Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise Review – You wa Shock! (PS4)
Fist of the North Star is such a ubiquitous presence in manga and anime history you’re probably heard of it even if you haven’t read or watched it. It’s a little on the obscure side in the west, despite being one of the top-selling Shonen Jump properties of all time. So it makes sense that, despite the huge list of games dating back to the Famicom, only a select handful have made it to the English language, and sometimes without the license intact. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, then, feels almost like a power play. Right in the middle of Sega’s Yakuza explosion, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio up and formed a new team and smashed the Fist of the North Star IP into the Yakuza structure, almost guaranteeing that not only people would notice, but it would get localized as a result. Now it’s here, it’s gleefully ultraviolent, and like a Yakuza game, it’s raw, messy, and droll.
The Savior of Century’s End
It’s hard to overstate just how crucial Fist of the North Star is to Japanese pop culture. Aside from currently being the 11th highest-grossing media franchise ever, it’s part of the same generation as Dragon Ball, when Shonen Jump’s creators really set the tone for the entire course of the future as we know it today in the 80s. It’s one of those series, you know, the ones you can look at something made today in a similar space, and draw a line tracing back to it from all kinds of different story beats, characters, and other elements. And even today, Fist of the North Star endures with new adaptations, movies, games, and other crazy things like the manga being recently etched onto literal stone tablets, or stuff like this:
Part of the series’ appeal is Kenshiro. Kenshiro is comparable to Superman, in that he doesn’t need a tragic or convoluted backstory to motivate his goodness. Doing the right thing is an inherent character trait, and while he is propelled forward by other events, he has no problem sacrificing his own needs for the sake of someone weaker than him in need, just because that’s who he is. There’s a natural appeal in that sort of character, but by the 80s, things needed to be messier. Here, literally, things are messier. This Superman kills, and justifying violence with righteousness is a big part of what makes Fist of the North Star tick. Kenshiro murdering people isn’t the hook, it’s how his brand of murder differs from everyone else’s in a depraved, post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Kenshiro is a lot like Yakuza’s Kiryu. They’re both heroes, in a way, with strict, specific moral codes that allow them to posture as being in the right while inflicting serious violence on their opponents. Of course, Kenshiro is Kiryu taken to an outlandish extreme, as his acupuncture-inspired Hokuto no Ken martial arts ensures that his enemies don’t survive any fights. They pop like balloons, and in the western version of Lost Paradise, the gore is turned up to a new level. But, as is argued in the original manga, Kenshiro’s “gentle fist” is necessary in this post-apocalyptic world, where armies of Mad Max-inspired bandits and their massive (literally) evil leaders sustain themselves by preying on the weak.
This comparison between Kenshiro and Kiryu is important because the Yakuza team literally makes it in every way possible. As the player avatar, Kenshiro fills the same set of shoes. Put Lost Paradise next to a Yakuza, and everything lines up perfectly. Kenshiro navigates his world, reacts to strange situations, and even (sorta) fights his enemies just like Kiryu. By the way, they share the same voice actor (although Lost Paradise also has an English dub), and there’s even an actual Kiryu skin you can download, so if there was any doubt at all that this is pretty much just a Yakuza game, there you have it.
Hokuto no Shenanigans
At first, this was a surprisingly hard pill to swallow. Lost Paradise presents itself as an alternate version of Fist of the North Star, allowing the game to exist almost entirely within the walls of Eden, the city and Kamurocho-style hub while still bringing in characters and themes present in the original source material. It dances in and around the canon, and does so (in the beginning) in a way that’s hard to get a pin on what Lost Paradise is trying to say about or do with the formula.
While I was still trying to get my bearings, I had already found myself tearing through the sand dunes of the Fist of the North Star wasteland in a rocket-powered junk buggy that was blasting Super Monkey Ball music on my way to see Toki, Kenshiro’s peer, who sacrificed himself to save Kenshiro before the game’s events and is slowly dying of cancer. The game is constantly ping-ponging between the goofy Yakuza stuff and Cliff Notes-y “obligatory character moments” showing off the writers’ familiarity with the original story.
There’s nothing wrong with being silly, and Kenshiro doing things like tending bar and running a nightclub is hilarious in a vacuum. And the original work is silly as well, without a doubt. But it’s also serious when it needs to be, and tremendously earnest, and that’s part of Fist of the North Star’s appeal. In the early hours of Lost Paradise I found myself wondering if the game was afraid to embrace its own namesake at times, as it felt like it was deliberately hiding the old school cheese and simplicity behind a curtain of gags and goofs. In the end though, I think Lost Paradise just struggled to get started more than anything else, and eventually it grows more comfortable with its own fiction and weaving it together with the source. That said, since Fist of the North Star does exist outside of the game and does have an established identity, it does need to do more work than Yakuza to sell that constant tonal shifting. Lost Paradise doesn’t always stick that landing.
Once the usual Yakuza loop of running from objective to objective, accidentally triggering substories, and taking breaks with kooky minigames settles in, Lost Paradise grows more comfortable with itself. It was then much easier for me to forget about my tonal misgivings and have fun with what was happening in front of me. It helps that the combat is generally solid, and the game’s progression system is constantly delivering new options.
You Are Already Dead
If you’ve played Yakuza before, you’ll be right at home here. If you’re not, well, there’s good stuff going on here. It’s kind of a janky, 3D brawler that would feel right at home on the PlayStation 2, if not for all the visual and mechanical polish. Sometimes there are camera issues, and sometimes Kenshiro’s mid-combo tracking is more harmful than helpful. But once you learn to work with a few of the idiosyncracies, it’s more satisfying to pull of Kenshiro’s ludicrous moveset here than perhaps anywhere else beforehand.
Most of it is pretty standard as you’ll be mixing light and heavy attacks to form combos, and managing often large crowds with a combination of the lock-on function and a limited Burst mode, which makes Kenshiro’s shirt explode (as it does), and gives him access to more power and even more special moves. Those special moves are where things get really out of control and serve as a constant stream of highlight moments that almost never get old (and have a fail-safe built in for when they do). Beat an enemy up enough, and you’ll have an opening to press circle to put them in a kill state, then turn that into a finisher that will vary based on context. It’s QTE-style stuff, but the prompts are dynamic enough to try to match with the onscreen action, and the onscreen action is something well-worth mashing button prompts for. And if it does get repetitive, a shortcut opens up that makes getting through random groups of thugs nice and breezy.
If you ever wondered what it would be like if Kazuma Kiryu gained like 200 lbs and fell into the Mad Max universe, well that’s Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise summed up pretty neatly. On the other side of the coin, Fist of the North Star fans will have a blast tearing it up as Kenshiro, but those still hoping for a great video game adaptation of the classic manga may come away disappointed in that respect. Rather than adapting the story, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio puts its own spin on the IP, with an attempt to fit themes and characters into the irreverent Yakuza mold. It’s somewhat awkward at first, as it struggles to introduce the characters and world in a compelling way, but once it leans on its strengths, it’s easy to lose plenty of time with the various side activities and snappy combat. It’s not quite Hokuto no Ken, but it’s definitely Hokuto ga Gotoku.
Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.