The Mark Of Kri
Brilliant and artistic, the new game from SCEA San Diego tries to reinvent the action genre.
The Mark of Kri is another proof that SCEA is doing something more than sticking to old formulas and old franchises. The Mark of Kri appeared all of a sudden, a few months ago. Nobody knew anything about it, but little by little, it became evident that SCEA was working at something unique, strange, original.
After the amazing ICO - which will always remain one of the most powerful, touching creations in the world of multimedia arts - Sony Computer Entertainment America has brought to life a project developed with the same dedication, artistic efforts, and passion by their team at San Diego.
The story in itself is something you have read, heard and seen in dozens of books, movies, and games, the one where "an evil force wants to use a magic ancient object to rule the land", but it's the way this story is narrated that starts to create the rich soul of the Mark Of Kri from the very beginning of the game.
Long time ago, mysterious forces created a spell with the power to open a passage between the world of darkness and our world. Nobody was ever able to use its terrible power: before it could be invoked, the spell was stolen and broken into six parts. A millennium passed, and the spell became just a tale for men, a legend among other legends, a tale to be told sitting around the fire. But one day, the six parts came back to light, giving adepts of darkness the chance to create a world shaped to their evil desires. Rau, a young warrior, with the help of his spirit guide, Kuzo, was the one who had to save the land from this curse.
Throughout the game, the voice of an old man narrates the events that made of Rau a hero. As the story unfolds, magnificent pencil sketches appear on the screen, stroke after stroke, like if an invisible hand is drawing them in front of you. Then, the drawing slowly becomes a painted artwork that fades into the in-game graphic engine, with a truly elegant - and epic - effect.
The general structure of The Mark Of Kri is simple. There is a place, the Inn of Rau's village, where all the various quests begin. In order to get a quest, you have to talk with other characters in the Inn. Completing their quests you can get weapons, gold, glory, and first of all you can proceed in the game. There are other things you can do in the Inn. You can talk with your master who will teach you the skills needed to successfully complete your missions, you can visit the sage who will reward you in case you successfully completed additional challenges during your missions, and you can just talk to people to collect useful information.
Instead of featuring a continuous game world - like was partially done in the wonderful Drakan II: The Ancients' Gates or in RPGs like Morrowind - The Mark Of Kri is divided into levels, where Rau is automatically transported once he has been assigned a mission. Many "next-generation" video games feature the structure of the continuous game world because it creates a strong sense of realism even in the most imaginative worlds, thus creating in the player a status of complete identification with the character.
It seems the developers of The Mark Of Kri didn't want that, and they made many strong and successful creative choices. The level-based structure is brilliantly used to give the story the rhythm of ancient epic tales, where exploit after exploit, fragment after fragment, the figure of the hero slowly assumes a shape. Then, Rau never speaks but you hear the comments of the narrator about his actions - this creates a sort of detached view on the events: you play as Rau, but you never know what he thinks from his own voice, but instead from the voice of an external and unknown narrator. You want to know what's coming next, but you look at the events without identificating yourself with the main character. And that's something that's not so common in video games.
The level-based structure also affects the way the gameplay is perceived, giving The Mark Of Kri an arcade feeling that in reality is just the external skin of a much deeper and interesting gaming experience.
As usual, the Left analog stick is used to move Rau; when he approaches a ladder, up and down can be used to climb. Holding the L1 button activates the 1st person view, useful to look around in any direction. What makes the first big difference from other action gamers is the presence of Kuzo, an ancient black bird - a creature that looks like a strange mix of a crow and an eagle - who acts as Rau's spirit guide. Exactly like it happens in the popular comic book and in the movie The Crow, Kuzo's eyes can guide Rau through his dangerous missions. Kuzo can fly ahead exploring new areas before Rau enters them, thus giving you the chance to take a look at what dangers you are going to face.
The battle system of The Mark Of Kri is simply a revolution for the action genre, something that will undoubtedly influence many and many other titles in the future, thanks to its effectiveness and brilliance. The most common solution chosen by developers when it comes to battles against multiple opponents is the classic lock-on function, which basically makes your character focus on a certain enemy by simply pressing a button. Pressing more than once the lock-on button you can switch targets. While this system can work just fine once you get used to it, it often reduces massive battles to one-on-one fights; adding to that, it forces the player to focus on a certain direction and the camera to stay right behind the character's back, while in a real battle against more than an opponent, it's necessary to fight at 360º, hitting the enemies in front of you, the ones on your sides and the ones attacking you from the back.
The Mark Of Kri makes the big step, and puts the player in the middle of true battles at 360º against up to 9 enemies at once. This is done with the so-called Focus Beam, which substitutes the classic lock-on function. Using the right stick, a beam of light extends from Rau in the chosen direction; rotating the right stick, the beam rotates around Rau, allowing you to easily focus in one move on multiple enemies. Every enemy touched by the beam will be assigned an attack icon, displayed above his head, corresponding to one of the attack buttons - X, Circle, and Square. In the heat of the battle is sufficient to press the button that matches the icon over the enemy to attack him, with no need to rotate Rau with the Left stick. The battles are fast, agile, spectacular, because with this system there is no need to position the camera behind the character's back. In The Mark Of Kri the camera is always dynamic, functional to the gameplay but also to the creation of a cinematic style, and works flawlessly.
Many well-developed features add variety and depth to the battle system. First of all, according to the weapon he is wielding, Rau can focus on a different number of enemies. At the beginning of the game, the sword lets you focus on just three enemies at once. But soon enough you get your hands on the Taiaha, a sort of spear that can be used against six enemies (two per button), and on the Axe, the most powerful weapon in the game, which can be used to focus on nine enemies at once (three per button). And of course, in a good action game there is always a long-range weapon: completing one of the very first missions of the game you'll be awarded a bow, useful to kill enemies from a distance. Handling the bow is as easy as using any other weapon. In fact, you can focus on an enemy with the Focus Beam and then launch the arrow, or you can switch to first person view holding the L1 button and attempt a headshot, which will instantly kill the enemy.
In The Mark Of Kri you can also perform bloody, adorable combo moves that will literally tear your enemies into pieces. Basic attack combos are easy to perform, since you just have to press more times the same attack button. Anyhow, if Rau is focused on just one or two enemies, the free attack buttons - the ones not assigned to any enemy - can be used to modify the basic combos and create even more frightening moves. Most complex combo moves requires good timing, but looking at the on-screen movements of Rau you can easily understand when the moment of hitting the next button has come.
This battle system deeply influences also the exploration of the levels. In fact, Rau can move stealthily and kill enemies before they can inform their comrades of your presence. This, mixed with the possibility to send Kuzo to scout dangers, adds a strategy element that plays a primary role throughout the game. If Kuzo can be considered a sort of radar, then a direct comparison between The Mark Of Kri and Metal Gear Solid 2 makes sense. The Mark Of Kri asks the player to concentrate on the creation of plans and strategies to pass through certain zones, in a way that feels close to what you can experience in Kojima's masterpiece, even if the interaction with environments is much more limited in The Mark Of Kri.
This doesn't mean that the stealth side of the game is not challenging or deep enough. In order to avoid detection, you have first of all to unequip any weapon in your inventory. In this way, Rau will be able to move in stealth mode, and getting near enemies from their backs will be extremely easy. When they are in range, you have to focus on them exactly like you would do in a normal battle. Rau can even flatten against a wall and focus on an enemy behind a corner. At this point, hitting the attack button Rau will perform one of his stealth killing moves, choosing among the rich list of bloody animations the game designers have created; Rau can impale, decapitate, mutilate his enemies with ease. Not all enemies are equal, anyhow. Sentries are the first ones that you should take care of, because they can use their hunting horns to call reinforcements when they spot you. Archers are equally dangerous, because they have good aim, and they can spot you easily from their advantageous positions. Kuzo's help is invaluable when you need to find out where these "special" enemies are before entering an area. If you want to try the stealth approach, many other elements in the environments can help or obstacolate you. Flock of birds, for example, could be disturbed by your presence, drawing unwanted attention on you; but you can use Kuzo to disturb the flock of birds and distract the enemies at your advantage. In the same way, wild boars can be prodded with an arrow of your bow, and they will start running, making so much noise that all nearby enemies will turn their heads to look at them.
Overall, the gameplay of The Mark Of Kri, with its unique mix of stealth action, revolutionary battle system, and storytelling is a rare example of innovative and at the same time perfectly balanced game design.