Version tested: Xbox 360
Two men stand facing each other in the midst of a burnt-out city. One of them wears a sleeveless jacket and a calm demeanour, while the other is both impossibly muscular and a literal giant. A fight to the death is about to take place and, if it wasn't for the look of cold certainty in the smaller man's eyes, the smart money would be on Goliath.
The David of the pair then begins to roar as he flexes his muscles, tearing the jacket from his body to reveal the scars adorning his chest. What happens next is a blur of machine-gun-like punches as the man with the seven-scarred chest lays into his lumbering opponent with all the ferocity of an atomic explosion. He shouts "ATATATATATATA" as he strikes his opponent 100 times within the space of a few seconds before landing a final punch to the forehead which sends the behemoth tumbling to the ground.
The dazed giant looks confused as he checks his body for damage, laughing menacingly as he finds himself entirely unscathed. He raises his axe in preparation for a counter-attack while uttering the words, "First you suffer, then you die, nice and slow, because when I fight, it's always to the death."
With his back turned the scarred man responds with, "That's right, in fact, you're already dead." Immediately a high-pitched screech wails like nails down a chalkboard, as the giant's body contorts horrifically before exploding in a torrent of entrails.
Some 15 years ago I watched this scene in both amazement and (you watch) shock, because as a youth raised on the likes of Transformers and Thundercats, the sheer brutality of Fist of the North Star eclipsed any animation I'd ever seen. It was at this precise moment that I stopped caring about western cartoons forever.
Known as Hokuto no Ken in Japan, Fist of the North Star chronicles the tribulations of Kenshiro, a martial artist living in a post-apocalyptic world where dog-eat-dog has become the mantra of survival. As the 64th successor of Hokuto Shinken, Kenshiro is able to strike the acupressure points of any assailant with effects ranging from complete loss of limb control to an agonising death.
It's perfect source material for console adaptation, and with a gaming history that dates back to 1986 and an adventure game designed by Enix, it's a series with an interesting past. Indeed, everyone from Konami to SEGA has had a shot at the license with results ranging from stellar to sterile. But now the right of succession has fallen to Omega Force as they unleash a game the only way they know how – Dynasty-style.
After watching an opening cinematic which sees Kenshiro demolishing punks and cracking his knuckles – loaded with enough nostalgia to send your average Fist fan into a slathering frenzy – Ken's Rage dispenses with the formalities and offers up its main Legend Mode. This is a retelling of the major events from the first anime series and goes from Kenshiro's one-sided battle with Zeed to his showdown with Raoh.
It's pretty much what you'd expect: Ken's Rage is a wandering beat-'em-up with health pick-ups in the shape of roast chickens. Each level has you steering Kenshiro through a linear map filled with generic goons before competing in a "who can shout their long-winded special moves the loudest" match against an end-of-level boss.
Missions also pop up mid-level in an attempt to stop the carnage from going stale, but since they rarely get more technical than protecting villagers and beating up a set number of attackers, it starts to feel like Ken's Rage is just an uninspired Dynasty Warriors clone wearing tight-fitting trousers. The rigid combat system helps inject it with some of the quintessential Hokuto no Ken appeal, but it's let down by oversimplification.
Normal and Strong attacks string together in the time-honoured tradition, but while you can pull off some impressive moves which will carve through the cannon fodder, the combo structure is strict and leaves limited scope for experimentation. Nonetheless, there are a few subsystems which help spice things up.
The most gratifying are the Signature Moves which draw upon the series' heritage of outlandish techniques. They require nothing more than a button press and a few stocks of your Spirit Gauge, with the consequences ranging from Kenshiro's iconic Hundred Crack Fist to Shin's Thousand Puncture Hand. Hyper Signature Moves also tie into the secondary Focus Gauge and include the Fist of Penitence, which, rather than a sorrowful heart-to-heart, actually results in Kenshiro jamming his thumbs into his opponent's head.
If the explosive nature of Hokuto Shinken isn't your thing, Ken's Rage also lets you play as other characters from the North Star saga. These are split into three styles and include Kenshiro, Roah and Toki for Hokuto Shinken; Rei, Shin and Thouzer for Nanto Seiken; and both Jagi and Mamiya listed under Special.
The Hokuto characters generally tend to excel at singular combat with highly damaging attacks which can put enemies into a Meridian Shock state, further increasing the damage they take. Nanto is more focused on aerial combat and effective crowd control, with each practitioner having access to the Timely Strike. This overpowered counter puts your opponent into Spirit Shock while netting you a temporary, yet godlike, attack boost.
As they go about their butchering, the characters earn Skill Points which power up their attributes and unlock Signature Moves. This currency can also be spent on various augmentative Skills which range from tripling the effect of recovery items to shortening the charge time for Strong attacks. As a levelling-up system, it works well by layering on the new techniques at regular intervals.
But if Ken's Rage has one flaw, it's that it never really succeeds in communicating that sense of macabre magnificence. You can plough through the foot soldiers with ease, and yes, some of the boss fights are fittingly epic – but the clunky combat often feels at odds with the breakneck martial arts the series is known for.
It doesn't help that all the levels appear to have been constructed from the same box of rubble. And while Kenshiro and company make the jump from manga to console in style, the same can't be said for their identikit enemies, who appear to be the aftermath of a photocopier bomb going off in a cloning facility.
On a positive note, Ken's Rage does offer many hours of gameplay for those with the inclination to see everything. In Legend Mode alone there are five character storylines which take multiple hours to finish, and for those who are loath to wipe the smile from Amiba's face for the umpteenth time, Omega Force has even included a new Dream Mode.
This takes the form of eight "what if" scenarios and switches the gameplay from isolated brawls to large skirmishes as opposing forces vie for control of the map. It's classic Dynasty Warriors, and although it can get monotonous, it's nonetheless an intriguing addition which offers a solid alternative to the locked narrative of the main story.
For me – a North Star fan who used to own a Fighting Mania cabinet – rating Ken's Rage is a conflict. On the one hand, it's a competently built homage which treats the source material with a certain degree of reverence; on the other, it does nothing new, and when compared to the likes of Bayonetta its combat is practically archaic.
There's always been the potential to turn North Star into a revolutionary game – one in which unfathomably powerful martial artists break bones and shed tears – but for Omega Force and Ken's Rage, the benchmark was never set higher than a Kenshiro-themed Dynasty game.
If you have any love for the manga, feel free to add the final scar to the tally. For everyone else, this is just an old-school brawler that's partial to shouting ATATATATATATA. Because you're already dead.
6 / 10