One of my first memories of Fist of the North Star was seeing an issue of the manga behind the counter of a local shop. It was the early days of Japanese comics arriving in America, and while I didn’t know what Fist of the North Star was, I did know one thing: it was mature. It was on that very shelf because it wasn’t meant for young eyes, and being young myself at the time, that was incredibly exciting to me. What might its pages contain? Unrelenting violence? Gratuitous sex and nudity? Unspeakably foul language? All of those things mixed together in one wonderfully decadent gateway to a life of sin?
When I finally read Fist of the North Star, it wasn’t anywhere near the levels of impurity my young mind had imagined. What it was, though, was an at times brutal but always compelling tale of a man named Kenshiro trying to survive in the apocalyptic hell our world had become post-nuclear war. Kenshiro is a master of an ancient style of martial arts known as Hokuto Shinken, and if you know anything about the First of the North Star series, you know the main technique behind his training: using the various pressure points in the human body to cause people to explode.
While Kenshiro’s adventures have thrived both in anime and manga forms, it hasn’t been easy figuring out what to do when it comes to video games—or knowing what to do with the games once they’re finished. While Fist of the North Star survived relatively intact on the NES, other attempts ranged from the still-kinda-recognizable-but-not-quite Last Battle on the Genesis to the rather baffling localization Black Belt on the Sega Master System. Later attempts have been better about retaining the Fist of the North Star branding in the West, changing the question more to what kind of game to make. The result? Everything from a fighting game to an Omega Force-developed Musou spin-off to even an arcade machine that you literally punch as you try to emulate Kenshiro’s trademark moves.
All of this leads up to Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise. When Sega announced that the team behind its Yakuza franchise would be taking a stab at turning the long-running saga into a video game, it was surprising but also kinda not. Thirty-two years after the original game hit, there’s still no real consensus on what genre works best for Kenshiro and crew, and it’s not a crazy jump to swap Yakuza’s Kiryu out for Ken and replace Kamurocho with a random Wasteland town. At this point, anything still goes.
And, you know what? I’d call Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise the best execution of a game based on the series. I, and undoubtedly others, thought Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage (the Musou spin-off) might finally be the game where everything properly clicked, but instead it served as a reminder that there’s actually more to this story than just punching (and exploding) a bunch of Road Warrior-esque biker guys.
One of the things Lost Paradise understands more than most of the previous games is that there needs to be a proper weight to combat. Fighting off a crowd of enemies certainly works, but they can’t be foes who come in by the hundreds only to then drop like they’re made of glass. Sure, Fist of the North Star can be pretty ridiculous in terms of its violence—I mean, again, Kenshiro touches people and makes them explode—but that’s always mixed with an undercurrent of somewhat terrifying brutality. Admittedly, punches could always hit harder, kicks could have more “oomph” behind them, but I got way more satisfaction from Lost Paradise’s combat than I had complaints.
Part of that success comes from the game’s fighting engine, which I actually think feels better than what we get in Yakuza. Even without unlocking any additional skills, the basic set of moves provides a nice variety of options for taking down foes, from throwing out a combination of punches and kicks to unleashing a wide variety of Kenshiro’s trademark executions. Watching cinematics of people’s insides exploding definitely might sound like it would get old quickly, but most of the time they remain enjoyable (as sadistic as that may sound). Kenshiro then has a variety of other options for taking on enemies as well, from unlockable techniques attached to four different skill trees, to engaging his power-boosting Burst Mode, to activating the various Destiny Talismans you’ve crafted. These time-rechargeable items are based around the various major characters from Fist of the North Star lore, and each grants a special ability, support skill, or attack fitting to that character’s personality. While some of these pieces are straight from the Yakuza games, they all—along with the original ideas—legitimately end up feeling like they belong to the Fist of the North Star series.
The overall Yakuza template is another reason Lost Paradise succeeds where many previous games have failed—because, really, Fist of the North Star has never only been about buff dudes fighting buff dudes. The story, the drama, the characters in Kenshiro’s life, these are all things that feel missing if you sweep them away to make a more action-focused game. Sure, Kenshiro talks more here than he usually does, but having those narrative moments is as important as making sure the combat is on point. The story was more interesting than I was expecting it to be, and that’s helped by a premise that’s genuinely intriguing once you get to the main town of Eden and things begin to kick into gear. There is a catch to all of this: Lost Paradise is basically an “alternate universe” story. If you’re a longtime fan of the series, a lot of very familiar faces will pop up during the game, as will some recognizable situations. However, how they come together, where they take place, and what their connection to the bigger narrative arc is have all been adjusted to fit this particular original storyline—which can be a bit weird if you’re used to the canonical events. On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of the Fist of the North Star saga, then you’ll miss out on both that familiarity and some of the game’s fanservice, but you really won’t be lost on who’s who and what’s what.
When not advancing through the core story, there are of course a lot of not-as-essential things to see and do all around Eden. Again, those Yakuza roots show through, as Kenshiro can discover a wide array of side quests that range from serious to silly. A lot of these challenges (and the mini games some connect to) help to give Lost Paradise a more lighthearted break from the chaos of the Wasteland, but I’ll admit that they didn’t all gel with me. Again, I’m well aware of how over-the-top everything about Fist of the North Star is, but there’s just something inside me that dies a little watching such a legendary badass beating up bad guys to a hip-hop remix of Symphony No. 9 via a rhythm-based minigame while wearing a doctor’s coat.
I know I’ve been talking a lot about “Yakuza this” and “Yakuza that” in discussing Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, and those comparisons are both inevitable and necessary. The nice surprise, though, is that this isn’t just “Yakuza in the apocalypse.” Even if you’re doing many similar types of activities or engaging in familiar gameplay sections, Lost Paradise quickly grows into its own experience, allowing Kenshiro to escape from Kiryu’s shadow and really be his own man. There are numerous examples of where the game breaks the Yakuza mold, from the aforementioned Destiny Talismans, to the fact that you can actually go out exploring the Wasteland beyond Eden’s looming walls in a cobbled-together buggy. While that open-world area isn’t gigantic, it’s big enough to do what it needs to do, and helps give the game a more authentic Fist of the North Star feel you wouldn’t get being stuck in a city the entire time.
While Kenshiro may have few known weaknesses, I can’t say the same for Lost Paradise. The biggest thing you’ll notice is that, compared to the various Yakuza chapters, Lost Paradise admittedly feels a bit cheap. As one example, the game’s visual style tries to convey more of an anime look, but it’s not as effective at doing so as numerous other examples of cel-shaded releases we’ve seen in recent years. From there, things get much more nit-picky. The game has an annoying trend of exiting a cutscene to mere seconds of gameplay before tossing you into another cinematic, with far too many of those cinematics both being unskippable and repeating every time should you die. As well, some dialog boxes having weirdly long pauses before you’re able to progress to the next one, and there’s a constant introduction of side quests at the most inappropriate of times. (“Hey Kenshiro, I know you’re finally about to learn the truth about something near and dear to you, but could you come help us manage this hostess bar first?”) Also, at times, the difficulty seems strangely uneven, as I’d be cruising through one section only to hit a particular enemy or mob that suddenly had me actually fearing death. If you die too many times, the game will give you the option to temporarily drop the difficulty level, but I implore you to be wary of using that too often–there’s one boss fight in particular that can have its twist ruined if you take the easy way out.
All of these things leave Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise kind of feeling like the red-headed stepchild of the Yakuza family, which disappoints me both as a fan of the series and as a redhead. Thankfully, much like the game’s endless stream of cannon fodder foes, those issues are more minor roadblocks than major threats. Give Lost Paradise a bit more polish and production, and it could be a great Fist of the North Star game. Instead, it will have to live with being a pretty darn good one—and, given the track record of past attempts at interactive interpretations of the saga of Kenshiro, that’s still something to be proud of.
|Publisher: Sega • Developer: Sega CS1 • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.02.2018|
You might not initially think that the story of a Yakuza member fighting for control of the streets of Tokyo would make a good template for a tale about post-apocalyptic warriors battling over resources (and pride), but Sega’s Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is the best game the beloved manga series has ever seen. While the experience does have some failings, they’re nothing protagonist Kenshiro can’t shake off.
|The Good||A Fist of the North Star game that finally gets multiple aspects of the legendary series right instead of just concentrating on the combat.|
|The Bad||The game feels somewhat lacking on a quality level compared to what we’ve seen in the main Yakuza series.|
|The Ugly||If I’m a random thug and I see a man cause all of my friends to explode simply by poking them, I can tell you without hesitation that I am not fighting that man.|
|Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is available exclusively on PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sega of America for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|