The shift in videogames from 2D to 3D has led to the development of many new and interesting concepts, but some old favorites have found that making the jump to the next generation has been tougher than expected. It's arguable that old-school shooters may have had the roughest transition, but in my view developers trying to recreate classic beat-'em-ups like Final Fight or Streets Of Rage are the ones that have consistently stumbled time and time again.
Recent titles such as The Bouncer, Eve Of Extinction and the utterly miserable State Of Emergency have all tried to recapture the style of action so popular in the 16-bit era, but none have succeeded until now. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic, I think its safe to say that The Mark Of Kri represents the definitive next-generation update to the genre. It retains enough of its heritage to be recognizable as well as satisfying, but it also understands that today's gamers are more sophisticated. They won't settle for a few coats of paint slapped on top of an ancient formula. By avoiding the dual traps of repetition and overly simplistic design, Sony has released an unheralded masterpiece upon the unsuspecting public and laid waste to its competitors in one clean slice.
The Mark Of Kri is a third-person action game starring a massively hulking barbarian named Rau. The emphasis of play is split between two main types of interaction. The first is the kind of sneak-and-kill stealth similar to that seen in Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid, and the second focuses on large brawls and multi-opponent combat.
When in sneak mode, the goal is to either avoid or assassinate as many enemies as possible in order to increase your chances of success. To remain undetected while hiding behind corners or on rooftops, Rau can use his companion bird Kuzo to act as his spy from afar. By mystically seeing through the avian's eyes, Rau is able to survey territory ahead in a way that's strikingly similar to that presented in the cult classic film The BeastMaster.
During the bloodthirsty melees, players jump into the thick of things by using the right analog stick to "sweep" a targeting beam around Rau. Doing this actively selects up to nine opponents to attack, depending on the weapon he has equipped. (The battles consistently feature odds higher than nine-against-one, however.) Enemies are then assigned an O, X or Square symbol, and by pushing the corresponding button, Rau will launch an attack towards that enemy or group.
When delivering death, killing machine Rau has four different choices. Starting off with an agile sword, he soon gains a bow for long-range attacks and a spear/club combination called a Taiha. At the end of the game, players will also receive a staggeringly lethal axe capable of screaming through several opponents with a single blow and leaving them in pieces.
The game features six levels that are absolutely huge in area. Rather than letting players wander about aimlessly, they are laid out in a linear fashion to maintain a clear path of advancement. Once players complete the main game, there are six arenas in which players can try for fast completion times or high body counts in order to unlock bonuses and extras.
Now that I've gotten the factual overview of game features out of the way, I hardly know where to begin talking about the games good points. I'm tempted to say, "Rau sometimes gets caught on corners and the camera has minor hiccups in tight places, but everything else is great!" but somehow I don't think that the other critics would let me off the hook so easily. In all seriousness however, this game is simply outstanding.
Starting with the visual presentation, I was stunned at how much work must have gone into the top-notch design and animation. Its no exaggeration to say that Kri looks like nothing so much as a playable animated film. Using a team of artists who have worked with both Disney and Don Bluth studios, the smooth and engaging style blends influences taken from the Samoan, Maori, and Celtic cultures (among others) and presents a cohesive and engaging visual tour-de-force. Of special note are the cutscenes, most of which use the artists hand-drawn sketches. While other games have tried this low-tech approach to storytelling before, Kri's are such a natural fit with the cartoon aesthetic that they enhance the overall package instead of feeling like a cheap way for the developers to cut corners.
Not content to merely produce a game that pleases the eyes, the hands are quite satisfied as well. The Mark Of Kri offers a world-class level of elegance and Spartan sensibility by keeping things streamlined and intuitive without ever becoming simplistic.
For example, the compact philosophy of the level design is nearly perfect. Items are placed throughout areas exactly where theyre needed most, and the straightforward design of the environments does an outstanding job of alternating between the two types of play. With a smooth curve of advancement, players feel as though they are constantly learning and advancing in the game without becoming lost or overwhelmed. New techniques and equipment are seamlessly integrated, and never feel tacked-on or superfluous.
For further proof of the game's genius, the combat engine is nothing short of revolutionary, yet feels so natural and logical it's amazing it hasn't been done before. Rau's targeting beam gives players the right level of control and strategy to elevate the fights beyond simple buttonmashing. By only selecting one enemy, Rau can use all three attack buttons to inflict a fatal combo, but by doing so he might leave himself open to attacks from the rear or sides. By targeting a crowd of foes, he guarantees himself the ability to strike out or dodge in multiple directions, but none of the blows will put enemies down for the count. It's also possible to retreat and reposition yourself to gain advantages depending on the weapon used and the environment you're in. The sword is perfect for getting in close, but the axe needs quite a bit of room before it can be swung with impunity.
The smart player will be able to overcome the game's challenges by analyzing each situation and coming up with a strategy that works rather than rushing headlong into confrontations. Even better, sometimes the answer is simply avoiding combat altogether.
One of my favorite portions of the game featured a massively deep pit with your goal at the absolute center. It was possible to simply jump down the walls and rush to the middle, but youd be cut down before you reached halfway due to the numerous archers posted around the perimeter and the carnivorous brutes guarding the bottom. The only way to emerge from such a deathtrap was to take a look around, and then try to reduce the odds as much as possible by sniping bowmen and sneaking behind guards to break their necks silently. It required patience and a bit of planning, but once the proper steps had been taken, the final confrontation at the bottom became challenging instead of impossible. Its quite rare to find brains and brawn in the same game, and Kri pulls it off with ease.
In nearly every respect, The Mark Of Kri is the perfect example of how to make a game the right way. For those naysayers out there who might complain that theres not enough to it, Id caution you to not confuse elegance for simplicity. The designers clearly show an advanced level of sophistication and restraint by creating a game that not only delivers functionally, but aesthetically in much the same way ICO revitalized the sagging and unimaginative action-platformer genre. No expense has been spared. Graphics, gameplay and story all deliver—even the voice acting is amazing. All told, the only bad part about The Mark Of Kri is the lack of advertising its received. For some unfathomable reason, Sony seems to feel ambivalent or even apathetic about giving it a good push into the market. Dont let the lack of buzz give you doubts. The Mark Of Kri is a true classic.