The absolute best thing about playing games based on anime and manga I'm not familiar with is trying to decipher the ass-mad story. Fist of the North Star is a post-apocalypse scenario story with seemingly magical fighting powers. It uses astrological elements like star signs and constellations to tell the story. At least, this is what I can pick apart from its nutty nature.
This is absolutely not a dig on Fist of the North Star — no, I actually find it quite refreshing. In an ocean of anime and manga where there are death gods, spirits and ghosts, it's nice to see a story where death is final and absolute. Yeah, that's one thing North Star has over Dragon Ball and it's aforementioned wish granting orbs.
Everything in First of the North Star can be explained neatly (though unscientifically) by the position of the stars in the sky or the activation and deactivation of pressure points in the body, a core principal of acupuncture. It has its own pseudo-science that makes sense by its own rules, and this transfers to the game.
The look and aesthetic is inspired by the rebooted anime from the 2000's rather than the 1980's original. What this means in simple terms is that the colours are washed out and faded, whereas the original show used fairly bright colours. At least, colours we'd consider too dull for a post-apocalypse setting. On the downside, this is yet another HD game that doesn't use the full and intense HDMI colour range to its potential.
If you've played Dynasty Warriors, you will both love and hate this at the same time right off the bat. The fighting mechanics, controls and game setup are classic "Musou", but the pace of the game most certainly is not. This game is slow, but it is slow by design. You don't face hundreds of enemies at a time like you would in any Warriors title but, in a war and fire ravaged world, would there actually be that many enemies? And with everyone on the verge of death and clawing for survival, do you really expect ludicrous acrobatics and insane stunts? As I said, slow by design.
Once I got my head around this, the game really opened up to me. The characters move slower, but that makes combos easier to string together! It's like if the Warriors games were "Street Fighter Turbo 3" and Ken's Rage was the original version. While Turbo 3 is far more enjoyable to pick up and play, in the original Street Fighter 2 you can actually count frames and pull off moves more effectively.
Basically, sorry to ramble, but any off-the-shelf Warriors title from the last five years lets you button mash. You cannot mash buttons on Ken's Rage. Most people hate this about Ken's Rage. If you get your head around the slow nature and the focus on combos, it will surprise you with its depth.
I'm not a woman, I'm a warrior!
The main "Legend" mode has you fighting through key conflict scenes from the show, and plays more like the Basara series due to the linearity of the stages. You might get to ride a horse or a motorcycle from time to time, but typically progression is by foot. You'll often enter into areas that get gated off, and enemies spawn in from the top as if to ambush you. Other times you'll have a goal to complete, such as defeating an enemy before they have time to give a message to an enemy commander. This eradicates the "samey" nature of some other Warriors games, as the game keeps you on your toes with evolving missions.
On the first play through, you assume the role of Kenshiro, one of the last living practitioners of Hokuto Shinken, a martial art presumed to be invincible (I died enough times to know that's bull-flap). As you progress, you unlock stories for other characters, such as the luscious Maimiya and the white-haired healer Toki.
Each character has a distinctly different moveset and can be upgraded through the "Meridian Chart", the obligatory levelling up system. Meridian Chart reminds me most of the Augment system from Final Fantasy XII, in the sense that you have some freedom as to what you invest your hard earned points in, but there's an obvious limit to what you can improve.
You're only going to max out a character if you play "Dream Mode", which are whole new what-if scenarios for characters including those who merely served as doorstops during the story mode. Finally, some decent screen time for Jagi. That guy is awesome.
The soundtrack (while forgettable) uses electric guitars to great effect, and provides that grunge one expects from the apocalypse. No mega-catchy tunes, but we do get a metal arrangement of "Ai o Torimodose!!" during key battles. The voice acting is available in English and Japanese, which unfortunately didn't carry over into the sequel. Enjoy it while it's there.
I think this will appeal mostly to players who can stomach slow combat. You cannot button mash through Ken's Rage, and once you understand that, oh does the game open up in ways I really didn't expect.