Fist of the North Star - where to begin? Some of you might know of this manga/animé series from the 1980s already, as it's infamous for its ultraviolence and fondness of blood and gore. It's something of a cult classic, but as is the case with such things there aren't too many people who are familiar with them. That being the case, here's a quick introduction:
Nuclear war has broken out in the 20th Century, and in turn reduced the world as we know it to a desolate and dreary place where might makes right. Kenshiro (Ken) practices one of the new world's most powerful martial arts - Hokuto Shinken - and is on a quest to find his kidnapped fiancée Yuria. Her kidnapper, Shin, on the other hand practices a rivaling martial art - Nanto Shinken. Ken's motivation to go adventuring into the desert is... dated to say the least. Granted, the series came out in the 1980s, but 'hero's maiden is kidnapped' is still a rather cheap way to start a story off.
Fortunately, the game is developed by Sega's CS1's Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, who you might recognise as the studio behind the recently successful Yakuza series. The studio has a penchant for bizarre and over-the-top humour (you can work as a bartender and chisel ice), which lends itself to a lot of Japanese media. FOTNS uses a modified version of the Yakuza game engine, and if you've played any of the more recent games in that series you'll have a slight advantage - both games work very similarly, with brawling as the centrepiece that the rest of the game is built around. Also, if you have a save file from one of the Yakuza games on your system, you'll receive a small token of recognition as thanks.
Enough about that though, let's dive into the game, which opens with a brief tutorial on the combat system by having you fight your way up several levels of bad guys in order to reach Shin, so Ken can rescue his beloved (she only went along with Shin so that he wouldn't kill Kenshiro during a previous altercation). From there it takes about five seconds from meeting the first baddie to us getting a grisly confirmation that this game is exactly as ultraviolent as expected.
Bodies burst and explode around Ken everywhere he goes, more often than not seconds after he's informed them that they are already dead. After a quick boss-fight with Shin that goes over the basics of 1-on-1 fighting, we've saved Yuria and can lie back and watch the credits roll. Of course, we're joking, as Yuria has taken her own life in desperation over never getting to reunite with her beloved. Taking the news like a man and bottling them up deep down inside, Ken takes to wandering the desert aimlessly.
But we need some sort of reason to keep playing the game, so our hero soon finds himself in a razed town where - after warning some bandits not to bother the locals, and using his magic fists to explode them after they don't heed his advice - he's told that the news of Yuria's death has been greatly exaggerated. Presumably so, at least, as the locals have seen an amazingly beautiful lady leading a group of people towards the Paradise Town of Eden only a stone's throw away. There's no other person that could possibly be, right?
Honestly, we're finding ourselves struggling to write about the story without having to resort to sarcasm. Often things happen without much (if any) foreshadowing, the deus ex-machina is figuratively redlining, and there's always a justifiable cause to be found for punching someone to death. There was also a certain amount of eye-rolling going on as the story unfolded, mostly because it takes itself way, way too seriously, especially in the beginning. It certainly doesn't help that Kenshiro has the emotional range of a wet sock, with his responses to things happening ranging from disinterested grunting, through disgruntled grunting, and finally plateauing at angry grunting when the faecal matter really hits the fan. There's the odd attempt at self-irony though, which we thoroughly welcomed.
The emotionless inertia does, unfortunately, persist through almost the entire introduction sequence (which lasts almost five hours!). The pace isn't picked up until you've unlocked Eden, and even then we had to play for a few more hours until we had unlocked enough of the game to start exploring the various activities.
Speaking of Eden, the Paradise Town is most definitely the best thing in Paradise Lost. You can explore the streets and back alleys, browse the stores, and use the town as your base of operations to buy and upgrade equipment. During the night this otherwise quaint town transforms into a neon-filled paradise that's downright amazing, with vivid colours as a stark contrast to the sand and dust that normally occupies both the town and the surrounding areas.
In time you'll also get access to a car that you can use to venture into the wasteland to do missions and drive the story forward (pardon the pun). The car can be upgraded using parts bought or acquired otherwise, and will then let you visit areas that were previously inaccessible, so if you're a completionist there's some joy to be had here. We hope that you enjoy listening to the three default songs that come with the car though because you'll have to unlock other tunes by finding them and that might take a while.
The story is an original written specifically for the game, set somewhere between part one and two of the series, and at the same time in an alternate timeline so that characters who were dead or had other problems could rear their faces. It's quite noticeable that it's written mostly with fans of FOTNS in mind. In the name of honesty, we have to admit that we haven't read or seen all that much Fist of the North Star, and as a result, we felt a bit lost at times. Characters show up and you're expected to recognise them immediately and without problem, but without actually knowing who the characters are it's difficult to care about them or what happens to them for that matter. The series is old, granted, but it still feels awkward and one-dimensional at times too.
The lack of depth to the characters makes it hard for us to become sufficiently engaged in their tribulations, but there's still one thing that kept our interest: the action. There aren't too many of these sections in the beginning, so there's a noticeable excess of talking and storytelling, and we think that the developers might have been aware of this, because each and any opportunity to squeeze in a bit of fighting is seized, including some flashbacks that came out of right field so quick we actually chortled in surprise.
Controlling Kenshiro is rather simple: light attack, heavy attack/finisher, dash/jump, and grab/coup de grâce can be found on the different face buttons of the controller. You're relatively free to combine these as you wish, and after dealing a sufficient amount of damage to an enemy you have the opportunity to finish them off. What follows is a short Quick Time Event that rewards you with blood and gore, and let it be said that it a noticeable amount of work has been put down into making these as faithful to the series as possible. After enough punishment has been dished out you can make Kenshiro tear his jacket (one of a seemingly unlimited supply hidden somewhere in a pocket dimension) off and enter "Burst Mode" where Ken does extra damage and can perform extra deadly fighting techniques.
Even if the death sequences are grotesque, they're fortunately involuntarily comedic in nature so it helps in keeping spirits high, because if not you'd be nothing than a wanton murderer on a killing spree instead of the wasteland saviour... on a killing spree. This disconnect between being a 'good guy' and also killing everything in your path is something that gives the game a bizarre undertone and is perhaps a take on how action heroes normally murder their way out of any problem they may face.
The combat system is solid but has its problems. When meeting bosses or other strong enemies you end up having to walk around blocking and waiting to get a shot in, and it doesn't feel very fluid or engaging. We don't mind hard games, but we also prefer that they're hard because of things other than the camera and the controls. When facing hordes of enemies things flow pretty well though, and you can use area-of-effect moves to give yourself room to breathe. Also, seeing your opponents clearly being affected by their comrades' explode-y deaths is a nice detail (and anything else would be weird, to be frank).
Almost all of Ken's techniques and abilities are upgradeable via an extensive upgrade-system, and even if some of them are simple stat-increases of health and damage it's still enjoyable seeing the network slowly filling up as Kenshiro becomes stronger. You're also free to choose how and in what order you want to upgrade Ken, which is an instant hit with us.
We do honestly think that this is as close as any game has gotten to capturing the spirit of Fist of the North Star, and they've stayed faithful to the characters as well as put in some real effort to make the fighting seem as vicious and brutal as it is in the series. There's a decent amount of good to be found, but pacing issues make it hard to find and get to those good parts - especially if you're not familiar with the story or the characters. You'll get the most out of this game if you're already a fan of FOTNS, although fans of intense action have a lot to deal with here too.
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