Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mark of Kri

Year: 2002
Developer: SCE San Diego
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 80
VGChartz sales to date: 460,000

You know, when you stop and think about it there aren't a lot of Polynesian-themed video games out there.  I may very well be missing something (let me know in the comments if I am) but off the top of my head,the Polynesian expansion to Civilization V is the only recent game that borrows more then just the lush, tropical island settings.  That's a real shame, because as The Mark of Kri demonstrates the cultures, histories and styles of various Polynesian peoples (in this case especially the Maori of New Zealand) make for some incredible game designs.  The unique combo system and surprising gameplay depth made this a really fun game to play, but it's visually stunning and refreshing artistic design is what makes it so memorable.  The animated graphics would blend right in with newer Disney titles like Lilo & Stitch or Mulan, but this style is paired with an outright savage (if not particularly gory) level of violence.  While you might think this would be an incongruous design choice, it actually lends the game an original styling that holds up surprisingly well over time while giving a stimulating backdrop that elevates this game above many of it's hack n' slash brethren.    

The game stars Rau, a powerful young warrior who has flourished under his mentor Baumusu and is the pride of his village.  Taught to use his strength and skill to protect others instead of as a self-serving mercenary, he is keen on adventuring out in the world to increase his reputation and skill so when an offer unexpectedly presents itself Rau jumps at the opportunity.  He doesn't know it at the time, by that choice will put him on a path that will shape his destiny and seal his place in legend.  In a nod to The Beastmaster, Rau is accompanied by his spirit guide Kuzo, a black and red bird who serves as both ally and scout.  You'll come to rely on his assistance since Rau prefers to fight his enemies in groups.  Fortunately the clever targeting system lets you cut them down with style and grace while the variety in combat options (including a bow targeting setup that could teach Link a thing or two) ensures this is one hack n' slash game that doesn't get repetitive.  The collectibles that unlock new gameplay abilities and fun mini-game challenges add another layer of entertainment on subsequent playthroughs.  

Using Kuzo to scout ahead can make life easier, much like how Solid Snake uses the Metal Gear mk. II in MGS4, though this is actually a reference to Hideo Kojima's second game Snatcher released in 1988 for the NEC PC-8801

By using the R3 button you can select individuals or whole groups at once allowing you to attack them from any angle no matter where you move.  It works by marking enemies with face buttons on the controller, letting you leap from one target to another.  This also keeps the camera centered on the action without restricting your ability to pull off impressive combos.  Pulling off combos isn't easy since the enemy AI knows how to block and dodge, but when you can land them they usually lay waste to all around you as Rau roars out the name of the combo.  In the beginning your sword will be able to target up to three enemies at once but towards the end of the game you'll be wielding a powerful two-handed axe capable of mowing down large groups like they were stalks of wheat.  Despite the (almost unbalancing) power of the axe, my favorite weapon is the taiaha.  This indigenous spear-like weapon is whirled with lethality to strike enemies from each end, often implementing it as a staff and saving the spear point for a finishing blow.  But Rau isn't limited to open group combat, there is also a vast and effective stealth system in place.  By using Kuzo's spirit vision, you can get a literal bird's-eye-view of the area ahead and plan accordingly to greatly reduce the resistance of reaching your next goal.  The sheer number of stealth attacks available and the naturalness to how they are integrated into the overall gameplay takes a combat system that at first seems shallow and makes it something that is still fresh to play a decade later.    

That's part of what makes The Mark of Kri a great game to dust off and play through every now and then.  Since so few games have imitated it's artistic influence is still feels fresh despite more recent games like God of War III or Arkham City achieving a greater level of polish.  Just like those series, The Mark of Kri throws a new weapon or combat option into the mix just as you're mastering the previous one.  Seeing Rau's full power unleashed as he becomes the legend he hoped for is made even more enjoyable thanks to the gorgeously drawn cut scenes that hide load times.  Simple black slashes become lines which take shape to form a painted scene that is gradually colored in and made 3D before you are pulled into the frame and set loose.  It's a style that draws you in and makes such a compelling skin for the satisfyingly varied brutality the game is built around.  

It's like Disney's Hercules if it had been true to the incredibly violent original Greek mythology
That same style may have also turned off a wider audience appeal.  The PS2 had sold about 30 million units worldwide by this point in it's lifespan, and that growing base was spoiled for choice over the preceding 12 months.  Instant classics like Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III were just some of the series-redefining games on shelves at the time.  It was a tough time for a new IP with a look and feel that was well outside mainstream to break into the market.  Commercials such as this one didn't exactly help either.  It was all too easy for The Mark of Kri to get lost in the shuffle.

It's a damn shame, because this was a game the critics all agreed deserved a close look.  IGN awarded it an 8.8 and it got a 9/10 from Game Informer who still consider it one of the top 10 forgotten games (along with previous entry Jet Force Gemini).  It would seem fans agree, as the user reviews on Metacritic stand at a very respectable 9.2.  Considering the game's somewhat niche appeal, it sold fairly well in a tough marketplace.  It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, Rise of the Kasai, but this game would quickly be overshadowed by a titan unleashed from Sony's other Southern California in-house studio SCE Santa Monica just a month later.  When God of War released in 2005 it immediately dominated the hack n' slash genre.  SCE San Diego had done little to improve on the established gameplay and simply could not match the unique weapon mechanic, elaborate combos and epic violence unleashed by Kratos on hordes of enemies both puny and godly.  

He may not gauge out the eyes of the Gods, but you gotta admit this is still pretty badass

I wouldn't hold my breath for this one, though the one ray of hope is a reference to the game in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale which at the very least proves Sony still remembers the series.  The lackluster reviews and weak sales of the sequel likely prevented the game from transitioning onto the PS3.  It's hard to see how modernizing the game would manage to avoid treading too closely to SCE Santa Monica's God of War series.  Playing Rocksteady's take on Batman is further proof that The Mark of Kri's group-fighting combo system is on the right track but would need to change up the mechanics to meet current expectations.  It's easy to see how a new Mark of Kri could be a great game, but it's also easy to see how two in-house developers directly competing with each other might ruffle a few feathers.  Besides, SCE San Diego is keeping themselves busy with ModNation Racers these days (though given Sony's purchase of Media Molecule and their LittleBigPlanet series you could say they ended up in the same predicament anyway).  

The truth is Sony has little reason to divert resources or interest away from it's blockbuster series in favor of a cult favorite from the same genre, so don't expect the series jump to a different platform anytime soon.  Still, it would be nice to see the game available on the PSN and in many ways it's a great fit for the PS Vita.  Gesturing on the rear touchpad to target enemies could bring a whole new feel to the combat and improve it's mechanics at the same time.  The continued interest in the game by fans should provide some evidence of it's popularity, and the still in-development Warrior's Lair shows that SCE San Diego has a continued interest in the hack n' slash genre (albeit in a vein similar to Diablo).  So perhaps there's the slimmest of chances that Sony will decide to revisit and refine The Mark of Kri's spirit in the same way God of War refined it's gameplay.  It would be a shame to let such a unique gem slip away.    

The warrior's path is often hidden and filled with hardships.  Perhaps we'll find ourselves upon Rau's path once more.
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