I enjoyed the first Fist of the North Star game, but found it to be slow. I got the platinum trophy for it, but I didn't think it was as fun as many of the other Koei games I had played. When the demo for the sequel came to the Japanese PSN, I gave it a whirl and was pretty impressed. Thanks to Tecmo Koei America, I get to review their latest game, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2.
My favorite part of FotNS: Ken's Rage 2 was the cutscenes before and after each stage. They are made to look like pages of a manga. Yeah, they are mostly still images, but I love that it harkens back to its manga roots. At first I was finding myself wanting the mid-stage cutscenes to do this as well, but the more I played, the more I liked it just the way it was. The characters also look nice and detailed, and it's cool that their models show damage to their bodies and clothing. Sometimes there are some weird shadows or lines on the models, but it's few and far between. The only disappointing part of the visual experience is the pop-in of some of the enemies. When you are being timed killing x amount of dudes and you just have to sit around waiting for the last few to actually appear, it's kind of annoying. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but worth mentioning.
The voices in the game are Japanese only, which oddly doesn't bother me. In the more recent Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games, having no spoken English during battles was a hindrance. I had to read what was being said while I was fighting. It made battles more annoying, since I couldn't just process the changing battlefield audibly while I was watching my character to make sure I wasn't dying. In Ken's Rage 2, the stages are pretty linear and most of the story is told through cut-scenes, so there wasn't much reading I had to do during battle. Hence, no problem with it. As much as I like dubbed anime, being subbed made the story mode feel more like the original show. Most of the music sounds like what was in the first game. If you liked that, you should still like it. The music isn't bad, but it isn't great either.
Several of the characters behave like fighters from Dynasty Warriors. You have a normal attack that can be chained together and a strong attack that changes depending on what point in the combo you use it. Thankfully, it seems like all of the characters from the first game received an overhaul to their combos. They are faster and more fluid than they were previously. This greatly benefited Kenshiro, Jagi and Mamiya, who were slow and awkward most times. Kenshiro finally feels as powerful as he is meant to be. In the last game, he was good at attacking single targets, but horrible at hitting groups. I am very happy to tell you he is now awesome at destroying groups of thugs as well!
The Nanto characters play a little different from the rest. They still have a normal attack chain, but their strong attack doesn't really change. They do less damage than the rest, but when attacked, hitting the strong attack button can result in a counter that powers them up for a bit. When powered up, their strong attacks have a much greater range and attack power, often changing completely. Getting in that mode makes it easy to lay waste to big groups, and is fun, too. Both Hokuto and Nanto (martial arts styles used in the Fist of the North Star universe) characters tend to leave enemies exploding or slicing apart into bloody messes, so you might to shy away from playing this in front of younger kids (or really old people). I didn't, so I'm likely a bad parent. My son does love "all the punching moves", though. I recall an option in the first game to disable the more graphic parts, but I sadly don't see that in this game.
The special button allows some characters to use their projectile weapon (much better than last game!) or other things, like Shin's finger snap that damages enemies in a state of Aura Shock. Characters can also throw, but it took too much time so I didn't use it much. The throws don't take a long time to do, but it is much slower than just hitting them, which can impact your grade at the end of the stage. Jumping is no longer a button, but done as a context-sensitive action. Instead, you get a very useful dodge move to evade enemy attacks. You can easily avoid powerful musou attacks by spamming the button, but you will lose aura (musou meter), so use it sparingly. Finally, they threw in a few QTEs for good measure. Most aren't actually timed, so they are not difficult. They usually make sense in context, and can be fun. You only need to hit one at the end of a stage, so no more long strings to finish the boss like the first game. They don't really need to be in the game, but they're not bad, either.
Leveling up is done a lot different than the first game. Now the karma you get from killing enemies is determined by certain conditions. If you have lots of life when you kill enemies, you get defense xp. Killing them with a normal attack is health xp and a strong attack nets you attack xp. It's a pretty new concept, and it isn't as confusing as I thought it might be, so I actually kind of like it. I do miss spending points on the level up chart from last time, but this is still good. You can also equip scrolls to increase the levels of your stats and unlock different skills. The only real problem I have with this system is you really need to create a multi scroll nexus to get much effect after the first few levels. It's not that big a deal, but without chaining them together to get a much better effect, adding 1 to your level doesn't add much. Scrolls from chests and finishing a stage are random, which can make it hard to get a good set for each character. It really just led to me keeping way to many scrolls, since you don't know if you will need it to make a nexus down the line.
Story mode follows the main storyline of the anime/manga and is much more thorough than the first game. It's fairly long and has numerous cutscenes during the stages. It can be a bit much when there are scenes in the middle of boss fights, but it's a minor complaint from me. The stages themselves can be fairly long, but some are little more than boss fights, which evens it out. At some points in the story, you control another character. It's a nice change of pace and gives you a little taste of them before you can play as them in Dream Mode. I have yet to finish watching the original anime (shame on me, I know), so I like that it goes more in detail than the first game. You also unlock the scenes you view, so you can watch your favorites whenever you want. More games should do that.
Just like the first Ken's Rage, there is a Dream Mode here too. It plays much more like Dynasty Warriors than the Story Mode. You choose a character and follow a new story where most stages have you capturing bases. In the first game, each character had their own Dream Mode that followed a new story centered around that person. This time it seems to fill in a lot of the backstory of the whole series and give more depth to the various characters. The whole story intersects and has different paths depending on the character you are playing as. You will likely spend a lot of time in this mode, since you can play as all the unlockable characters, and I think it's fun.
The most major things you can unlock in Ken's Rage 2 are the other characters. You can also unlock a few pictures and some music, most of which come from normal gameplay. One of my favorite things is the Encyclopedia, which gives you background on characters, techniques and story. It's a good way to remind yourself or fill in the gaps so you can understand the whole story. The trophies/achievements you get are fairly standard, most of which come from completion of the various modes with the various characters. There are a few that will take a good chunk of time, namely acquiring the scrolls to make an ultimate nexus, completing all Dream Mode challenges in Free Mode (so you will be doing the stages twice) and killing 100,000 enemies. Not the most inventive list by a long shot, but very achievable. There's also some multiplayer that sounds similar to what was found in Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3. I wasn't able to find any matches, so getting those 2 achievements/trophies might be troublesome.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to how fun a game is. As a fan of Dynasty and Samurai Warriors games, I was looking forward to playing Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2. It is better than the first game, so I can easily recommend it to you. The biggest complaint would be the loading. It didn't seem to take that long (I have the PSN downloaded version), but it seemed to load a lot, especially in Story Mode. If you don't like the Warriors style of hack and slash gameplay, this isn't likely to change your mind. If you do enjoy them or are a fan of Fist of the North Star or were disappointed in the first game or just like running around and beating up tons of guys, give this game a shot. It's fun and can give you great insight into the story of one of the best anime/manga series' to date!