Written By: Jeff 'Linkphreak' Haynes
Game Over Online - http://www.game-over.com
For every evil, there is a greater good,
For every innocent, there is a protector,
For every legend, there is a hero.
Return with me to a simpler time: When heroes were born not out of circumstance, but legendary feats of bravery, justice and selflessness. When threats to safety and security came not only from humanity, but supernatural realms as well. When man and gods waged the eternal struggle between good and evil on a daily basis. And, finally, when their legends served to instruct, entertain, and inspire those who heard about their deeds. Talk about a gold mine of content for a game, huh? Sony’s San Diego Studios takes advantage of this scenario with its latest release slated to hit store shelves today, The Mark of Kri.
The initial story behind The Mark of Kri may seem very similar to fans of the fantasy genre in some ways; however, its presentation is quite unique. A long time ago, an evil spell designed to open a gateway to the realm of the supernatural world was created to plunge our world into chaos and total darkness. Based in symbols and glyphs similar to Maori tribal tattoos, the completion of all of its pieces would signal the end of the world. Before the spell could be cast, a stalwart bunch of heroes stole it and attempted to destroy the enchantment. Unable to be fully destroyed because of its strength, the spell was broken up into six parts and entrusted to six families scattered around the world. These guardians, however, would find themselves cursed by the evil magic they were sworn to protect: Each first born son within the family was imprinted with the malevolent characters as a birthmark, a symbol of their continual duty to the world. Unfortunately, as time passed, humanity and the families began to forget the importance and the danger associated with the characters. The forces of darkness, however, have long memories, and after a millennium of searching, rediscovered the sources for their destructive spell.
Players assume the role of Rau, a young barbarian who yearns to prove himself in combat. Growing up in the shadow of his adopted father Baumusu, who is known as a great warrior, Rau seeks to prove his ability as a celebrated fighter in his own right. Brash and eager for adventure, he often leaps without looking, preferring to settle things with considerable strength. To this end, Rau often dispatches enemies with a sword, a battle-axe, or a native weapon similar to a spear called a taiaha.
However, Rau doesn’t just kill like your average action character. (Thank an extremely tight and responsive control scheme for this.) The battle system within the game allows for some of the most spectacular fights, not to mention violent deaths, ever seen in a game, including those titles with guns. This is based from the combat focus beam that Rau uses to assess and designate threats. By using the right analog stick, you can sweep a beam of light in a circular direction around Rau, highlighting any enemies within its radius with a corresponding keypad button. Tapping these buttons allows you to execute rather effective combos that typically end in a kill strike to the target. You are also able to chain together attacks in a fluid motion which equals some of the most refined martial weapon play seen in a game to date, much of which seems to take its influence from Japanese Kendo and other Asian martial art forms. For example, you can swing your taiaha behind you in a rear thrust, striking two enemies at the same time before whirling around with a side crescent slash to two more foes, culminating in an overhead slash to a final opponent. Closing the distance between enemies is practically not an issue anymore, as Rau will leap and spin from enemy to enemy. The end result of this graceful yet deadly movement is often a pile of eviscerated foes lying in mangled heaps upon the ground.
Rau is not limited to a direct approach to his conflicts; as a matter of fact, doing so in the game will often cause the enemy to call for re-enforcements, quickly stacking the odds up against him. Instead, he will often need to kill enemies from a distance using his bow and arrows that he collects on his journey. He can also sneak up on unsuspecting enemies a la Tenchu, quickly breaking their necks, smashing their face into a wall, or even cutting their heads off. However, unlike the aforementioned ninja game of stealth, Rau does not receive a map of what the surrounding area looks like before he arrives, so potential threats are completely hidden to him. He does, however, have Kuzo, a raven familiar who is his spirit guide. Using Kuzo’s eyes, Rau can see what his familiar sees, allowing him to send the bird ahead to scout unknown territory and prepare for any danger. Kuzo can also be used as a distraction to enemies, allowing Rau to sneak up on them silently, as well as a retriever of distant items, and an activator of hidden and misplaced switches. It’s not uncommon to move Rau a few feet, switch over to Kuzo and scout around, then move back to Rau to progress even farther. Finally, Kuzo helps Rau understand hieroglyphs and ancient pictures left behind on walls and floors, translating the images into stories about his people that Rau, and the player, can understand.
This is an especially useful narrative device to help explain how the overlying plot connects with the tasks that Rau accomplishes, which seem rather unconnected. Every mission starts off at Rongo’s inn, a central base that Rau operates around. Here, Rau will receive different tasks from visitors that will lead him on new adventures. His adopted father Baumusu also remains here, equally doling out advice and training in new attack moves and techniques. The training is especially worth taking note of, because Baumusu will challenge you to perform the moves he taught you in each mission. Accomplishing all of the challenges will allow you to go to the sage who is stationed in the upper level of the inn. The sage allows Rau to revisit any stages he’s already completed, watch cutscenes, or, if he’s redeeming a successfully finished challenge, unlock new costumes or arenas. There are two specific kinds of arena: time attack, which demands that Rau eliminate nine enemies as quickly as possible, and body count, which forces him to defeat as many guys as possible in a certain time limit.
Graphically, many critics have described Mark of Kri as “a Disney movie gone horribly awry.” This may seem like a strange characterization until you start up the game itself, at which point it becomes readily apparent how true that statement is. As you watch the first section of the promo trailer, you’ll see beautifully hand-drawn sketches draw themselves into the frame in black on brown parchment. If you’ve ever seen the basic cels of a cartoon from Disney or Warner Bros., you’ll recognize the painstaking detail that has gone into these scenes. Luckily, most of the cutscenes and mission intros are similarly constructed, adding to the mythical quality of the scene. I say mythical because when synced with the narrative voice over, the illustrations spring to life as though spoken by an omnipotent deity. As each cutscene finishes, a fully colored cel appears, which then fades into the background, revealing the actual game world.
While some of the game is indeed cel-shaded, the way in which it is done is completely different than that of Jet Set Radio or any other cel-shaded titles. Call it Kri-shaded, but the way that both character models and background settings are rendered add an additional dimension of depth and realism. Rau looks and feels like a solid, three-dimensional young man who walks and moves through his environment, running, creeping and leaping through stage after stage, instead of a thin, two-dimensional plane figure. Additionally, many of the secondary characters have a Disney-like appearance to them as well. For example, if you’ve seen any of the later cartoons like Hercules or Aladdin, you can get a sense of Rongo and The Sage, both of whom seem to be taken from Disney stock characters. Rau and Baumusu happen to be the radical exceptions, displaying their tribal tattoos and markings proudly. And, as I said earlier, the evil spell and primitive symbols are all clearly Maori-influenced, adding a cultural richness to the game that many action titles are seriously lacking.
However, this shiny, happy depiction of the game quickly goes in the opposite direction when you see Rau kill an enemy. Like I said earlier, the fluid motion with which he wields his weapons indicates that this is obviously one man that you do not want to mess with, and when you see him in a battle, you’ll realize why. Very realistic in presentation, you can recognize individual thrusts, parries, and slashes. For example, in training, you can see the impact that a target will receive as the practice dummy recoils and responds to the force of Rau’s blows. Plus, the amount of gore and viscera that results from a skirmish sets this far apart from most other titles. You will be hard pressed not to squirm when you see the first broken neck or impaled body, as the impact of the maneuver often forces the victim to twitch and jerk violently until their body stops convulsing and lies motionless. Similarly, the camera often focuses in on the destruction, zooming in and performing a Matrix-like slow-motion pan around Rau until the killing stops. (Mickey Mouse would definitely not approve.) There can be a few transparency issues born primarily from these zooms and pans, where both Rau and his enemies will sometimes clip in and out of view, especially with multiple foes on screen. However, Rau can take on up to fifteen enemies with nary a hair of slowdown.
Some of the sound within Mark of Kri is sickeningly done, adding additional depth to these executions. Stomach-bending snaps and cracks echo loudly with each bone that is broken, and often times the shout of surprise or fear is the last thing that an enemy utters before receiving a blade through the throat or getting their face smashed in. The sounds of death, however, are nicely balanced with additional ambient sounds, such as waterfalls, rung gongs and flapping birds. Similarly, attacking nearby innocent animals illicit shrieks of fear and terror from these beasts, creating a noisy, but nonetheless effective distraction. These sounds play under a driving, tribal soundtrack, which provides a slight taste of Maori drums and chants at exciting moments before lightly fading into the background. Vocally, a majority of the speech within the game is delivered with appropriate weight, with only a few moments straying into inaudibility or coming across as blatantly overdramatic. The narrator is the guiltiest culprit of this overacting, often times bludgeoning a simple line with unnecessary emphasis.
This overacting is not the only flaw found within the game. For example, the load times of each level and cutscene are way, waaayyy too long for no obvious reason. There are moments when you will wait for at least thirty seconds before a scene will start playing. Moreover, the cutscenes and in-game movies cannot be skipped with any combination of buttons, requiring players to sit and watch every second before continuing. This may be effective the first or second time you see the movie, but if you’ve gotten stuck right before a movie sequence, you’ll want to tear your hair out the fifteenth or sixteenth time you’ve seen it. Another frustration point is the control/camera issues. If you’ll recall, I said that the control scheme is very tight and responsive. However, this sometimes backfires in conjunction with the camera, which will sometimes cause Rau to get stuck on edges of objects, run into poor camera angles, or otherwise get hung up and harm maneuverability.
This can be especially bad during fight sequences, where the AI can sometimes stretch believability. For example, I should have no reason to believe that holding the block button can repulse all attacks from all enemies from all sides, especially if I’m only holding my weapon above or behind my head, but somehow it works for both Rau and his opponents. In fact, at higher levels, the amount of repulsing attacks from enemies sometimes precludes your ability to fight, but if you attempt to perform the same strikes on the computer, they magically have the ability to strike through your blows and hit you even if they’ve started blocking and have been driven backwards. Moreover, the completion of levels can be rather anticlimactic, particularly once you’ve slaughtered dozens of people to merely stand within a fiery circle. Where are the bosses? The satisfaction of vanquishing a danger to the land is definitely diminished if the entire level starts to degenerate into the equivalent of a barroom brawl.
Finally, and in some ways, importantly, is the length of the game. Dedicating all your time, you can finish the game in about fifteen hours, which includes the completion of all Baumusu’s challenges, unlocking of arenas, and other rewards. This seriously decreases the replay factor, especially once you’ve tired of wading through bodies in the time attack and body count arenas. This also takes into consideration that there is no multiplayer mode (which I can’t say is warranted for this kind of title, since it focuses on one lone man against hordes of enemies.) However, I will definitely say this for Mark of Kri: The Maori-influenced plot and design was a stroke of pure genius. Not only does it provide a sense of cultural identity, but also opens gamers and developers to new worlds, story possibilities, and heroes. Bravo to SCEA San Diego for taking up the cultural diversity banner in often-homogenous game worlds. Assuming the mantle of a tribal warrior whose weapons often seemed to be a full extension of his body has definitely raised the action genre bar, and the depiction of violence within the game, while shocking, never seems out of place or even gratuitous within the scope of the title. I’d definitely suggest action, mythology or martial arts fans check out Mark of Kri. You may just find a new favorite to occupy your collection.
Editor's Note: You've read our review, now own the game. Game Over Online and Sony Computer Entertainment have teamed up to give 3 readers the chance to win a copy of The Mark of Kri for the PlayStation 2. Enter now!