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Game Review

by Daryl Surat,

Fist of the North Star: Paradise Lost

Playstation 4

Fist of the North Star: Paradise Lost
The creators of the Yakuza games have extended their fusion of macho melodrama, deadpan stoicism in the face of wacky hijinks, Sega nostalgia, hostess club management, and rhythm-based minigames into a post-nuclear apocalypse heavily inspired by The Road Warrior. There wanders Kenshiro, the rightful heir to Hokuto Shinken, the ultimate killer martial art which can both kill and heal instantly with the mere touch of the body's hidden pressure points. Mixing elements of the original saga together with all-new friends and foes, Lost Paradise is the best Fist of the North Star videogame experience to date.

The last few years have marked a surge in popularity among English-language fans of both Sega's long-running Yakuza series of videogames as well as—to a lesser extent—the formative trope-establishing Shonen Jump fighting action series of the early 1980s, Fist of the North Star. For years, both were stymied from finding an audience in the West, but all either ever needed were spiritually faithful localizations without massive edits and both physical and digital distribution so that fans could see the dang things and realize that there was far more to either than their blood-drenched, musclebound exteriors suggested. In 2018, thanks to the wonders of memetic humor, even teenage fans know Kenshiro's signature catchphrase “omae wa mou shindeiru” (“you are already dead”). Granted, whether they know that's a Fist of the North Star thing or just know to shout back “NANI?!” in Fortnite chat is another story, but it is in this zeitgeist which Lost Paradise resides.

The main thing you should know about Lost Paradise is that it's a game for Fist of the North Star fans who want to experience Yakuza which is marketed as a game for Yakuza fans who wish to experience Fist of the North Star, the latter describing most potential players in America. Despite being an original and completely self-contained story primarily focused on brand-new allies and enemies, its reshuffling of events and characters from the original story seems to assume players can immediately grasp that “this time, things will happen THIS way instead!” Powerful abilities with lengthy cooldowns are associated with “key characters,” some of whom may not necessarily even be in the game.

That's not to say there isn't enjoyment to be found if you're primarily a Yakuza fanatic. The open-world formula of traditional Yakuza games primarily revolves around one key area in which delinquent elements and civilians alike intermingle, providing the player with a myriad of optional diversionary tasks and gradual upgrades as they progress through a story that guides them through every corner. That approach is replicated here, in a new location for those who've practically memorized the layout of Kamurocho at this point.

I don't want to spoil the core story, but in search of his beloved Yuria, Kenshiro encounters an oasis in the wasteland: the walled city of Eden where food, water, shelter, and even electricity remains plentiful. (The neon makes things much more colorful at night, if its day visuals are too brown and grey to your tastes.) The walls are quickly breached, however, and so you end up with roided-up brutes sporting dyed mohawks, face paint, S&M gear, and medieval weaponry milling about right alongside common civilians and merchants to provide random encounters for you to contend with a la Yakuza.

Eden is the hub through which most of the game takes place, though it's not long before you acquire a buggy with which to explore its surroundings. Yes, it's a mostly barren wasteland, but as the narrative progresses you acquire various terrain-clearing upgrades. Such a thing could easily become tedious, but thankfully Lost Paradise not only permits you to fast travel between previously visited points, you get to listen to classic Sega tunes while doing so. Time flies when you're listening to Outrun's Magical Sound Shower or the jungle theme to Super Monkey Ball just before you absentmindedly run into a roving bandit horde that's significantly larger than those you'd encounter in Eden.

Fortunately, numbers are of little concern to one who can make bodies explode with a touch. Like the best superhero videogames, your victory is practically guaranteed and it's simply a matter of how stylishly you'll prevail. Lost Paradise employs a system of light and chargeable heavy attacks which open up your opponents to a variety of secret techniques capable of instant kills. Do it just right, and baddies emit a comic art-style death cry speech balloon which can either restore health, charge up your Burst meter, or manifest as a physical object for you to then bludgeon the remaining enemies with. The Dragon of Dojima (optional character skin, BTW) is cool and all, but Kenshiro gets to SMASH MANGA SOUND EFFECTS INTO PEOPLE, the two most important of which are bundled with the physical release as stickers.

Activate the filled Burst Meter, and your jacket will tear off enabling you to perform additional enhanced attacks. (True to the source material, Ken's jacket will just magically reappear on him afterwards.) Variation in techniques does give a slightly greater experience reward, but you needn't grind random encounters; you're given bigger rewards for playing the quests. In fact, several of the best techniques only unlock by progressing the story and meeting key characters, so you stand no risk of inadvertently power-leveling beyond any challenge the core narrative presents thanks to exploration (aka the “Bethesda Studios Effect”).

The fighting system isn't quite perfect, though. I frequently lock on to absolutely nothing, resulting in me punching air and getting smacked in the back for facing the wrong direction. Even after upgrades, the evasion side-step travels quite a short distance and charged heavy attacks are just a bit slow, which can make contending with enemies that block or use blades a bit of a pain. The timing window for parries and counters is rather short, and what's more, some context dependent techniques use the same input as basic ones. If I press Triangle while near a stunned opponent, will I spin them in circles and throw them for crowd control, or will I just do a roundhouse kick? Different enemy types are susceptible to different attacks, so it helps to learn the system mechanics rather than just mashing…but you can still do reasonably well just mashing, as the game gives you an abundance of recovery items (and eventually, abilities). The rough edges in the combat are ultimately minor; I relish in the opportunity of getting into fights in this game and unleashing my full repertoire, time and again.

When it comes to open world exploration, I place more value upon world density than sheer size. What good is a massive world with barely anything to fill it? I would rather the side activities incentivize the player to explore the map and find out about the world than be collect-a-thons for the sake of themselves. For me, Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise does all of this exactly the way I want it. The colosseum lets you test your might against either hordes of opponents or singular foes that are effectively generic masked variants of the bosses you've encountered up to that point (no items allowed!). Merchant requests send you on scavenger hunts for assorted items. You can race your buggy on tracks against AI opponents. The casino lets you play typical casino games like poker, blackjack, roulette, and baccarat. Just as you'd see in real life, this guy is lamenting that he willingly chose to play baccarat:

It's the other modes where most of the memes are likely to originate. The arcade lets you replay classic Sega titles and try your luck at a UFO Catcher, though many of the best selections are the same as what you get in Yakuza 6 anyway. Bounty Hunter sends you off to track down specific goofs, both great and small, to handily dispatch for colossal money rewards:

As Bartender Ken, you engage in a variety of PS4 motion control-activated minigames to make the ultimate alcoholic beverages that solve the problems of your customers; it's not just for cyberpunk visual novels or forgotten 2006 anime anymore!

In lieu of a karaoke mode, you get the more thematically appropriate clinic mode, where Dr. Kenshiro uses his pressure point knowledge to heal patients while also fending off attackers to the beat of a song. Do well enough and the medical-grade disco lights start flashing (unlike here)!

Even the appropriately sparse wasteland, is home to the greatest minigame of all: Death Batting, in which Kenshiro stands in an abandoned baseball field, wielding a steel girder like a baseball bat—this happens in the source material, for the record—as he whacks approaching thugs on motorcycles to see how many he can swat into the stratosphere, leaving only a twinkling star in the sky. The truest of smash brothers, indeed.

And it wouldn't be a true Yakuza style game if you weren't given the opportunity to run a hostess club, now with the added option of beating up unruly ruffians hassling the ladies because you're habitually too slow to engage in this sort of diner dasher using a controller. These aren't pointless endeavors: your progress in the minigames unlocks additional side stories and makes rare items available (many of which you'll need for maximum hostess club efficiency).

And oh, how I love the side stories. While some are bittersweet—for all Kenshiro's power, he's often just moments too late to save others—most are off-kilter tales of joy brought about by graphically murdering some ruffian who has it coming. One set of side missions features you being sternly criticized by self-appointed bastions of civil decency for always resorting to violence; can't you just TALK REASONABLY to those murderous thugs bashing in the skulls of the innocent rather than stoop to their level?!

Then there's the veteran shoulder pad craftsman whose business would typically be booming given the general fashion sense on display in Fist of the North Star who's found himself in a rut thanks to the scourge of the Shoulder Killer. Only Ken with his glorious shoulder pads can act as bait, resulting in multiple Homer Simpson-esque “stand idly by in one location as an inordinately large amount of time elapses” sequences.

It's all utterly absurd, but then so is Fist of the North Star itself, especially its initial TV anime adaptation as handled by the late Toyoo Ashida who sprinkled in screwball comedic elements to the potentially grim proceedings. That version aligns best with the tone on display here, though graphically speaking the toon-shaded characters are clearly evocative of Tetsuo Hara's highly intricate manga artwork. There are even flashes of manga illustrations with the introduction of each significant character to convey the approach. I for one appreciate the effort to translate that aesthetic to 3D, though I'm quite glad that the cover art of the physical release is reversible to show the original Japanese illustration.

The Japanese voice cast is effectively the cast of Yakuza filling the roles of similar characters here, though the default audio is a solidly performed English dub featuring an appropriate cast of experienced anime voice actors. Why, Kirk Thornton even reprises his role as Toki (aka “the original Kung Fu Jesus”) from that really janky Manga Video dub, albeit with far better direction this time! If you elect to play in the Japanese, do note that nearly all incidental or background dialogue is un-subtitled and that the written script, takes creative liberties that preserve the original intent while being more colorful. It's that localization approach which made Yakuza finally click over here, after all. This is especially the case with the insults hurled at you by these bozos that are simply too stupid to live as they insist on picking fights with YOU, the baddest person in the world, with absolute confidence that they will prevail. (They will not.)

With a handful of noteworthy exceptions, Fist of the North Star games have been of dubious quality. So, while Lost Paradise is almost certainly the best Fist of the North Star game ever made that doesn't involve punch pads, diehard Yakuza fans who just got through Yakuza 6: The Song of Life as well as Yakuza Kiwami 2 earlier in the year are likely to be less impressed, as you only have one playable hero and the manga aesthetic is a departure from the elevated realism of the newer Dragon Engine-built installments. No matter; I'll definitely gun for the full 100% completion rate on this, so I can experience all the manly tears of “brotherhood” and “friendship” (or “friend ship” depending on your fanbase type) with questionable Vernon Wells-inspired attire.

Overall : A
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : A

+ Embodies the idiosyncratic charm that Fist of the North Star fans love about the series through amped-up martial arts, moé bros, and zany interactions
Not as fully accessible an introduction to Fist of the North Star as it should be

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Production Info:
Story: Buronson
Art: Tetsuo Hara

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Fist of the North Star (manga)

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