Having released four Yakuza games in two years, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has decided to change things up by taking the inner workings of a Yakuza game and wrapping them up in the skin of classic manga and anime Fist of the North Star. Same style of combat, same minigames, same mix of serious story and goofy bullshit, small stuff like the same inventory and minimap, even a lot of the same voice actors. If you’re unfamiliar, Fist of the North Star is basically Mad Max if he were played by Bruce Lee, and instead of a sawn off shotgun and a car he has expert knowledge of a martial art called Hokuto Shinken (Fist of the North Star) that makes people explode. Kenshiro, the Mad Max expy, roams a nuclear wasteland murdering mohawk and shoulder pad-clad goons to protect the downtrodden in a survival of the fittest new world, sometimes dealing with the other disciples of Hokuto Shinken, and students of a complimentary but opposite school called “Nanto” (South Star); a style which lets people cut people to ribbons with their bare hands.
Though it includes a lot of the main players from the manga, this is a largely original story. Having got revenge against ex-best friend Shin, Kenshiro makes his way to Eden, a utopia of food, water and high walls that’s the apparent location of Yuria, Ken’s fiancee whom he believed to be dead. Unfortunately all those much-needed supplies make Eden a target for invaders; The Holy Emperor and Ken-Oh, for starters, alongside newcomers The Army of Ruin; lead by Kyo-Oh, a man with an all new martial art that turns people into mindless zombie types. Primarily Eden exists to facilitate the Yakuza gameplay; to provide Kenshiro with his own version of Kamurocho, but they’ve done a good job of justifying it in the plot. There’s a reason why Eden has so many resources, and its wealth makes it a natural target for those who seek to dominate Century’s End: for the most part at least, the story is strong enough, manga characters turn up to be Hundred Crack Fist of the North Star’d (though it’s called something else here), and it all moves at a decent pace. The problems arise with the new characters, particularly the antagonists, what their plans are and how the game reveals them. The villains are weak, and the game moves towards a conclusion and climactic showdown with one only to have another swoop in and shift the focus right at the last-minute. The reveal of who Kyo-Oh turns out to be makes no sense and seemed like it was trying to make things more intertwined to its detriment. When it’s dealing with manga characters and weaving them into this story of Eden and its past, it works, particularly what they do with Raoh, but the new villains didn’t work for me at all. The game takes a little while to get going, too, at least in my opinion. It’s not one of those ludicrous “Oh it gets good after fifteen hours” situations, but after a couple of hours it noticeably hits its stride and gets a boost.
Fortunately, almost everything to do with the gameplay is top-notch. Turns out Yakuza and Fist of the North Star go together like Rum and Coke. The one problem is the car Ken gets early on, that handles like you’re driving on ice even if you make slight turns from a stand still, has to be refuelled, and that the game makes you drive far too often. Also the game uses the Yakuza 3 engine, unless it’s a revamped version for Yakuza Kiwami 3 or whatever they end up calling it, so it lacks some of the fluidity and quality of life improvements that Yakuza 6 has. It’s not a big problem, but it is noticeable after 6 and Kiwami 2. Apart from that, it’s all gold. The combat is a satisfying as ever, made even more so by the inclusion of Ken’s Hokuto Shinken moves: building up a meter floating above an enemy’s head and pressing circle stabs one of that enemy’s pressure points. Press it again with the right timing and they blow up, no questions asked. Wait for the game to prompt you to “STRIKE” and you do one of several moves with damage boosts given by an increasing number QTEs that will make regular enemies explode in a shower of gore and do heavy damage to bosses. It gets to the point where, like the Kenshiro of the manga, you’re an unstoppable killing machine, descending on large groups of thugs and two minutes later walking away from a huge puddle of blood and gore. Like Yakuza, minigames play a key role in proceedings, with all new ones I’m genuinely surprised never appeared in those games. The best of the bunch is bartending, in which not only do you get to see Ken use Hokuto Shinken to make aptly named cocktails (my favourite being “You are already drunk”), you also build up relationships with patrons, which offer up unique substories and unlock new items in shops. I can honestly see Kiryu doing that and I’m now retroactively sad it never happened in any of his games. One only Ken could do is his work at the clinic, in which he dons a lab coat and flashsteps around a crowded room healing the sick and murdering goons to music, the first available track being a hip hop remix of Ode to Joy. These two are the stand-outs; the rest are things like the obligatory baseball (except it’s using a massive girder to smack bandits riding towards you on motorbikes), arena fights and arcade games. No karaoke, but then you can’t have everything.
If you like Yakuza and/or Fist of the North Star, this is a no-brainer. It’s a videogame adaptation made by people who clearly love the source material and the Yakuza style suits North Star like a glove, amplifying its serious and silly sides in equal measure. If you’re new to either or both there’s still a lot to recommend about the game, despite its issues: it’s bloody, satisfying fun, and I’m glad Ryu Team’s games keep getting localised.
By James Lambert