Transporting players into feudal Japan with outstanding atmospherics and a surprisingly good storyline, SCEA's innovative title The Mark of Kri features some interesting control and play innovations that heighten the experience. As an adventurous martial arts student named Rau, the young master begins his journey inside a tavern. He meets several important people in the tavern and this is the base where he returns after each level. Here, he can take on new tasks, meet up with friends and learn some of the techniques he'll need to survive. You can set right out, or go through the brief training, which is quite useful in introducing the game's most important control mechanics to the player quickly. This is a painless process that doesn't take a lot of time to complete, but is well worth it as you play the game.
As you set out on your journey, you'll find a dangerous land populated with hundreds of enemies who want nothing more than to kill you. These bandits and other evil forces typically attack in groups which can be overwhelming at first. Rau has one trick up his sleeve. Using the special light beam, he can auto-target up to nine different enemies simultaneously. This is done by swinging the light beam around with the right analog controller. Once selected, an icon representing their assigned button appears over their head. Pressing that button aims your attacks right at the enemies and also allows you to target them for your special blend of death. This is well done and simple, making for an intuitive fighting system. Using the auto-targeting allows you to focus in on the deadliest foe with ease and helps the flow of Kri immensely since you're not fumbling around trying to aim your attacks. One of the cooler aspects of the target system is that you can update the button assignments in real-time as the battles progress and can also target enemies that are off the screen. These unseen foes are then tracked using arrows at the edge of the screen and can still be attacked from afar, which shows how well-designed the system is. In addition, Rau has many special moves and combos which he can use and several different types of weapons including a spear, a battle axe and his standard sword. These can be switched between easily, making Kri's interface easy to understand and use.
Auto-targeting enemies using the light beams is cool enough but is only there are some other special abilities that set the game apart. Kri's main attraction is its brilliantly conceived stealth mode, where you can sneak up behind enemies and kill them without alerting their comrades. This can save you a lot of time, energy and work because some enemies will sound their horns when they spot you. To perform a stealth attack, you target the enemies as you would normally, carefully staying far enough away so you can lock in on them before they spot you. Then you simply press the X button to execute your move. The camera then zooms in to give you a good view while you decapitate or impale an enemy on your sword, which is quite brutal but highly effective. It was impressive how this maneuver was designed so it feels like natural extension of the targeting system, making it seamless with the rest of the game mechanics. What's cool about this is that you can sneak up directly behind an enemy, or even better from behind a corner or even from a rooftop, which is actually quite satisfying. It definitely adds a lot of fun to the game, as well as another layer of strategy.
The other major feature is using your bird Kuzo, as a wandering eye, who can be flown around to different perches. Here the player can view the layout of an area from Kuzo's perspective in first person, complete with zooming and scrolling. Kuzo isn't the gimmick he appears to be at first, and is another element that integrates into the game. Kuzo can and also used to hit switches, collect the all-important save scrolls plus he can perform and other tasks. Taken together with the auto-targeting and stealth mode, these elements lend The Mark of Kri quite a unique feel that works well throughout.
Mark of Kri's gameplay flows smoothly throughout with a good pace of the action. There are loads of different enemies to face. Some of these a relatively easy to defeat, requiring only a few strikes to kill, while others are more challenging and need quite a bit of skill to knock off. The overall layout of each level is really good, combining climbing, jumping, running and fighting in a variety of terrain. The game's a bit too linear in level design, with little branching, but makes up for it by allowing the player free rein over vast environments. The main problem with the game lies paradoxically, in its innovative features, which can be hard to keep straight. While it's cool to be able to track the enemies, and even fight some that are off the screen problems remain. It can get confusing keeping track of all these buttons in real-time when there are 6 or more enemies, it's more manageable if you keep the number of foes at a decent level. However, the good news is that a simple swing can lessen the problems immediately, you just have to remember to keep doing it as you and your enemies change position. Still, the game's innovative controls have more benefits than problems and it's worth putting up with the quirks.
As you may have guessed, aside from its enlightened gameplay mechanics, The Mark of Kri's other main appeal lies in its aesthetics, which are second to none on the PS2. A range of beautifully rendered natural locations will transport the player back in time. With it's cartoon-style character design and animation, it's hard to believe initially how intense the gameplay will become later on. Brilliant light sourcing in many locations serve to highlight the attention that's been given to the environments. This is further enhanced by unusually colorful textures and multi-tiered levels will leave your eyes on the floor, as will the myriad small touches such as realistic water falls and flying birds. The Mark of Kri also features memorable cut-scenes which are beautifully designed to resemble sketches that are gradually filled in with additional lines and detail. This is an elegant look and is implemented in a stylized manner to evoke some of the better animated movies of recent times. This adds to the unique visual flavor of The Mark of Kri, making the experience radiate an amorphous sense of a world both lost yet very much alive. Further evoking the spirit of feudal Japan are the large statues of deities that lie scattered throughout the levels. The title also excels with its exceptional audio track with atmospheric music supplied by none other than Juno Reactor, with outstanding voice-acting making for a beautifully produced and highly expressive experience within the fighting.
While the parts of the game outline above are
impressive enough on their own, what's makes The Mark of Kri so endearing is the
fact that each element compliments one another to create a seamless, immersive
gaming experience. It's control system is one of the better ideas to come along
in recent years, and it works well during the gameplay, while the Stealth
attacks add tension and excitement, making the game all the more satisfying.
There's little doubt that these sequences are probably the reason why there's an
M rating attached but in this case, the violence doesn't seem out of place given
the context of playing a warrior. In fact, this makes the Mark of Kri feel all
the more authentic. Using the spirit guide Kuzo as a way of exploring without
peril is another brilliant move because, it compliments the overall game
structure. This is a highly entertaining and genuinely exciting title that
offers both a cerebral and visceral challenge. Despite a few awkward moments,
the Mark of Kri is incredibly proficient and is strongly recommended for the
reasons outlined above.
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