Missing its mark.
Sony's The Mark of Kri hit the PS2 about two and a half years ago and dazzled us with its unique fighting system and interesting art style. It didn't quite have the markings of a revolutionary game, but it certainly was entertaining.
Now the legend continues with Rise of the Kasai. Unfortunately, we're not so sure it should have risen. While the artistic vision is still intact, the gameplay is somewhat broken leading to an uneven, unpolished sequel.
In case you didn't get a chance to play The Mark of Kri, allow me to introduce Rau, a hulking warrior cut from the cloth of Conan, capable of taking bad guys to the butcher shop with a variety of pointy weapons. In his first adventure, Rau prevented dark forces from collecting the tattooed marks that would unlock a spell of epic destruction. Back then, he succeeded, but now *spoiler alert?* " he's dead. Actually, it's not much of a spoiler since the opening movie fills you in on this most unfortunate event right off the bat.
Of course, that wouldn't make for much of a game, so off you go trying to uncover the plot behind this catastrophe while trying to change the very fabric of its occurrence. The hows and whys aren't clear at first, but over the course of Rise of the Kasai, you'll flip back and forth between events 10 years prior and 10 years after The Mark of Kri.
To this end, Kasai offers four playable characters. You'll play as the future tense version of Rau and his lithe sister Tati, while digging around in the past as Rau's master Baumusu and the dextrous grandmaster Griz. Depending on the level, you'll choose between either Baumusu and Griz or Rau and Tati. The option seems nice at first, but the four characters actually play out as only two types. Baumusu and Rau play much the same way with a brutish, powerful style, while Tati and Griz mirror each other with a more quick and agile game plan.
The fighting system remains the same as in Kri, giving players the ability target up to three enemies at a time by using the right stick to highlight the bad guys and pushing the corresponding face buttons to attack. Targeting more than one enemy removes the ability to perform your character's most powerful combos, so the more hardcore gamers will inevitably reset the targeting cursor to make sure that only one enemy is targeted at a time. Each weapon's combos are also executed in the exact same way, often involving simple, repetitious button-mashing. While this whole system was fresh in the original, it feels somewhat dated and stale three years later.
But if you're into barbaric combat, you'll be overjoyed that Kasai delivers some of the most senseless brutality ever committed by cartoonish characters. Any game can deliver decapitations, but Kasai is one of the few games where you can literally take your enemies apart piece by piece. Limbs get lopped, craniums are cut and spines are snapped. Despite its cartoon look, it's definitely not a game for your grandmother'unless her last name is Barker or Craven.
When you're not hacking off limbs and waving your weapons around like a crazed maniac, you'll be creeping along walls and rooftops in an attempt to gain the element of surprise. Especially useful against horn blowers (enemies that can call in reinforcements if alerted to your presence), stealth attacks simply challenge you to sneak up behind enemies, target them and press a button to quietly send them packing. This might be more interesting if it didn't seem like enemies were actually trying to get bushwhacked. Sentries are posted in the dumbest places, like facing the wrong way near a fortress gate, making it all too easy to sneak in for the kill.
While less discriminating warriors can overlook this minor mishap, it's hard to overlook the fact that stealth simply isn't necessary. Running headfirst into battle with your weapon swinging just means you'll have to deal with more enemies, but that isn't a problem because most of the bad guys choose to attack one at a time. The game fails to give a good reason to remain out of sight, effectively neutering the stealth element altogether.
The most annoying A.I. issues don't stem from the enemies, however. On many levels, the character you didn't choose to play will be controlled by the computer, who actually operates in real-time. It's a cool idea, but often your progress through a level relies too much on your companion, which can really hamper the game flow. It's not unusual to come to a dead stop while waiting for the A.I. character to flip a switch to open a locked door, and since it's not obvious that your partner is supposed to flip the switch, you might end up backtracking for no good reason in an attempt to find the switch yourself.
You are given the ability to visually check in on your buddy, and more often than not you'll find them doing something really unintelligent. For example, you might catch your teammate walking about in an odd pattern or using a ranged-weapon on an enemy standing right in front of them. Things will go from curious to aggravating when your partner runs out into the open and alerts the guards for no particular reason. This disappointing partner A.I. screams for the ability to call in a friend to play co-operatively, but alas, this is not an option.
Still, Rise of the Kasai does have its moments. The occasional boss battles are pretty memorable and provide some of the game's best bits. One level has Rau battling a dragon while Tati keeps the tide of Kasai at bay; you'll play either depending upon your character choice. It's not quite the equivalent of replay value, but it does give the game some added oomph.
Things get fouled up again when it comes to the game's graphics, a strange mix of creative flair and bland design. Rise of the Kasai uses artistic, storybook cutscenes to flesh out the plot; the hand-crafted animations are starkly beautiful and work well to give the game a unique flavor. The in-game offerings, however, suffer from technical issues left and right. Character models are a bit blocky and the environments are uniformly bland, with very little in the way of background animation or interactivity. The camera often swings around erratically and gets stuck on walls and objects, requiring steady use of the "center camera' button. It's not offensive, but the action just looks and feels dated.
Luckily, the sounds outshine the looks. Excellent narration from the spirit guide gives the game an epic feel, as does the foreboding, tribal soundtrack. Great combat sound effects round out the experience nicely.
Although the story arc is linear, Rise of the Kasai offers a few extra diversions to keep you playing. Each level challenges you to accomplish different feats such as executing five stealth kills or performing every combo with every weapon. Successful completion of these unlocks extra costumes and cheats. Add to that unlockable Arena survival challenges and you get a decent stash of extras.
It's a shame, though, that the core of Rise of the Kasai is so thoroughly mediocre. Despite some cool art and more playable characters, this sequel fails to improve upon its predecessor and actually drops the ball in its A.I. and camera, resulting in a pretty rusty blade.