Sony's recent onslaught of laudable first party titles has been warmly received around these parts. First Ratchet & Clank, The Getaway and Sly Raccoon, with the likes of Primal and SOCOM still to come.
But one title that hasn't been getting as much press as perhaps it deserves is Studio San Diego's Mark of Kri (pronounced 'Kree'). Unlike Ratchet, Sly or the Getaway, this third person adventure doesn't hook you in the time it takes Linford Christie to sprint to the corner shop, but instead gradually reels you in, adding new moves, tools and entirely different gameplay dynamics to your repertoire on a level-by-level basis.
To begin with, you're vaunted as a strong, but unknown warrior called Rau, bored of life in and around the local tavern. But having trained up with a husky, shirtless gentleman with a hook for a hand, you set out on a quest to rid the neighbouring forest of bandits, thus improving the flow of customers for your weasel-faced chum the barkeep.
Birds and violence
At first The Mark of Kri, which is soon revealed to be some sort of cursed birthmark which brings doom to its bearer, seems to be doing its best to thwart your progress. You attack enemies by waving the right analogue stick like a prosthetic arm to accumulate targets. Once swished by this mythical analogue beam, an enemy is assigned a button, which hovers over his head. Primary targets are X, secondary is square, tertiary is circle - and triangle is kept aside for other things. Later on with bigger weapons you can queue up multiple enemies for each button - nice!
The idea is to use the left stick for movement and to carve up your enemies by pressing the corresponding attack button. If you only have two or even just one enemy targeted, you can use unassigned, spare attack buttons to augment your sword combos. Swish with X and immediately tap circle a few times and Rau will yell something incomprehensible and perform a pretty combo. If you're lucky, your foe will end up on the floor - the perfect position for Rau to shove his sword down their throat.
But this is more than a simple hack n' slash. Thanks to your spirit guide, a bird named Kuzo, you can scout ahead of yourself and prepare for any challenges. When you see a golden marker (illuminated by a pillar of purple haze), manually targeting it (L1) and pressing L2 will send Kuzo screeching off to his new perch. From here, you can survey the battlefield and switch back to Rau's perspective with triangle.
This only seems vaguely useful at first (after all, the process of slaughtering your foes doesn't change much simply because you know where they are), until you realise you can use Kuzo for other things - like collecting save scrolls, which are one use, save anywhere tokens - or operating switches, or knocking ladders down for you to climb.
However, the game's opening level is more like a thirty-minute sword based combat tutorial than anything else. On the second level, Kuzo's abilities come into their own, because this is when the game chooses to teach you about stealth.
Stealth is of course a fixture of pretty much everything we see these days, at least in some capacity, but Kri does it a lot better than most. Once you've scouted out sentry patterns, you can sneak up behind enemies, target them with your orange wavy analogue arm and press X to perform a silent, and abhorrently vicious, kill. If there's more than one enemy, you press X for the first, then the prescribed button combo (usually either circle-square or square-circle) before the end of the animation to silently slaughter his compatriot under similar circumstances.
Throw into the mix the prospect of having to get enemies facing away from you (by getting Kuzo to disturb flocks of birds on the other side, or having Rau smack a boar so it runs off into the bushes beyond), and the third level addition of the bow for those long distance kills, and The Mark of Kri grows increasingly alluring. You must practice these moves regularly too - your mentor Baumusu sets challenges throughout the game, and using your skills to their fullest extent will often reap his rewards. By the end of the third level, your arsenal is deceptively small but in practice pleasingly vast, and your skills in every situation are legion. And there are more weapon slots to fill in your inventory, too...
Keeping things ticking happily over in the visuals department is an engine initially reminiscent in presentation of Naughty Dog's Jak & Daxter funhouse, but quickly you learn that the only thing it has in common is sprawling, mostly jerk-free environments (most of which you get a - literally - bird's eye view of). And the obscene and frequently surprising level of violence is certainly not something our fluffy platform friends would be used to.
The environments are laden with detail, naturally, from greenery, waterfalls and crumbling stone statues to misty forests with huge fallen trees and Ewok-style walkways. There isn't a great deal of incidental detail, but this does at least teach you to focus on things you don't expect to see - a chance meeting with a flock of birds early on taught us to watch our step - and as such it makes the game a lot more enjoyable.
What there is beyond the beautifully sculpted environment is a collection of reasonably well animated enemies and a lot of flashing power-ups and items - save scrolls, health packs, arrows, and if you're lucky, the odd potion to increase your upper health limit.
And then there's the combat animation. Swords swish, blows are parried (with your new best friend, R1) and people are killed. Horribly-horribly. The range of finishing animations is huge and often quite vicious. Here we have everything from grabbing an enemy and smashing his skull against the wall a few times to plonking him up against the wall and running him through - chest or neck. Then there's grabbing an enemy from behind and audibly snapping his neck, or what appears to be a throat slitting animation, which then becomes a surreal decapitation. It's all cartoony thank goodness, but it's still going to give the BBFC censors a heart attack, methinks.
Mark of March
Based on our first few hours, we hope and expect The Mark of Kri to become something truly special by the end of its six levels. Ok, we were a bit perturbed by the 'six levels' thing too to begin with, especially when we polished the first one off in thirty minutes, but judging by those since there's about 7-10 hours in Kri, with bonuses we haven't got space to tell you about adding to the replay value.
There are certainly issues which blight the experience - the camera can be a bit frustrating at times, particularly when it obscures the combat (which timely blocking is so crucial a part of), there's a distinct and worrying lack of bosses so far, and just before we stopped playing to tell you all this, the difficulty curve took a sharp turn upward, plunging us into the midst of an insurmountable force with no obvious means to stealth them. But we're keen to play this one some more ahead of its March 21st release date. And as it stands, The Mark of Kri is certainly an intriguing, ahem, brand.
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