“It will grow on you,” warned my friend when he lent me the new Fist of the North Star game. I gave him a look, because I know he actively keeps up with Koei’s flagship Dynasty Warriors series despite knowing it ain’t doing a lick of good for him. The last time I legitimately had fun with the Dynasty Warriors franchise was with the first entry, long, long ago in my old basement on a new Playstation 2. Simply thrilled at the newfound joy of massacring hundreds of faceless peons who stood in my sword’s/horses’ way. “I killed three hundred people! I totally did that!” I would exclaim in delight, but that was a magic that quickly wore off. Entry after entry Dynasty Warriors seems impressively dedicated to never, ever changing, no matter how much other games have progressed. But now Koei is moving on to new blood, and oh, blood there is. Kenshiro and his brutal Hokuto Shinken style have been bred to tally up a body count that would make Lu Bu envious, but is that what Koei needs to devastate this time around, or is life a privilege something this game does not deserve?
If you didn’t know any better about Kenshiro (Ken for short), you would think he’s some muscular, handsome weirdo who wanders the wasteland killing people extravagantly and taking very little pleasure from it. Given that Koei makes no effort to familiarize you with the Fist of the North Star story, there is a great likelihood that Kenshiro will rub off in that way. The game does eventually lay down some shades of a narrative, but the beginning will plop you right into the middle of an alienating prologue and continues to take its sweet damn time before giving anyone so much as a ‘Hello, My Name Is’ tag. Until that point, you are tagging along for Kenshiro’s unofficial hitlist of people whose faces apparently need punching in. Those who are already fans won’t be bothered by this much, and any bits of story will accompany what you already know; those who were hoping to be hooked on North Star through the game alone will need to supply their own incentive for the first few hours, though it gets easier once the game starts spilling its guts.
I’d be lying if I said Fist of the North Star plays exactly like Dynasty Warriors. I’d also be lying if I said that it doesn’t play exactly like Dynasty Warriors – The game will feel familiar to anyone who knows the DW franchise. You’re a rogue ravager with on-again off-again partners and your goal throughout is to wipe your foes off the face of the earth. With that in mind, some gameplay elements and design priorities from the DW series have been swapped for other ones, though if they are of equal value depends on what you want from the game. The strategy, field of war elements of Dynasty Warriors have always felt loosey goosey, perhaps entirely psychological, but they were the one thing that kept your mind busy when you were otherwise mashing on the square button and breaking crates to see what was inside. Those elements are gone entirely, and stages are fairly linear with a few side quests that never amount to much more than protecting cowering villagers from bikers. I mentioned there was a trade off.
It isn’t much, but by god it’s there – Koei actually introduced a fighting system that’s more involved than ‘look for a horse’. It’s a bit stiff, the air kick overcompensates for every other move, and the levelling system is slow and exists only in the menus, but there’s something about the way Kenshiro fights that feels so… powerful. Hokuto Shinken is supposed to be this devastating and unstoppable fighting style, and if this game’s only mission is to reaffirm that, mission accomplished. You slosh through regular cronies like butter, and no matter how large, strong or glamorous your foes become they’ll all succumb to your incessant fist throwing.
Despite Koei being rather fond of button mashing, you are very much at the mercy of the fighting style, made up as it may be. Kenshiro pauses when building up energy, which means that despite his brute strength, you’ll have learn how to wield his power if you are going to be an effective combatant. There’s a basic attack which starts fast then leads to a sample of Ken’s signature rapid punch, triangle lets loose a more powerful fielder, which can be charged to do more damage, but will always cause your enemies to pop like microwaved zits. There is also have a roster of special attacks, which vary in damage but always promise a flurry of violence. You can carry four special attacks at a time, assigned to the D-pad, and you unlock more with points earned in-game. You can also engage a spirit mode, which is used to counter the special attacks of bosses, but also opens a second set of special attacks with even loopier animations. There are also a few other story campaigns with slightly different combat styles, and a dream mode with a sizable roster of faces you’ve encountered.
Another mixed bag of polar proportions is the presentation. Character models and animations are really quite seamless, Kenshiro is a fantastic adaptation of his retro anime self, and the tearing of his shirt to reveal his seven deadly scars is so well executed you barely notice the bearing performance. Aside from that, the visuals are a mess, and it’s a terrible condition of ratty looking scenery that you’ll never ever ditch. Every level and playing field may not be the same, but they unquestionably look the same, and they all look terrible. They’re uninteresting, poorly textured, and are such a tribute to laziness I’d build a statue if it wasn’t hypocritical to the award. Repetition in general is Fist of the North Star’s most violent flaw. Enemies, tasks, environments and actions never change, and even boss battles are pretty damn similar.
But like my friend said, “it will grow on you.”
Fist of the North Star is fun, and it really shouldn’t be. The worst kind of design is on full display, in the open, shamelessly paraded for all to see. Koei doesn’t so much take two steps forward and one back with this game, as much as they trip and stumble into the right place. With a fighting system that feels appropriate despite being so sloppy, graphics that can choose to impress despite being so lazy, and dialogue that’s hard to repeat with a straight face, North Star is surprisingly hard to condemn. It’s always been obvious Koei knows who their audience is. They don’t abide with any particular genre, just a mentality. You probably won’t get much from one Dynasty Warriors to the next, and fans seem very comfortable with that. Fist of the North Star may not seem so off the beaten path to outsiders, but to the dedicated fans, it’s way out in the wasteland.