Fist Of The North Star at MCM 2010

Crammed full of manga and anime fans (many of them fanatical enough to cosplay) as it was, the two day MCM Expo in London was surely the perfect place to host the first non – Japanese public presentation of the new Fist Of The North Star game. If you’re not familiar with the franchise, then all you really need to know is a) it involves lots of fighting, and b) whenever you speak or hear the words ‘Fist Of The North Star’, the words ‘exploding heads’ are never far behind.

It is primarily because of the license’s ultraviolence that FOTNS is often known, by name if nothing else, even to those with little to no interest in manga/anime. The manga first appeared in 1983, and anime works were still being released as recently as 2008, the 25th anniversary of the franchise. FOTNS products are often criticised for their quality, or lack thereof; but for whatever reason FOTNS has legs – long gangly ones that carry it across the years with ease.

The game has already sold over 600,000 in Japan.” Product Manager Masa Hayashi tells me, with obvious pride. And why not? That’s an impressive figure in anybody’s book. The game launched there at the end of March, and Tecmo Koei is obviously hoping for similar success with the Western release. Masa watches people’s reactions to the playable demo carefully, including mine. He is surely aware that releasing the game outside of Japan is a gamble, and one that he hopes will pay off. As we all know, a game that shifts an impressive number of units is not necessarily a good one. How does it actually play?

Masa sifts through the menus for me (and everybody else) because, as he says with a slightly apologetic air, everything is in Japanese. What I’m about to play is one full level of the Japanese retail version.

There’s a choice of characters but I go with the main hero, Kenshiro. What I find is a roaming beat ’em up which, I’ll confess, was no great surprise. At a basic level there are two attack buttons, a block button, a dodge button, and a ‘grab’ button. I try a bit of button bashing – I’m only human, after all – and find that it gets me through the crowds of enemies with little trouble. That said, the settings have been tweaked to make the player’s character nigh – on invincible, so that everyone who plays at the expo is able to finish the level. This also (hopefully) accounts for the rather dull enemy AI.

At a few points in the level, I find myself fighting alongside at least one friendly NPC. Three of us at Critical Gamer speak Japanese, but I’m not one of them; so I am unable to grasp when and why these allies appear and disappear. I can at least vouch for the fact that they do make themselves useful rather than assault your enemies with harsh language before dying, thereby forcing you to restart the level.

The fighting mechanics also include what, for wont of a better description (that I could understand), I shall refer to as ‘supercombos’. A segmented gauge builds up as you land blows on enemies, and this gauge is used to activate a mini cutscene – triggering supercombo. These will be unlocked as you progress, but four were already available at the expo, with each direction of the D pad acting as a hotkey for selection. More powerful supercombos require more segments of the gauge to activate. Unleash one of these moves and your character throws themselves into a devastating series of punches and kicks, dealing major damage to anyone or anything in the way. Very effective against groups of enemies; and successfully tagging a supercombo onto the end of a torrent of ordinary attacks is very satisfying.

"What do you mean, you don't like my feather boa?"

Brief breaks from combat were provided in the level I played by an avalanche of boulders, and two (very similar looking) fenced off areas with arrow traps. These sections reminded me that I had a dodge button to use, which came in very handy when I later found I could become overwhelmed by large groups of enemies. Portal it was not – but these sections didn’t last long enough to outstay their welcome.

Closer to release (the game is currently down simply as ‘Autumn’) you may hear PR speak regarding ‘interactive environments’. I can tell you now that if the level I played is anything to go by, this means little more than exploding barrels (which you can pick up and throw), big sticks (which you can pick up and throw or swing), and towers you can punch the hell out of until they collapse, bringing any enemies atop them tumbling down.

At the end of the level was the obligatory boss fight, with a huge man who for some reason turned green when he was nearly dead. It was obvious even with my nearly invincible character that button bashing won’t work with bosses, which can only be a good thing. Try that, and you’ll get thrown across the floor. You must instead plan and time your attacks well. In addition the boss had a ‘guard’ meter, which had to be worn down before a decent amount could be knocked off his health. I was slightly disappointed to find that halfway through the fight he jumped to an out – of – reach area, and called a horde of lackeys to fight me; a cliché I thought I’d seen the last of. It did at least give me an opportunity to build the supercombo gauge back up.

Once you’ve battered the boss’s health down to zero, you finish him off via a QTE. Again, I can’t be sure how much this is down to the difficulty settings, but the time allowed was very generous. Mind you, speaking as somebody who’s not keen on QTEs, that was fine with me.

All in all I enjoyed my time with Fist Of The North Star, more in fact than I had expected. It was not without its problems, however. During the aforementioned boss fight for example, the camera at one point kept swinging itself away from a powerful weapon I wanted to pick up. A general quibble I had with combat, was that it sometimes seemed too easy for my character to violently attack the empty space next to an enemy rather than the enemy itself. Some sort of lock on system would be very welcome – as would a greater variety in the enemies.

The QTE scenes are very flashy but, er, that's probably camera flare there.

Will these problems be addressed for the English language release? I certainly hope so, and there’s actually good reason to think that they might. Tecmo Koei are putting the sort of effort into localisation that is all too rare. I initially struggled to see where on the mini map I was supposed to be headed – more down to my stupidity than anything else – and Masa, noticing this, told me that it will be improved for the English release. The mini map that is, not my stupidity. And that’s only the beginning.

Gameplay was not short on violence, but it was nowhere near as extreme as fans might want or expect; and enemies, once dead, disappeared in a red flicker as if being pulled out of The Matrix. The blood and gore will be much more extreme in the English version and, Masa told me with a smile, the iconic exploding heads will be present and correct.

The AI I complained about earlier will also be improved, and many people will be pleased to hear that players will be able to choose between Japanese and English voices. The English cast is still unannounced at the moment, with final decisions still to be made.

Pacing is also to be improved; it will be more “dramatic” when it hits our part of the world. There will also be DLC, which the Japanese release has already seen – costumes, playable characters, and scenarios. If you want an idea of what’s already been made available (and speak Japanese), head here: http://www.gamecity.ne.jp/hokuto/download/. We’ll be getting all the Japanese DLC, but Tecmo Koei are also considering the possibility of DLC exclusive to English – language territories. Any such DLC, and all the improvements, will be made by the original developers.

Fist Of The North Star was promising, but had lots of room for improvement. With plenty of this improvement already seemingly underway, this will be one to watch.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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