More and more games these days are taking on the challenge of creating a fighting system that lets players fight more than one enemy at once. Each game takes a slightly different approach to the concept, and each approach has met with varying degrees of success. Sony's new action game, The Mark of Kri, is another game chasing the elusive multicharacter fighting system, and it does so quite well and sports some great looks and animation to boot. Unfortunately, the game's level design too often steers you away from this cool fighting system, instead focusing on a rather hackneyed stealth mechanic. The end result is an awkwardly paced game that is theoretically full of cool stuff to do, but the gameplay itself just doesn't let you actually do any of it often enough.
In The Mark of Kri, you play as a barbarian islander named Rau, a young man fresh out of training and ready to take on the world. Your adventures start simply enough--you'll help out various folk who have been accosted by bandits or otherwise caught up in some form of turmoil. Eventually, Rau and his spirit guide, a bird named Kuzo, get wrapped up in a quest to stop evildoers from getting the mark of Kri, a spell powerful enough to open a gateway to a demon-filled dimension and most likely destroy Earth in the process.
In many ways, The Mark of Kri is a standard third-person action game. You run around through its levels, one after another, fighting enemies and solving puzzles. As you proceed from level to level, you're given various challenges that, when completed, will unlock rewards. The game's rewards range from gaining access to battle arenas to concept art and new costumes for Rau--nothing to write home about. You'll also be able to go back through the game's six levels to complete challenges you may have missed the first time through. While the game doesn't feel particularly short, the slow pacing makes The Mark of Kri seem longer than it actually is. Expect to spend eight to 10 hours on the main game, though that number rises a bit if you spend time with the unlockable battle arenas and try to complete all the challenges.
The Mark of Kri has its share of gameplay twists that keep it from being generic. For starters, the aforementioned fighting system allows for the occasional big brawl. Using your trusty sword, you can take on as many as three opponents at a time, but as you upgrade to slower, more powerful weapons, you'll be able to slice through even more than that at once. The lock-on system that makes the fighting system possible is pretty well done. When you push the right analog stick in any direction, a thin "lock beam" extends out from Rau's body. Sweeping this beam over an enemy assigns that enemy to one of your three attack buttons. Sweeping it around quickly in a crowd will give you three targets to choose from. From there, you can move between the attack buttons and execute nicely animated attack combos that flow from forward to back and side to side with ease. When you focus on only one or two enemies, the unassigned buttons can be used as attack modifiers, which give you access to more combo attacks. You can also block with R1, which automatically blocks all incoming melee attacks, regardless of their direction. The combat looks great, and there are a few tactical twists, such as how your sword can get stuck in a tree or how you can get blindsided by an opponent while trying to impale another. In practice, though, you mostly just jam on one attack button after another, and you can block indefinitely whenever you wish to catch your breath.
The other twist is the way Kuzo, your feathered spirit guide, figures into the gameplay. As you move through the levels, you'll see spinning icons that mark perches for Kuzo. L2 will send Kuzo off to land on such a perch, and just like some sort of new-age Beastmaster, you can see the action through Kuzo's eyes. This lets you scout out the landscape ahead and figure out where the guards are before you have to encounter them. This also opens up the game for a few bird-brained puzzles, such as landing Kuzo on the top of a ladder to cause it to fall within reach, or sending Kuzo ahead to flip switches. Maybe all this is a neat idea, but the game overuses Kuzo and basically forces you to fly ahead to almost every new area, rather than just run in like a good barbarian should and start chopping off heads or cracking skulls.
The game's stealth functions are also extremely overused. For a game with such an interesting fighting scheme, it's a lowdown shame that you so rarely get to use it--usually the only serious fighting to be found is at the end of each level. To be fair, some of the stealth stuff is pretty cool. When unarmed, Rau can slip up behind enemies and silently kill them when they're alone or even when they're in groups. He can put his back up against a wall and shimmy along to execute people around corners, and he can even jump down off a ledge and take someone out without making a sound. Unfortunately, a lot of The Mark of Kri centers on these stealth mechanics, to the point where it starts to seem more like a puzzle game than an action game. Sometimes you'll have to distract guards by striking a bell with an arrow, or rousing a flock of nearby birds. The guards will look in the direction of the distraction, giving you all the time in the world to sneak over and quietly behead them. The stealth kills are nice looking and appropriately gory, but in a level where you find yourself silently eliminating a dozen or so opponents, the handful of animations become tiresome. Also, enemy soldiers won't react when they see one of their buddies get killed, so there are several instances where you can stand back out of sight with your bow and pick off a large crowd, one soldier at a time, without fear of retaliation. This isn't challenging, and it dampens the mood of the game.
Part of the team behind The Mark of Kri consists of former Disney and Don Bluth animators, and it shows. The character design and the animation quality are not unlike what you'd find in Mulan or Aladdin, though unlike those films, The Mark of Kri has no shortage of gore, so it heartily deserves its M rating. The character design throughout the game is top-notch, and most of the characters are well animated. The cutscenes are prerendered video, but most of them look like they probably could have been done in-engine almost as easily. Unfortunately, the game suffers from quite a bit of slowdown--even with as few as three enemies onscreen in some of the game's larger areas--and the settings themselves aren't particularly inventive or detailed. Also, the cutscenes can't be skipped, so if you don't have an in-level save, starting the game back up after dying might annoyingly force you to sit through a cutscene all over again. The sound and voice work are decently done, though only the dynamic music that changes to fit your situation really stands out. The music is suitably creepy when it needs to be, and it fits the gameplay quite well.
The Mark of Kri does a number of things well, and it introduces some original concepts, but unfortunately the game's design doesn't play to those strengths. What could have been an action-packed, combat-intensive game gets muddled down by mechanics that make it frustrating more often than satisfying. The game is definitely at least worth renting, if only for its distinctive style and impressive appearance. But you may find yourself satisfied by no more than a brief experience with The Mark of Kri, a game with some decidedly good ideas that just doesn't live up to its full potential.