Off with their heads!
Nobody spends more time killing stuff than a gamer. We kill mushrooms, monkeys, furniture, dragons, terrorists, counter-terrorists, and even each other using our butts, beat sticks, magic wands, arrows, frag grenades, AKs and n00b hammers. Where most art imitates life, ours imitates death, and does a bloody good job of it.
Sony's The Mark of Kri was a fine example of this. Not only could you carve up your foes with a wicked array of bladed weaponry, but you could also target and combo several enemies at once, proving that two decapitated heads were better than one.
The only real issue we had with The Mark of Kri was its length; you killed everybody and their mother, but what about fathers, brothers, sons and pets? It was good, ghastly fun, but it was also really short. And since there has been no other game like it, we feared we might never kick ass the same way again.
But at a recent press event, Sony calmed our fears and teased our destructive appetites by allowing us to sink our teeth into a juicy, bloody build of their new sequel, Rise of the Kasai.
The events in Rise of the Kasai take place both ten years before and ten years after The Mark of Kri via two distinct plot threads. In the post-Kri thread, Rau and his sister Tati are on a quest to discover the meaning of a strange tattoo on Tati's back that gives her dark and mysterious powers. At the end of this journey, Rau is mysteriously slain, and his death drastically tips the cosmic scale in evil's favor.
The Oracle tree, sensing the impending cataclysm, summons two great warriors of the past, Baumusu and Griz, to embark on a quest that may lead to Rau's future salvation and the redemption of humanity. Oh, plus tons of hewn torsos and severed limbs. Sweet.
At the beginning of the demo level, we were asked to choose between either Rau or Tati. We first chose Rau, and were told to head up onto the rooftops of a city controlled by the evil Kasai, while Tati prowled the streets below. As we went about our business relieving villains of their heads, arms and lives, we could hear Tati engaging in her own battles far below us. Then, after climbing down a ladder, we met up and eviscerated some butts together.
The cool part is that Tati's engagements are unscripted and function independently of your actions. Instead of being followed around by a useless appendage who only gets in the way, your companions have their own objectives to meet, meaning they're out of your hair while simultaneously getting things done. You might run into them in the thick of a battle, share a few laughs, and then they're on their way. This is shaping into a brilliant approach to A.I. companionship.
Since Tati seemed so immersed in her hunt through the city streets, we thought we'd check things out from her perspective the second time through and delightfully discovered that every level can be experienced from two entirely different perspectives, each with its own objectives and obstacles, for twice the visceral fun.
Rau still plays much like he did in The Mark of Kri, and Baumusu, Rau's mentor from that game, plays just like Rau, while Tati and Griz are also very similar and a bit stealthier than their hulking counter-parts. The R-stick is used to target up to three nearby enemies, each of whom are associated with a face button on the PS2 controller. Tap an enemy's button to direct an attack their way, regardless of what direction they're in, and tap it repeatedly to perform a basic combo.
But who likes being basic? Combos can be modified for greater damage by any buttons that haven't been applied to an enemy. The combos that do the most damage use all three face buttons, but these are available when only one enemy is targeted. In turn, the least damaging combos only use one button. This makes sense if you think in terms of attention paid to each enemy. If you only have one enemy targeted, they're going to receive your undivided attention and thus one hell of a beat-down, but with three enemies targeted, you're too busy fending off all their attacks to really slice-and-dice anyone in particular.
When you do get the chance to bring all your cruel intentions to bear on a single foe, the results are gruesome. Tati might hand foes her daggers, only to make them stab themselves in the eyes. Then, using the protruding dagger hilts like handles, she whips the enemy over her head while allowing the enemy's momentum to remove himself from her blades. Rau, on the other hand, is big on chopping his enemies in the crotch with his humongous sword, then sawing until the blade is somewhere near their heart before ripping it free.
These are but two of many, many acts of cartoon-on-cartoon violence in Rise of the Kasai, all of which stand in stark contrast to the game's decidedly Disney aesthetic. The characters look and move much like they were yanked out of Aladdin, and the environments are all rendered with soft, water-color palettes. According to Sony, Rise of the Kasai's animation and art-direction are so stellar because they worked side by side with a team of film animators to provide their characters with a level of grace and style never before seen in a video game. From what we've seen thus far, they might well succeed.
Especially in the case of Rau's little sister. Tati is equal parts Pocahontas and Valeria, with a zesty splash of malice and a twist of sadism. Tati may be the sexiest video game character we've ever seen; not because she wears a skimpy loin-cloth or has a huge rack (although she does, incidentally, have both), but because of the way she moves. She has all the poise and confidence of a predatory cat and is so fun to control it's almost a guilty pleasure.
The same can be said of the other characters, minus the guilty part. We usually think of action and animation as inherently separate elements of a game, forgetting how often the success of one hinges on the other. Then a game like this comes along and reminds us that good gameplay often relies on clear, fluid imagery as well as rational control mechanics. Rise of the Kasai doesn't just look good - it feels good. We look forward to getting our hands on it March 15.