Aside from Naughty Dog, Sony's internal teams aren't exactly known for producing stellar content for the company's PlayStation consoles. But Sony's San Diego team has been hiding in the shadows and biding its time--waiting to unveil the project it's dedicated two full years to developing. And it's hoping that it will be able to improve Sony's first-party reputation and release a compellingly innovative product at the same time. The Mark of Kri began as a PlayStation game, but its developers immediately realized that the game's ambitions outstripped the console's technical prowess and moved it over to the PlayStation 2. The result is a hybrid of Conan the Barbarian and Conker's Bad Fur Day that stretches the conventions of what action games should be and establishes a new benchmark in gameplay.
You play as Rau, a lumbering juggernaut and a man of few words. Rau sets off at the game's outset to rid his local jungle of the bandits who are patrolling the roads and preying on the innocent. But soon he finds himself embroiled in a much deeper plot involving a mysterious spell. Six people have been unknowingly wearing the mark of the spell, including someone very close to Rau's heart. As the story begins to unfold, a mysterious wizard approaches Rau and asks him to retrieve a set of scrolls for a handsome reward. But by retrieving the scrolls, Rau is unwittingly helping the enemy draw one step closer to the completion of its vile plans. At this point, this is all we're allowed to say about The Mark of Kri's story. But suffice it to say that the plot is deep and inventive--though not nearly as much deep and inventive as The Mark of Kri's gameplay.
To say that combat is the focus of the gameplay would be an understatement. Sony's San Diego studio has taken it upon itself to create the next evolution in 3D combat, and it has succeeded. Rau cannot jump or freely explore his surroundings, but he can fight like no other video game character before him. The game utilizes a unique combat system that makes use of what Sony is currently calling a lock beam. By touching the right analog stick, you trigger a beam of light that emanates outward from Rau like the hand of a clock. You can bring the beam up on a specific enemy or swing it from enemy to enemy once it's been triggered, and once an enemy has been touched by the beam, that enemy will be assigned a button on the face of the Dual Shock 2. To attack the enemy, you simply press the corresponding button. Deselecting enemies is as easy as pushing down on the right analog stick until it clicks. But this is really just scratching the surface of the combat system.
Rau can pull off a number of impressive combos to make short work of enemies. Combos are always initiated by pressing a button that corresponds to any enemy that has already been marked with the lock beam. You may keep pressing the same button repeatedly to perform simplistic combos, but to perform some of the game's more impressive maneuvers, you'll have to follow up your initiating button with any of the other face buttons that aren't already mapped to another enemy. There are 15 different combos included in the game, but they may all be performed with just five different button combinations because the game includes just three melee weapons. You begin the game with a sword, which is the fastest melee weapon, but also the weakest. The ax is the slowest melee weapon in the game, but it can take out an entire battalion of enemies in one swipe. The taiaha is a double-ended spear that falls in between the sword and ax where speed is concerned, but it can be used to keep enemies at a distance. Switching between weapons is fairly easy. To do so you must hold in the R2 button and select the weapon from a list with the left analog stick or directional pad.
Aside from performing combos, The Mark of Kri's inventive combat system allows you to seamlessly fight several enemies at once without awkward camera adjustments or making your head spin trying to use the Z-lock system introduced in the Zelda games for the Nintendo 64. If enemies surround Rau, you simply press the corresponding face button to pick an enemy to attack. Rau will step forward and stab the enemy in front of him, and then thrust his weapon backward without turning around--impaling the enemy who is sneaking up from behind. The same idea holds true for enemies at Rau's sides. He can easily keep his focus on the enemies in front of him while taking a second to swipe his sword to the side and clear out even more foes. However, you must be careful when fighting near objects, as Rau's weapons will get stuck in wood or clang off stone--leaving him wide open to punishment. Rau can also block enemy attacks with the R1 button, and in traditional John Woo style, he can block enemies attacking from behind without ever turning around to look at them. In all, the melee combat system works amazingly well, but don't expect to see it in other games, as Sony has gone to the trouble of patenting it.
In addition to melee fighting, you can also use projectile weapons or go into stealth mode as the situation dictates. To enter stealth mode, you simply put all Rau's weapons away. The camera will then zoom in, the music will go quiet, and the lighting will become subdued. While in stealth mode, you can sneak up behind enemies and mark them with the lock beam. Once the enemy is marked, a simple press of the corresponding button will cause Rau to grab him and slice his throat, choke him to death, or perform a number of other stealthy maneuvers. You can also have Rau sneak along walls simply by walking him into them while his weapons are put away. With his back against the wall, you can slide him along until you come to a corner, where you can mark an enemy around the bend. Pressing the corresponding button will then cause Rau to grab the enemy by his neck, hold him against the wall, and pin him there with a sword through the throat. Rau also has a bow that he can use to pick off enemies from a distance. You simply select the bow, hold the L1 button to go into first-person mode, and aim with the left analog stick. To fire the bow, you simply press the X button. Shooting enemies in the head will drop them with one shot, but shooting them anywhere else will take three arrows to finish the job. The bow can also be shot from a third-person perspective when the action is too intense to stand still and fire.
The final component of The Mark of Kri's gameplay is the use of animals. Rau must enlist the abilities of the indigenous wildlife and his trusty bird sidekick, Kuzo, to get the job done. Throughout each level, there are blue columns of light that mark perches for Kuzo. To send Kuzo to the nearest perch, you simply press the L2 button. Once Kuzo has flown to his perch, you can look through his eyes to see enemies around the bend and the type of weapons they're carrying. Kuzo can also be used to flip switches to open doors to new areas or distract enemies and draw attention away from Rau. Other animals can be used in the same manner. You can shoot a warthog with Rau's bow and watch it run past the enemies--causing them to watch it. Then you can sneak up behind them in stealth mode and take them out. You can use similar tactics with flocks of birds and baboons located throughout the game's six different environments.
The game's design is fairly straightforward. Each level begins and ends at an inn, where you meet with interesting characters such as the innkeeper, who will allow you to enter training sessions to learn the ins and outs of playing the game. At the completion of each level, you're warped back to the inn to learn about Rau's next assignment. Saving is performed using save scrolls that are hidden throughout the game's levels. You may save whenever or wherever you choose, but you may only hold four save scrolls in your inventory at any given time. The game's levels are completely linear, and their design forces the player to keep moving forward. There are several times where you'll fall down a large drop and will not be able to climb back up. Exploration is also kept to a minimum due to invisible walls that keep Rau from straying off course. The few puzzles in the game revolve around figuring out which attack works the best for a given situation or flipping switches to open doors. There are presently no plans to include traditional boss fights in the game. Instead, you'll fight large groups of enemies at the end of each level.
In addition to The Mark of Kri's single-player quest, which is said to take 10-20 hours to complete, there's also an arena mode where you can hone your combat skills and get some extended playtime from the game. Each of the game's levels has a corresponding arena that can be unlocked by completing four specific objectives. The arena mode supports two different gameplay types: time attack and body count. Time attack gives you a set amount of enemies and asks you to dispose of them as quickly as possible, while body count gives you five minutes to kill as many enemies as you can. Within the time attack and body count modes there are objectives that can be satisfied to unlock new character costumes and art.
Sony's San Diego studio goes about making games in the same manner Hollywood goes about making films. There is a specific person for every job, and you won't find texture artists working on character designs or animators working on level design. But Sony's team has taken more from Hollywood than just its production habits--it's also managed to steal some talent from the film industry. Specifically, artists from both Disney and Don Bluth who worked on feature films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan are now part of the development studio. The character design is especially representative of what you see in Disney films, but the moment the action kicks in, the images in your mind of Bambi being protected by his mother in a blinding snowstorm are smashed to bits.
The Mark of Kri is gory--very gory. Within moments of starting a session with The Mark of Kri, you'll believe wholeheartedly that it deserves every last bit of its Mature rating. Rau can spin around with his battle ax and chop a handful of enemies completely in half at once--sending fountains of crimson into the sky. As if chopping bodies in half weren't enough, Rau can always go for the throat and watch the enemy helplessly hold his neck trying to stop the bleeding. With up to nine enemies attacking at once, it's not hard to imagine the carnage that can ensue. Rau will impale enemies with his spear, stick the spear into the ground, and watch the dead body slide down its length. If enemies are crawling on the ground in pain, Rau will run them through and finish them off. Much like Conker's Bad Fur Day, it can almost seem surreal at times.
The cartoonish characters and gory carnage are an interesting mix, but it's pulled off thanks to some slick animation. Sporting more than 130,000 frames, all the characters and animals in the game animate with an expressive fluidity that's seldom seen in video games. But that's the reward for hiring six full-time animators to work on a project for two years. At the latest count, the game will include more than 30 different ways for enemies to die and 75 different attacks. The game's plot is driven forward via real-time cinemas that give the artists ample chance to show off their facial animating skills as well.
The attention to detail in the graphics is typified by what the developers are calling the bookend system. Each level begins as a drawing that slowly morphs into a painting that then transforms into the game's real-time graphics. At the end of the level, the process goes in reverse. It's a neat effect, and one that will likely be copied in the future. The technical merits of the graphical engine itself are adequate. The environments can be quite large, but you rarely see much of them at once. Because the combat engine is so advanced, the game can be played from dramatic camera angles that shift on the fly. In the one-level demo we were allowed to play, there were some instances where the camera failed to provide a clear view, but this will hopefully be cleared up before the game's release. All the usual suspects such as real-time lighting and shadows, motion blur, and particle effects are put to work, and overall the game features a simple but clean look. The environments range from bug-infested jungles to snow-blown mountainous areas, and Rau's costume will change depending upon the climate.
Dynamic music is quickly becoming the standard in video games, and the music in The Mark of Kri will be no different. Old-school trance group Juno Reactor is composing the soundtrack, but don't expect to hear hands-in-the-air rave tracks. Ambience is the name of the game, and the tunes in The Mark of Kri feature rolling tribal drums and minimal instrumentation that fits the game's environments rather well. The voice acting in the game is particularly strong because, once again, Sony's San Diego studio has imported talent from the Hollywood set. You'll recognize many voices throughout the game, and it was quite a surprise to find the narrator from the Winnie the Pooh animated features lending his talents to the game.
Sony is calling The Mark of Kri a plausible fantasy game, and that's an accurate description. While the locales, characters, and story are completely fictional, few things take place in the game that couldn't really happen at the hands of a 300-pound barbarian. The company will have its hands full when it comes time to market its cartoonish graphics to an M-rated audience, but its groundbreaking combat system and endless amounts of carnage will make the job much easier. The Mark of Kri is currently scheduled for release this summer. Look for updated impressions of the game from E3 later this month.