Gather round, all who would listen; I have a tale to tell. A tale of warriors and kings, and slightly shonky first-party action games that never quite took off in the early 2000s. This is the tale of The Mark of Kri, and it begins, as all good tales do, with a man walking into a bar. Of course this is no ordinary man – he’s the size of a killer whale and has a raven perched on his shoulder. His name is Rau Utu, a good name for a great and noble warrior. He’s after a drink and a fight, in any particular order. Luckily, a helpful barman points him in the direction of a nearby bandit camp, and Rau grabs his sword and bird, setting off on a mission that will end in bloodshed, murder and demigodhood. Again, in no particular order.
Much like the Disney movie Moana (which almost certainly took some inspiration from the game), Kri welds Polynesian folklore to a road trip backbone, telling a classic hero’s journey story, albeit one with a lot more bloodshed than you’d expect. Mark of Kri is a non-stop murder spree, and while its art style suggests cartoon fun, it’s pure Lone Wolf and Cub arterial spurting violence in the gameplay. It’s the Pretzel Flipz of the double-A game world, a strange flavour combination that excites the tastebuds while confounding the brain. Of course such an approach was bound to generate some controversy amongst parents, and the game also faced a fierce cultural appropriation backlash in the Māori community, who pointed out that the badass tribal tattoo that Rau sported was actually a moko, a tattoo traditionally worn by Māori women.
Even his bulk is an unusual trait in the double-A world, where heroes tend to be lithe and muscular. But this bulk sells the action superbly – when clearing out enemy strongholds you really believe it when he throws an enemy to the ground and bloodily drives his sword through their face, or casually shish kabobs a baddie to the wall. You’ll be doing a lot of that incidentally, as the game is built on the three classic double-A game pillars – combat, stealth and lashings of lackluster switch pulling. The switch pulling is as dull as you’d expect it to be. Pull a lever, drop a ladder, drink a shot, blah blah blah. But the combat and stealth? Well, that’s a different story.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, its crowd control fight flow system seemed revolutionary – but it’s clear that Mark of Kri is the missing link between that system and earlier side-scrolling brawlers of Final Fight vintage. Kri was one of the first games to work out (almost) how to make free-for all fights work in a 3D space. Using the right stick, you nominate assailants, who are then automatically assigned to different face buttons on the DualShock, allowing you to pummel, destroy and disembowel them by pushing the highlighted buttons in any order you choose. You can concentrate on one opponent, or flit between them, like a social butterfly with wings of flashing steel. The system isn’t quite there – because the active fight buttons are always changing, pulling off combos becomes a sausage-fingered memory challenge every few minutes (anchoring these buttons to fixed positions on the pad was perhaps Arkham’s biggest improvement to the system). But still, the sense of flowing from one attacker to another seamlessly was first evoked on here.
And here too are brutal stealth takedowns, and the ability to fly from perch to perch to suss out the lay of the land before beginning your reign of terror – only in Kri it’s your raven (and narrator) Kuzo doing all the aerial work.
By making the raven and the man one, Rocksteady ironed out the kinks and used this as a foundation to create the ultimate Batman experience, freeing gamers from Oldboy-style corridor fights forever.