Is the series already dead?
As the resident Dynasty Warriors expert, a title I wear with pride and shame, I reviewed the original Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage and deemed it as one of the best games to be influenced by the series. It took the basic Dynasty Warriors premise of beating hundreds upon hundreds of enemies into a bloody pulp and made the combat deliberately grounded. Every punch and kick that badass Kenshiro landed on his foes had a meaty thud that sounded painful and brutally satisfying. This sequel fits smack in between Dynasty Warriors and the original FotNS title, to both its benefit and its detriment.
For those in need of a primer for Fist of the North Star, it's a 1980s manga and animé starring the muscular, Bruce Lee-inspired Kenshiro fighting off mohawked bandits in a Mad Max post-apocalypse. As the true successor of the deadly martial art Hokuto Shinken, based on striking acupunctural vital points which make enemies rupture into bloody explosions, he must contend with gangs, tyrants, and his fellow brothers who were denied succession of the art. Nothing like some hypermasculine sadism to make the perfect setting for a video game, right?
Ken's Rage 2 borrows much from the first title—art assets, environments, movesets, character models—but it decides to abandon the deliberate nature of the combat for the quicker, more immediate combat of the Dynasty Warriors series. While this makes Kenshiro into the fast and furious kung fu machine that he was always meant to be, the melee combat feels too breezy. Completing nearly any objective is a simple matter of figuring out the move string that has the most effective crowd control, and then spamming the hell out of it.
This isn't to say that Ken's Rage 2 attempts to encourage players to perform a variety of attacks. Using different techniques grants experience points toward different growth stats, but ultimately there's just too much incentive to spam. Killing many enemies at once rapidly builds the combo streak and the aura meter for special moves, and most mission objectives ask the player to kill as many enemies as possible in a short period of time. On top of that, these objectives are graded so there's little reason to stop using the same powerful trick over and over again.
The only time when this spamming strategy changes is during boss battles, where guard breaks and spacing matter more. Both offense and defense is important, simultaneously hitting fast and hard while evading incoming attacks, which isn't terribly difficult since the timing for dodges is extremely forgiving. That said, defeating a boss is still half about spamming the right moves at the right time.
Fans of the animation will be pleased that Ken's Rage 2 goes through the manga's full five-year run, with a Legend Mode that extends for more than 20 hours. Dream Mode extends that further by adding more characters to the original title's roster and filling in the stories for the majority of the other characters. Some cut-scenes are full-motion video, while others are delivered as a moving paneled manga where unforunately the character animations feel stiff and lazily done.
However, it's the loading times that are the most offensive. Every cutscene has an unbearably long loading time, at least twenty seconds or so, as if the game was a launch title for the PlayStation 2. Boss battles tend to have cutscenes that occur right in the middle of the battle, interrupting the tension of the fight. The worst is when the game loads for a half minute just to show two words on the screen... and then goes right back into loading. Installing the game to the hard drive cuts the loading times by a healthy margin, but they still make Legend Mode exhausting.
Ken's Rage 2 extends itself in several ways through the addition of scrolls and online co-op play. Combining scrolls in various orientations boosts a character's primary stats and grant specific abilities, like heightening defense when health is low. Since scrolls are randomized, it's about getting lucky drops. But it's still no substitute to the Meridian Chart skill tree from the original Ken's Rage which rewards players more definitely and gives them more choice in character progression.
Finishing missions in Dream Mode with a co-op partner, either locally or online, awards better scrolls. However, Dream Mode gets repetitive quickly and capturing bases isn't difficult. It also takes a while to unlock enough characters by completing Legend Mode; only one character is available at the start, so two local players can't even enjoy multiplayer out of the box. There aren't many enemies in between bases nor are there many online players out there either, but it's fairly enjoyable when it works.
Tecmo Koei sometimes doesn't realize when it stumbles upon good ideas, and Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 abandons several gameplay elements of the original title that it didn't need to. The sequel will still satisfy fans that don't mind the Dynasty Warriors design while nostalgically revisiting the animation, but the game's vital points could have been much stronger.