Roughly halfway through Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, a hyper-violent game set in a post apocalyptic wasteland full of murderous bandits, there’s a minigame that involves beating up said bandits to the rhythm of a collection of hip hop remixes of classical music while dressed as a doctor. It’s important to know this because it perfectly sums up the kind of game that this is. Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Lost Paradise is a positively hectic blend of the hyper-masculine and borderline homoerotic Mad Max-inspired Fist of the North Star anime and manga universe and the pseudo open-world martial arts action of their seminal Yakuza game series. In short, it’s bloody wild.
The Fist of the North Star franchise is an interesting one. Starting as a manga back in the early 80s before being adapted to multiple anime series, feature films and video games spanning the last few decades, it’s currently the 18th-highest grossing media franchise in the world at around $21billion USD. It’s also famously loose when it comes to canoninity, with nearly each new piece of media in its universe taking all kinds of creative liberties with its main plot. Lost Paradise is no exception, with Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio penning their own, new spin on the tale of Kenshiro and his quest to reunite with his true love against the harsh backdrop of a post-nuclear war Earth.
Sorry this was a mistake, you looked a lot smaller from back there
This retelling of Fist of the North Star introduces Kenshiro just as he faces Shin, the man responsible for kidnapping his soulmate, Yuria. Ken emerges victorious, but learns that Yuria is long gone, and so he sets off across the wastes to find her. Before long, Ken learns that a group of disciples guiding a woman fitting her description have travelled to a place known as Eden, or the City of Miracles, an oasis town built on the remnants of a technological marvel and one of the last remaining bastions of humanity’s hope. Once there, Ken meets a cast of characters, some from alternate versions of the FotNS timeline and some brand new, and settles into a life of using his strength and skills to keep the city safe, all while uncovering the mysteries of Eden and the whereabouts of Yuria.
This is just the beginning of an epic new version of events in the franchise’s lore, and saying any more would spoil some great stuff, but in all the developers have done an excellent job at penning an original story that stays true enough to the source material to please diehard fans while also retaining a lot of what makes their Yakuza games so compelling. Fist of the North Star is over 30 years old now and quite cheesy by modern standards, but the developers (and in particular the writers) have cleverly twisted that to their advantage and lean on the ‘camp’ factor at every opportunity while still retaining the drama needed to sell the story. It’s no small wonder that this team was chosen to produce a FotNS game, as it’s the same technique that’s been used to great effect in the Yakuza series and it works brilliantly here. Of particular highlight is the bromance between Ken and Jagre, a city watch captain that reminds me a great deal of Final Fantasy X’s Wakka, only infinitely more likeable.
This is why we need to stop greasing the catwalk
If it seems like a lot of comparisons are being drawn between this game and Yakuza it’s because this is, for all intents and purposes, just as much a spin-off of those games as it is FotNS. Lost Paradise not only cribs story beats and themes from Yakuza but its overall structure is nearly identical. For most of the game, Ken will roam around a small city area, conversing with its denizens, completing favours and beating up gangs of thugs that he passes on the streets, just like Yakuza. He’ll gain experience to unlock new combat abilities and equip accessories to boost his stats, just like Yakuza. And yes, Ken will engage in all manner of outlandish and surprisingly deep minigames that are completely at odds with the tone of the story, just like Yakuza. Honestly, the game comes pretty close to inviting the notion that it’s simply a reskin of a modern Yakuza game, but that’s really the beauty of it. Yakuza fans are already accustomed to familiarity between games, giving them a comfortable ‘in’ to a completely different universe, while those in it for the FotNS stuff can rest assured that this huge, new game is built on a solid and time-tested foundation.
Which isn’t to say everything here is transplanted from Yakuza verbatim. Combat in Lost Paradise might use the same basic control scheme and physics at its core, but it plays out quite differently thanks to Kenshiro’s mastery of the Hokuto Shinken style of martial arts. An ancient and deadly art, Hokuto Shinken allows Ken to target specific pressure points on the bodies of his enemies and attack them with enough precision and power that their bodies quite literally explode from the inside out. Exploiting this phenomenon in combat essentially means attacking enemies with basic combos until they’re put into a stunned state and then executing a button prompt in order to finish them off in a gory display of swollen, bursting body parts. Nuance comes from discovering and executing the many different types of these finishers, triggered by either leading them with specific melee combos or by contextual triggers like activating them near walls or in groups.
It’s a neat system that rewards considered effort with a greater variety of gore porn, with the only downside being that button mashers will inevitably end up seeing the same two or three finishing animations repeated ad nauseum. Still, combat is a lot of fun and appropriately over-the-top and violent, and really comes together in the handful of tense and spectacular boss fights. Customisation comes in the form of four skill trees with their own diverse offerings of incremental stat upgrades and new abilities, plus equippable buffs based on characters met during the story. Just as with the combat itself, these systems reward attention with extra depth without being so integral that more casual players are overwhelmed.
When you’re a 14 in a sea of 11s
Another, even bigger departure from the template on which Lost Paradise is built is in the greater open world, outside of the city of Eden. Ken, unlike his Yakuza counterpart Kiryu, can freely traverse the space between the various locations in which his story is set, which in this case comprises of mostly barren desert wasteland. Doing so requires use of an all-terrain buggy restored from the scrap of vehicles past, which Kenshiro can upgrade and customise before taking out on the open road. This is where FotNS feels most like the Mad Max films that first inspired the original manga, with leather-bound bandits roaming the sand-covered wastes looking for precious resources in their Frankensteinian cars and trucks.
As exciting as that sounds, and it does help really sell the setting and aesthetic of the world, roaming around on four wheels can be a bit of a drag at times. The open wasteland isn’t exactly full of things to see or do, or any variety of biomes (naturally), and getting from A to B usually takes long enough that tedium can start to creep in. Encountering bandits results in everyone pulling over and getting out for a traditional brawl as opposed to engaging in any kind of vehicular combat, which is also fine, but adds to the feeling that the vehicle stuff is perhaps a tad superfluous as it is. Again, there’s nothing about it that’s particularly bad, just not as memorable as the rest of the game.
This new version of Ken’s journey might already be tongue-in-cheek enough as to take advantage of its retroactively-cheesy origins, but it’s in the extraneous content that the development team have really cut loose.
Give me a colour choice and best believe I’ll pick pink
Forgettable driving bits aside, a huge amount of Lost Paradise’s charm comes from its side activities, another positive trait that it borrows from Yakuza. Just like in those games, there’s just as much fun to be had, if not more, in engaging in diversions and substories as there is following the main story. This new version of Ken’s journey might already be tongue-in-cheek enough as to take advantage of its retroactively-cheesy origins, but it’s in the extraneous content that the development team have really cut loose. Other than posing as a medical practitioner in the hilariously abstract rhythm game I described way back in the intro to this review, Ken will also get the chance to double as a bartender, club manager, bounty hunter and even play baseball with a giant steel beam and some unfortunate bikers. As is tradition at this point Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have put an unnecessary but welcome amount of depth into most of these activities, enough that they’re always compelling to play, which is fortunate given that they tie into a lot of the game’s side missions. Of course, it’s possible to ignore most of this stuff (save the very first instances of things) and just play through the main quest lines, but it’s equally easy to lose hours just faffing around Eden’s surprisingly decadent casinos and nightlife hotspots.
Rounding off what has ostensibly just been a list of things from Yakuza that the developers have successfully applied to a different game, Lost Paradise builds on that solid foundation when it comes to nailing the look of the Fist of the North Star anime and manga. While a little rough around the edges and admittedly a bit last gen-looking (mostly because it was built on an older Yakuza engine and not Yakuza 6’s Dragon Engine), there’s still a lot to like about the game’s overall presentation. Character and environment designs are super faithful and make the transition to 3D beautifully, especially when it comes to the cobbled-together aesthetics of Eden and its surrounds and the diversity of body types in its citizens. Well, by ‘diverse’ I mean ‘mostly unnaturally muscular dudes whose range in height from about four feet to four stories’ but that in itself makes for some entertaining situations.
Characters are just as animated and excitable as you’d expect in cutscenes and SEGA have gone to the effort of including a full English voice over, something that even the recent Yakuza games haven’t been treated to. Music runs the gamut from heavy metal to pounding electronica and everything inbetween, and really shines when it’s intentionally completely inappropriate for whatever scene its supporting. In all this is one of the best video game representations of an existing anime universe in recent memory, another testament to the ability of the studio to adapt the property to their own unique style.
Like the world it portrays, and the source material that inspires it, Fist of the North Star: Lone Paradise is rough, put together from pieces of diverse origins and all shapes and sizes, but made with enough heart and synergy that it all comes together to be something both familiar and exciting. Fans of either Fist of the North Star or Yakuza will be equally entertained by this surprising mashup and, if anything like me, potentially become new fans of one or the other along the way.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher