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Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage review: Going south

Dave Tach

If I said, "ATATATATATATATATAT!" and that held any meaning to you, then congratulations: Somebody's made a game just for you! If reading that caused your forehead to crinkle, then buckle up because we're going though the looking glass.

For those lost in translation, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage is a third-person beat-em-up based on the 1980s anime series that begot cartoons, animated features and (ta-dah!) video games. The central campaign follows the conquests of its titular hero, Ken, a battle-axe with a heart of gold and a thing for purple-haired ladies.

Gallery: Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage (10/1/10) | 25 Photos

The story that unfolds over the next 20 or so hours is the FotNS Cliff's Notes, dispensed in fits and spurts, with characters and plotlines appearing, vaporizing and reappearing after being forgotten only to vaporize again.

In a nutshell, Ken, who is ashen, sad and angry, punches his way through a dystopia that is equally ashen, sad and angry. Very loud, ruthless men and the idiots who follow them use fear to rule the carcasses of once-great cities. This offends Ken's sensibilities. Those survivors of the apocalypse without pink hair, mohawks or S&M gear wait in desperate hope for a hero to save them. You're their man.

To say that the boss battles are cheap is an insult to dollar stores the world over.

Lucky for them, Ken practices Hokuto Shinken, an ancient form of (fake) martial arts that derives its brutal lethality from a secret knowledge of the human body's (pretend) vital points. On the business end of Ken's fists, enemies explode. To death. Literally. This makes killing very satisfying (for at least one level). As a reward for your murders, you receive karma, which you use to upgrade your health, defenses and to learn ever-fancier ninja moves between levels.

Your job is to mash your way through gangs of lumpen imbeciles who offer all the resistance of refried beans to a tortilla chip as they stand between you and the inevitable boss.

The game's weakness lies not in conception, but in execution. Here's how every level works, every time:

  1. Ken cracks his knuckles and says something that a professional wrestler might say.
  2. You take control and turn a corner or two.
  3. If you've made it to level two, you notice a building and think to yourself, "Have I been here before?"
  4. You mash your way through dozens of punks.
  5. Occasionally, you get to fight a really tall or a really fat guy who, in an interesting change of pace, actually seems genuinely interested in fighting back.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and, possibly, 5.
  7. You find the boss and begin to fight him. In a wholly frustrating role reversal, the boss becomes the chip and you become the beans.
  8. The boss then hands you your nethers anywhere between 2 and 1,124 times. To say that the boss battles are cheap is an insult to dollar stores the world over.
  9. At the end of the lengthy boss fight, you forget which button B is and fail a quick time action that has nothing to do with the skills you used to defeat the boss.
  10. You resist the urge to chuck your controller across the room.
  11. You finally defeat the boss.
  12. As a reward, you're treated to a cut scene that may or may not make your eyes go crossed.
That's pretty much it. For 20 hours.

Perhaps having recognized the paper-thin combat and uninspiring level design, Tecmo Koei included a series of optional challenges within each level. Some are time-based while others require you to protect other hapless citizens who are armed with weapons that they treat more as curiosities than implements of destruction. Most are easy to fail because they're easy to misunderstand.

There are occasional environmental weapons with which you can bludgeon crowds for a limited amount of time before they fall out of your hands, achieve translucence and then vanish ... the weapons that is -- though, you're right, the other thing would be neat. These weapons are so effective you'll have to battle depression as you realize that no matter how hard you work and how much you level up, you'll never be as powerful as a very long stick.

If the kind of action that Ken's Rage offers resides in your wheelhouse -- if you're a fan, for example, of the Dynasty Warriors series -- then you'll likely appreciate the simplicity. If, on the other fist, you aren't already a fan of the fiction or the very specific kind of action that Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage provides, then you'll find much of it an unsatisfying grind.

Look: This is a game about punching perplexed paper dolls until they explode with blood, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But it is so very much about that -- and only that -- that, unless you're in love, it's far safer on this side of the looking glass.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage provided by Tecmo Koei.

Dave Tach is a freelance writer from Canfield, Ohio, and he couldn't be happier about it. You can find him posing as @unclehaircut on Twitter where he will try to make you giggle.

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