Rise of the Kasai Hands-On

BottleRocket's action sequel features several playable characters and a complex storyline set in multiple time periods.

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In 2002, an internal Sony development team delivered The Mark of Kri, a stylized action game with an innovative combat system and a storyline and setting that bore strong cultural influences. That team subsequently detached itself from SCEA and became BottleRocket Entertainment, which is now putting the finishing touches on Kri's sequel, Rise of the Kasai. The new game maintains the ambitious and unique fighting mechanics from Kri and adds new playable characters, epic boss encounters, and a deeper storyline that will expand on the history of the people and places from the first game.

Rise of the Kasai's storyline will take place in two time periods: 10 years before the events of the original game, and 10 years after. The Mark of Kri introduced us to Rau, a stout barbarian type who fought against an evil necromancer for control of the eponymous marking. This mark could be best described as a malevolent tattoo that curses its bearer with dark powers and a nagging insistence that the person join with evil forces. The new game will begin with Rau's spirit guide, a raven named Kuzo, informing us that the mighty warrior has been slain, and you'll play through 10 levels in both time periods as you trace the events of the past and present to find out how and why Rau fell.

Rau's sister Tati appeared in the original game as a 10-year-old child; in Rise of the Kasai, she's 21 and has been blighted with the mark of Kri, which grants her powers that are useful in gameplay terms but that insistently pull her subconsciously toward the darkness. Rau and Tati will thus spend much of their time searching for information about the accursed mark, which will fuel Tati's considerable bloodlust. This curse ties into the storyline of the past, which introduces us to two more characters: Griz and Baumusu (the latter of whom was Rau's instructor in the first game). Griz is an old man who, like Tati, carries the mark of Kri, but unlike the young girl, he has mastered its effects and harnessed its powers for his own purposes. Griz will serve as a sort of mentor to Tati later on in the game. Baumusu is a gigantic warrior and friend to Griz who will protect him throughout their travels. He loves to fight and will enter a battle swinging his massive weapons, laughing all the while.

Each of the game's 10 levels will feature either Rau and Tati or Griz and Baumusu, and you'll get to choose which character you want to play as at the outset of the stage. Rau and Baumusu are both slower, burlier fighters, while Griz and Tati are nimble and somewhat weaker. The game pulls a neat trick with the levels set in the past by applying a sepia-toned filter that makes them look a little older. Each character will have his or her own path through a given level, and the character you're not playing as will fight through the level via the game's AI. Some goals will require teamwork, so you'll have to occasionally assist your AI-controlled companion in completing tasks. If you find a safe spot, you can even switch to your companion's perspective to see what he or she is up to. Apparently, the AI characters are smart enough to adapt to whatever you're doing, and indeed it seemed as though they did a good job of helping us fight while going about the tasks they were required to complete.

Griz and Baumusu are two new characters who figure into Rau's past--and his future.
Griz and Baumusu are two new characters who figure into Rau's past--and his future.

The Mark of Kri's biggest innovation was its fighting system, which allowed you to manage large groups of enemies without becoming overwhelmed. The same system returns in Rise of the Kasai, and it works equally well with all of the characters' diverse fighting styles. Essentially, you can control a short targeting beam with the right analog stick and paint enemy targets with it to lock on to them. Each targeted enemy is then represented by a button designation--X, square, and circle--that floats over their head, and you can attack a foe simply by pressing the corresponding button. Like in the first game, the attack transitions in Rise of the Kasai are extremely fluid, and it's both easy and visually stimulating to see your character lashing out in all directions as you fight off a bunch of attackers simultaneously.

If you choose to target only one enemy, you'll be able to execute complicated combos that put a serious hurt on your foe and look pretty stylish to boot. The game's combos are triggered the same way for all the characters, so you have to memorize only one list of button sequences, but they produce quite different effects depending on the character and the weapon that you're using. Tati has a move where she leaps atop an enemy's shoulders, pulls his arms up, and savagely breaks his back. Griz, on the other hand, can grab an enemy and impale him on his spear. With four characters and several usable weapons for each one, there should be a huge number of combos to enjoy as you play through the game. There will also be more ways to interact with the environment this time around, as you'll be able to hit switches to kill enemies in gruesome ways, such as dropping giant rocks on them, from time to time. Finally, each character will have a number of special tricks up his or her sleeves. For instance, we learned of Tati's puffer mushrooms, which can be used to set poisonous traps, and her ability to blend into the background to remain stealthy.

BottleRocket's attention to aesthetic details is quite apparent in Rise of the Kasai's visuals. The environments are imbued with elements of a wide range of cultures while looking just exotic enough that they're believably part of another world. The best parts about the game's graphics, though, are the fluid and slightly exaggerated character animations. Some of BottleRocket's animators have backgrounds in feature-film animation, and the team has animated the playable characters with real flair--you'll see Tati leaping nimbly from one enemy to another or Baumusu smoothly swinging his massive blade, cleaving multiple enemies at one time. Speaking of which, the enemy deaths are extremely violent--you'll snap bones, chop off heads, and even cut some foes right in half. Following in the footsteps of the original game, Rise of the Kasai's impending M rating will be well deserved.

Tati's nimble maneuvers provide a fine counterpoint to Rau's brawn.
Tati's nimble maneuvers provide a fine counterpoint to Rau's brawn.

The storyline in The Mark of Kri was told in part by cutscenes that were featured between levels. In the original game, these scenes were represented with well-rendered, static artwork. In Rise of the Kasai, however, the artwork comes brilliantly to life. BottleRocket has really outdone itself in achieving the game's fluidly animated, stylized cutscenes, which can best be described as moving sketches. The cinematics have a slightly Asian look to them, though the characters are portrayed in the game's own unique art style. These scenes and their accompanying voice-overs imbue the storyline with a strong mythic quality, which we imagine is exactly what the designers intended them to do.

Rise of the Kasai has been greatly expanded, when compared with the first game. It boasts 10 levels to the original's six, and Sony is claiming around a 25-hour completion time, not to mention roughly three times the overall level space. Kasai will also feature massive boss fights, which were lacking in the first game--we saw a fight against a dragon boss that was assaulting the tower Rau was firing arrows from, and another boss whose tentacles kept bursting through the ground in an attempt to squash our heroes. We hope they remain resolute, though; Rise of the Kasai's storyline has us fully intrigued, and its style is easy to appreciate as well. The game is due in stores on March 15, and you can check out a bunch of new gameplay movies and an exclusive developer interview on Kasai's media page.

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