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'Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2' delivers faster kicks, all-too-familiar punch

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2
Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

There's an understandable sense of sameness when it comes to Tecmo Koei's musou series of action games (Dynasty Warriors, Warriors Orochi, et al.). To the outside observer, these are video games that appeal to mostly Japanese players, typically historical fiction beat 'em ups involving dozens of playable characters slaying screenfuls of hack and slash fodder.

That sameness is more apparent in musou-style game Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2, based on the postapocalyptic martial arts manga that ran weekly in Japan during the mid 1980s. The "2" in the game's title may be somewhat misleading, as the new game covers a good deal of territory featured in the original Ken's Rage.

(In Japan, the game is known as Shin Hokuto Musou, more along the lines of New Fist of the North Star, which seems slightly more honest.)

The decision to retell portions of the first game, as well as integrate episodes from the Fist of the North Star manga that Ken's Rage didn't touch upon, was in response to fan feedback, says Hisashi Koinuma, producer on both Ken's Rage games.

Koinuma tells Polygon that the next Fist of the North Star musou game touches on important storytelling episodes that the first game glossed over.

"In the first title, we tended to cherry pick certain episodes from the first half of manga," Koinuma said at Tokyo Game Show. "Now we want to tell the entire story, all the episodes, and do it in a new way. So even the older episodes are presented in a new way and go into more detail. And it continues into the second half of the manga, into the story of the Celestial Emperor and the Land of Asura story arc."

Koinuma, who says he was a fan of the Fist of the North Star manga as a child and has been making musou-style games for more than 10 years, is particularly excited to flesh out the story of the Five Chariot Guardians.

"I used to read weekly installments of the manga," Koinuma said, admitting to having a fanboy moment when he met the manga's original creators. "As a child, I remembered Kenshiro as a defender of the weak. That was sort of a cool image I had of him, even though Kenshiro wasn't as big as some of the villains he took down."

It's true that Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 looks a lot like its predecessor. Dozens of cloned enemies on screen and the drab, post-apocalyptic environments make the two games look almost identical at first blush. But there are some subtle changes. Playing Ken's Rage 2, it's clear that the developers have loosened up Kenshiro's stiffness from the original. Our hero feels faster, more flexible, his moves more powerful.

Koinuma says the development team has taken fan feedback to heart, admitting that "Ken in particular was a little slow, and people criticized him for being a little clunky at times" in the first game. Kenshiro definitely moves faster and more fluidly in the sequel, though much of the combat still rings hollow.

"There's been a conscious effort by the team to increase the speed and power of the move sets, both for old characters and new ones," he said. The game's performance has also received a power boost, with the framerate doubling to a good 60 frames per second in Ken's Rage 2. The playable character roster has also doubled, with some characters, like Juza, getting more screen time. New combat mechanics and even more characters on screen at once for Kenshiro to pulverize are also coming.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 is even tweaking its storytelling, replacing the static cut scenes of the original for a comic book panel presentation.

Koinuma says the sequel is also getting a competitive time attack mode, pitting players against each other in online battles to see who can kill a swarm of enemies faster. The game's online versus mode is still in development, he says, but "it's unlikely to be directly fighting against another player."

In addition to a release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, developer Omega Force has a version of Ken's Rage 2 in development for Wii U. But that version is unlikely to take advantage of the Wii U's unique GamePad controller, Koinuma says.

While the game feels like an improvement on the first Fist of the North Star musou game in a handful of ways, the TGS demo shared much of the same faults. Combat with Kenshiro just doesn't feel very engaging, even when ya-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ing dozens of wasteland thugs at once. Perhaps the fan service wrappings will be enough for players who don't particularly mind the repetitive combat of these types of games.

Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 is coming to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U next year in North America. The game is expected to be released in Japan by the end of 2012.

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