leon Kennedy hadn't died when the bombs dropped.

I say “essentially” because there are very minor points cut or changed here and there from the source material.  For example, in the first major manga story arc there are four elite warriors named after card suits.  In Ken’s Rage 2, you only fight Spade and Heart.  The other two, Club and Diamond, have their roles replaced with common elite soldiers, since in the source material they just come and go with no impact.  There are a few other minor adjustments like that in the game, but you’re never missing much.

Think of it this way: you could spend several hours watching the anime online and trying to discern what’s filler and what’s not, you could spend hundreds of dollars finding very rare prints of the manga, or you could just play the game.  Since it tells the whole story this time, including the rather inferior final arcs, it’s a little over 20 hours long.  Granted, the story of the source material itself is still something of a niche considering it's pretty much the big granddaddy of shonen alongside Dragon Ball, but those who like badass action stories should enjoy it, and if you're reading this blog, I'm pretty sure you do.

Taizan Tenroken Ougi!
The gameplay too is fun for action fans.  Like Sengoku Basara and Dynasty Warriors, it’s a game all about beating the fudge out of hundreds of weaker enemies alongside other one-man armies with their own awesome techniques taken straight from the series.  Kenshiro is used most often in the main story mode, but when the story calls for it, you get to play as other characters for some variety.
You can play as the other unlocked characters any time in the game’s dream mode, which gives you even more hours of gameplay trying everyone out, unlocking their signature attacks, and playing through their own story modes and challenge missions.  Ken’s Rage 2 has over a dozen characters, including the two DLC ones from the first game, so there’s a lot to work with.

Naturally I’ve chosen Shin as my fighter of choice.  The master of Nanto Koshuuken who would do anything for the people he loves!

I have a stronger spear.  It's called my hand!
You’d think the combat would get repetitive, but it’s just too satisfying.  It's tight and moves at a faster pace (without any of that unnecessary jumping from the first game), certain signature moves from the first game were removed for redundancy or repurposed for practicality, and the blood and physics are satisfying enough to make you want to cross your arms and laugh in triumph.
Few things are more fun than pulling off moves like flying high in the air, raining down a burst of razor sharp fists, landing, then waiting a moment as the dozens of enemies hit slide apart like chopped baloney before exploding into blood clouds.
It can be kind of brainless at times, but also like Sengoku Basara and Dynasty Warriors, there's still a level of challenge thanks to the enemy's numbers and variety.

As fun as it is to pick on the little guys, Ken’s Rage 2 has boss battles that can be just as fun, especially in the story mode, where the story progresses as the fights move along.  Super-powerful men beating each other to death with flashy moves while monologuing is a shonen tradition.

And the music is great too.  Most of it is taken from the first game (which already had a rocking soundtrack), but there are some new tracks added for the second.

As much as I love Ken’s Rage 2, and as much as I think people should try it, I can’t say I disagree with the critics who call the game mediocre.  I agree that Ken’s Rage 2 doesn’t have enough polish to be worth its original $50 asking price.  Corners were cut.

I don’t have a problem with how the story mode is told like a freeze frame motion comic like some critics did (though the constant re-use of character models for the villagers and punks is distracting).  The main story mode makes them dynamic enough to keep them interesting, and it has fully animated cutscenes for the most memorable parts of the story (character introductions and deaths in particular).

There are noticeable shadow gaffes and texture pop-in in some areas of the comic cutscenes though.  They’re few and far between, but it's baffling nobody caught them before the game was released.

My real problem is in the legend mode stories, where the “show don’t tell” rule is not in effect and cutscenes look like little more than statues of the characters facing each other being dubbed over.  That’s just half-assed.  It would have been more effective to just use still images of characters conversing like in Blazblue.

The in-game graphics aren’t that impressive either, but as with the main story cutscenes, I don’t think it looks bad.  It doesn’t look as good as the first game technically speaking, but personally I found the excess of lighting and bloom effects in Ken’s Rage to be distracting.  Ken’s Rage 2 isn’t going to win the best graphics of the year award from anyone, but I can safely say it couldn’t be done on the Wii.


The lack of map variety in legend mode doesn't help either.  The missions will often have minor differences in the objectives, but you'll find yourself playing the same handful of maps several times, though playing them with such varying characters alleviates that a bit.

Those shortcomings and the lack of an English language track are all valid points of contention.  Having no English voices is not that big of an issue to me, as I didn’t like the English voice acting in the first Ken’s Rage and the Japanese acting is great, but not having one at all instead of doing it right is lazy.  Usually when a game doesn’t have an English dub, it’s sold at a discounted price to make up for it.  This one was, but not at one low enough.

If it were released at $40, Ken’s Rage 2 may have gotten slightly more favorable critical response, but I agree that $50 was too much to ask for a game lacking polish in so many areas.  Ken’s Rage 2 isn’t a triple-A title so much as it is a single-A title, but now that you can find it for $20, it shouldn’t feel like a rip-off.  If you can look past the cut corners and want a classic shonen story in game form, I recommend giving Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 a try.

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