Hokuto Musou / Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage (X360, PS3) (2010)
Review by Faididi and Co.
Oh shit, he's using horse steroids again!
Koei's Hokuto Musou (Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage) is based on the 1983 anime Hokuto no Ken, which itself has sprung from the manga about a brutal, Mad Max-type wasteland where all the men are hyper-muscled terrors who battle each other to the death while subsisting on steroids and regularly ripping off their shirts to bare their rock-hard pecs. All the bad jokes aside, this story is notable for holding strong onto its overly serious, unabashedly macho tones for almost three decades, and it remains free of the silly tropes that eventually creep into other long-lived manga and anime series. (Don't expect to find any banal humor or superpowered magical girls.) Too bad none of that matters here, because the original material is cut up for the sake of the game, and some of the cinematic cutscenes and in-game locations don't even match.
On the surface, Hokuto Musou looks like another passable entry in the Musou tactical action fighter series, featuring mass combat in huge environments. Like Gundam Musou (Dynasty Warriors: Gundam), it offers two main modes of play, one following the original anime story and the other featuring new tales exclusively made for the game. (Jagi's new story is admittedly amusing.) Now, if excessive masculinity is all the rage in Hokuto no Ken, then we might as well be blunt about Hokuto Musou: it sucks. Had it merely adhered to the stale formula of the previous Musou games, it wouldn't have been so bad, but it suffers from baffling new flaws that turn it into the worst installment yet.
First, the original story mode doesn't even get the Musou elements right. Its linear level design gives no real sense of ongoing fighting occurring across the entire areas. It also lacks 2-Player support, just like the painfully limited Chou Battle Houshin (Mystic Heroes). As if daring you to hate the game more, the bosses in this mode must be finished off with the stupid button-prompt challenges typical of the most generic action titles. Sure, the extra story mode retains the 2-Player support and drops the button-prompt garbage, but that's like saying you buy something only to receive half of what you're due.
No matter what mode you play, Hokuto Musou is plagued with ghastly problems from top to bottom. The horribly sluggish controls and the awkwardly slow movement transitions make every action painful to perform, whether it's turning in the middle of attacking or it's stopping to break open an item box. Slogging through the sloppily assembled environments becomes torture when every stage shares the same desert scenery and is filled with the same three lousy types of enemies. While that last problem might be blamed on the source material, the same can't be said about the simplistic upgrade system. Instead of the standard experience points and special accessories, your characters are stuck with fulfilling kill quotas to earn skill points, which are used to acquire all the upgrades in the game. This means that, except for energy-restoring supplies and a pitiful few extra skill points, there aren't any items to find in the stages, providing little incentive to explore.
The slow, unresponsive controls are so nasty that we wouldn't blame you if you're being skeptical. As if the time-consuming animation lag for motions as simple as basic punches isn't bad enough, the motorbike vehicles turn like shit. The camera's distance from your character is automatically determined, leaving it at the mercy of the current scene. Unlike in the classic Musou games, the mission event cutscenes can't be skipped, making every instance of a gate opening or closing an irritating interruption.
The repetitive level design's colors are so limited that the item boxes blend in with the rest of the sandy, ever-yellow scenery. The characters are nicely drawn, remaining faithful to their original appearances while gaining updated details, but the gooey hemorrhaging and gore effects for defeated enemies look awkward (even in light of Japanese laws regarding depictions of violence). The playable characters also have some limited clothing-damage effects that occur when they lose enough stamina, although these effects are minor to the point of being unnecessary.
Audio: Above Average
Similar to Gundam Musou, Hokuto Musou brings back its own original cast, which means you can at least enjoy some classic voice acting (and kung fu screaming). The repetitive phrases from the common enemies aren't as good, though. The rocking music is generally true to the source's spirit, but some of the tunes consist of one short riff looping over and over again, making you want to puke.
Successive installments in a series, whether direct sequels or not, are supposed to be smarter and more advanced, but that clearly isn't the case here. Hokuto Musou isn't what Hokuto no Ken deserves, not when, against all expectations, it's the worst installment in the Musou tactical action series to date. Its shockingly awful controls, half-missing 2-Player support, boring-ass level and enemy designs, and other stupid problems have no place in any serious action game in this era.
Updated Version: Poor
The updated version of this game (the exported versions and the International edition of the Japanese version) contains some improvements that supposedly make things better. Among them are the corrected accuracy for some (but not all) special attacks, the tighter turning controls for the motorbike, and the option to switch between the original voice acting and the dubbed acting.
Nevertheless, the game remains shitty, because it fails to fix the basic fighting controls' stiffness, and the gate-opening cutscenes still can't be skipped. To piss you off, additional glitches work their way into this updated version. A collapsing pillar can now almost instantly kill your character at one point, and a dialogue freeze at another point can ruin your session (before you can save) and temporarily wreck your console's audio output. This game needs to go fuck itself.