Sequels are generally a straight forward affair – or at least they have been this generation. Ideally, a sequel should remove or fix problems that plagued the first game, while adding new, polished content and improving core gameplay. With Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2, developer Koei’s job should have been a simple one, given that the first game was less than stellar.
Thankfully, Ken’s Rage 2 does away with its predecessor’s biggest problem: excruciatingly slow and clunky combat. While the core combat mechanics remain, your character’s movement speed and attack speed have been dramatically increased, allowing the pace of brawls to accurately mirror the source material. Combat is smooth, easy, violent, and, most importantly, satisfying. Because of this increased tempo, however, the release does lose some of its identity. It feels far more like a standard Dynasty Warriors title than the previous game ever did – but as a whole, the change is for the better.
Ken’s Rage 2 also removes a number of features present in the last game. Some aspects deserved to be cut, like the hilariously out of place platforming sections, while others – like the simple but effective upgrade system – arguably didn’t need to go. What we’re left with is essentially a more streamlined Fist of the North Star experience, but it’s an experience that may have stripped away a little too much.
Take the environments, for example. Fist of the North Star takes place in an apocalyptic future; a place where nuclear war has turned the earth into a wasteland and only pockets of civilization remain. Games like Fallout 3 have shown us that a wasteland can still be an atmospheric and rich place to explore – but in Ken’s Rage 2, the linear, claustrophobic, and extremely dull level design is one of the game’s biggest flaws.
These grimy, colourless corridors funnel you from one brawl to the next, with the occasional mini-boss or boss fight here and there. You’ll enter an area, be told to slaughter a large group of grunts in typical Dynasty Warriors fashion, and then the doors to the next area will open. It’s a formula that's extremely tedious, and where Dynasty Warriors' rather open map design alleviates a lot of the repetition, Ken’s Rage 2 features nothing of the sort.
At least, not outside of Dream Mode. Dream Mode, for many players, will be one of Ken’s Rage 2’s redeeming qualities. This mode sports more open maps and more tactical gameplay, allowing you to take control of bases and slowly stem the flow of enemies as you progress towards boss characters. It’s certainly a mode that takes many cues from Koei’s flagship series, but nonetheless it’s a refreshing change to the short, cramped areas found in Legend Mode.
Legend Mode itself tells the story of Fist of the North Star with impressive accuracy. When it comes to games based upon a licensed franchise, the story usually doesn’t make the transitional jump all too well. But in Ken’s Rage 2, the plot is retold at a good pace and includes all of the main narrative points from the original manga. And, in recognition of said manga, most cutscenes take place in comic book form, with Japanese dialogue spoken over pictures of in-game character models. It works surprisingly well; characters are quickly developed and plot details are conveyed in bite-sized chunks. Even for newcomers, the tale is told in and understandable but not overwhelming manner. And there is quite a lot to take in, especially since Legend Mode can be completed multiple times with different unlockable characters, the story changing based on their perspective.
On the point of the characters, Ken’s Rage 2 marks a large improvement on the original game’s roster. Personalities that were inexplicably missing from the original appear here, and each fighter sports their own unique moveset and style. That said, there are only 22 to pick from, which is less than you’d expect when it comes to a Koei game.
As is the case in Fist of the North Star, most warriors in Ken’s Rage 2 are disciplined in a deadly martial art. The franchise’s main protagonist, Kenshiro, is particularly skilled in making enemies explode from the inside out, while others deliver lightning fast paralyzing blows and wield weapons. The variety of fighting styles on show does keep each character feeling fresh, even if the controls are almost identical for each one.
When it comes to levelling up your favourite burly death-dealer, Ken’s Rage 2 employs a system that adapts according to your own play style. Repeatedly using different types of attacks allocates experience to different stats, and a quick look at your character’s information screen will show which area you’ve been focusing on. The system does allow for a slightly customised experience, but sadly, levelling up doesn’t appear to give your character any significant advantage in combat. You’ll always appear to be doing the same damage no matter how high your strength is, and your health bar will always seem to be chipped away by grunts no matter how much you’ve bolstered your defence. It can help to apply scrolls – stat boosting items – to your character, but the difference is still negligible.
For a genre that relies on giving players almost too much power, brawlers always manage to serve up some challenging boss fights. This is evident in Ken’s Rage 2, but for all of the wrong reasons. Where standard battles are satisfying – if repetitive – boss battles will quickly become an aspect of the game that you’ll dread. Bosses fail to flinch when they’re attacked, they pull off unblockable moves without warning, and their signature attacks often do huge and irreparable amounts of damage. Overcoming these frustrating encounters usually means that you’ll have to play just as dirty as the AI, spamming powerful special attacks and mashing the dodge button in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Needless to say, every boss encounter devolves into an awkward, ridiculous-looking spam-fest that threatens to undo everything that the combat system does right.
Outside of poorly realised boss battles and the drudgery of beating down peons, Ken’s Rage 2 does offer some multiplayer modes. Co-op sees you and a friend battling through the swathes of familiar enemies together, and while the presence of another player can bring some much needed variety, there are numerous connectivity issues to contend with. It’s not uncommon to see your partner seemingly striking at thin air, while entire groups of enemies simply vanish and die right in front of you. Because of this, local co-op ends up working better, even if you have to share a screen.
Unfortunately these online problems persist in competitive multiplayer, almost to the point where the mode becomes useless. Ken’s Rage 2’s combat simply isn’t built for competitive play as it is, with many characters boasting unbalanced and highly-exploitable attacks. Couple these inherent problems with opponents that teleport around the map because of lag and this mode just isn’t worth your time.
As if to amplify all of the title’s flaws, Ken’s Rage 2 is an ugly, ugly game. The colour palette is somewhat forgivable given the source material, but everything else just seems lazy and unfinished. Several characters’ models have very noticeable clipping issues, even during cutscenes, and low resolution textures are prominent throughout. Only the colourful graphical effects that accompany attacks show any hope of an attractive game.
The music is equally disappointing. There are admittedly some songs that have catchy guitar riffs and give a real sense of urgency and power to gameplay, but most tracks consist of repetitive, generic heavy rock that seems to drone endlessly. It’s a good job the game throws in some light piano-based music to mix things up, which serves as the only downtime between the infinite chugging of electric guitars.
Despite everything, Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 does show promise in places. The combat is slick and satisfying outside of boss battles, and the source material is mirrored well. Most fans of the franchise will find enjoyment here if they can look past the game’s many flaws, but for everyone else, there’s very little to get excited about. This is a generic brawler that feels like it was rushed to market, and is a huge disappointment considering it's a sequel to an already lacklustre game.