The Mark of Kri has six levels in it. Each will take you around an hour to complete, maybe a little longer. It’s mostly about a bad guy and a good guy in the most American cinematic sense of the terms. It doesn’t sound very remarkable. But it is.
The Mark of Kri looks like Don Bluth and a bunch of Disney animators made a video game based on Polynesian and Pacific mythology. That’s not very far from the truth. Most of the people on SCEA’s San Diego Studio were classically trained 2D animators who had worked for places like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Dreamworks. The character designs were animated by hand, as opposed to motion-capture. It took 18 months of animation. It’s a rolling, thundering ballad that will kick you in the teeth.
How do you talk about The Mark of Kri? Let’s start here: “If Ico had been an architect’s blueprint of a platformer, Kri was more an animator’s impression of a third-person action game” (EDGE 2009). The Mark of Kri doesn’t operate like any other action game. There are no grab bags of powerups to collect, other than extra health scattered around the level and bundles of arrows tucked away* – no long ticking chains of combo numbers and points flashing on the screen during combat indicating 99 HITS! with a flash and a guitar riff. In combat, you use the right analog stick to send out an abstract “focusing” beam of light, representing Rau “targeting” enemies. These enemies are then coded to a different face button on the controller, either Square, Triangle, or Circle. Pressing each button will direct the player-character, Rau, to strike at them. The less foes you target, the more frightening your combos and finishers.
The Mark of Kri is violent. If it was a Disney movie – which it sure as hell looks like – people would be utterly appalled by the violence. Rau Utu is a barrel-chested, tattooed beast, silent at all times, save for grunts of pain and bellowing war-cries. His “stealth mode,” walking without a weapon equipped, is low, predatory, rolling. The first time you sneak up on a guard and catch him unawares, Rau will grab him by the throat, press him against a wall, and quietly run him through with his sword. In combat, enemies will shrink with fear whenever you kill one of their comrades, disgusted by the savagery. The shock of it is not gratuitous – even when paired with animation which people would normally consider “family friendly” – it just contributes to the overall flair of the game. His bird, Kuzo, is just as much a player-character as Rau, he can be directed to fly to – and perch on – objects in the various levels of the game. The player can then switch his view to that of the bird, getting a literal “bird’s eye view” of the dangers ahead. Rau, the implacable bull, and Kuzo, the silent device for planning your next course of action – add up to form one unstoppable being.
The Mark of Kri is a legend in every sense of the word. You are a Herculean force, and enemies only exist to be overcome. Once spotted, you cannot reenter stealth by evasion, you can only leap into the fray. Even in the levels where the enemies do not appear to be frightening cultist-soldiers (two of them to be precise), your foes are dispatched which just as little mercy as any other. They are an obstacle in your path. Kri has no puzzles or unnecessary backtracking, just pure forward motion.
The Mark of Kri doesn’t get into stride until the third and fourth levels, particularly the fourth. The fourth has you fighting your way through a mountaintop monastery / fortress filled with vicious pseudo-samurai. You drop patrolling guards with well placed arrows, you stalk through the mute snowdrifts, and you throttle soldiers quietly and quickly in the shadowed parapets of the fortress. The Mark of Kri’s visuals and violence come together in near perfect harmony in this level.
Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t last. You acquire a spear at the end of the level. Visually it’s a joy to wield in combat, but it can target more foes, which the next level heaps on you at an alarming speed, starting to abandon the previous emphasis on stealth and those pregnant moments before explosive combat. By the sixth and last level, you’ll have acquired an axe, which can target up to nine foes at a time. All pretense of stealth is gone and the shortcomings of the combat system – which really only shines through careful application (less is more) – are exposed.
The Mark of Kri is a unique game, in the same vein as Shadow of the Colossus. It strives to maintain its tone throughout the game, and while mechanically it is not on the level of Sony’s later third person action blockbuster God of War, it isn’t trying to be. The bottom line is that it is an uneven experience that peaks in the middle and fizzles by the end. But that peak is worth the trek. “Gather round, all of you who would listen: I have a tale to tell,” begins the narrator to The Mark of Kri, and what a tale it is – one that players would do well to experience.
*I lied – there are some hidden “Tikis” to collect in each level, but since I can’t recall what they do, they can’t have been that important.
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