Malik (6/27/05)

Rise of Kasai (PS2)


A few years back, Mark of Kri was released on the PS2. This game completely changed my perspective on how well animation could be used in an adventure/action game. While Nintendo was pulling out cartoonish themes in developing Wind Waker, and Sony was trying to have the same effect with Sly Cooper, another game that took this style in a whole new direction just slipped under the radar. 

For those who are familiar with Samurai Jack, the no longer present Cartoon Network feast of eye-candy glory, that's what Mark of Kri gave us. It was a game that you could only really understand to have seen it in action. The cut-scenes would begin with rough looking charcoal sketches being animated to full color glory. 

To make things even better, the game play and the plot backed up what the visuals gave to give a truly immersive adventure. For a gamer who has passed the fairly-tale point in his life more than a decade before, I was immediately brought back to my youth with such a high level of addictive fantasy that I thought would be impossible to recreate. 

Then, a short time back, a sequel was released...once again, it went under the radar. The main cause, at first, seemed to be the stupidity in how Rise of Kasai was released within a couple weeks of God of War, the adventure game to end adventure games on the PS2. However, the question remains, is this the entirety to why is was, or should be, under the radar. 


RoK picks up right after the end of MoK...well, right after, a long time after, and 20 years before. If this makes no sense, just watch Pulp Fiction. It's one of those stories in which you are always going from past, to present, to past, to future, to present, to past, to where-the-hell-am-I-now. However, just like Pulp Fiction, this style of telling the plot is skillfully pulled off with a plot that always leaves you wondering about not just what will come next, but all of the details to why something happened to begin with...and luckily the game won't leave you wanting any answers, just more plot (not like the plot is unfulfilled, but rather it's like a good meal, and you just want another bite to tide you over for a little longer...before long you find yourself with a RoK eating disorder). 

In the first game of this series, you played as Rau, as he fought battles against barbarian hordes. He had a goal of saving his sister and defeating the forces of evil. Blah, blah. I should add that you don't need to play the first game to understand this one...but it would help. Anyway, that's the past. So, as you start RoK, you learn, from Rau's spirit guide (his trusty falcon, who's more than it appears to be), as it tells the Oracle (think: the goddess of Rau's people) about how Rau has died. However, to fully explain it's tale of Rau's untimely end, you need to understand the entire conflict at hand. This begins with Baumbozu (we'll call him the big guy, since you'll see him so infrequently that you'll forget his name until the game mentions it) and Griz (for the same reason, "skinny old guy"). They are essentially Rau's adoptive father/trainer, and his trainer's master/Rau's adoptive grandfather. 

As the story unfolds, with an amazing animated feel to it that just helps to further pull you into the tale, you see the origins of the current threat of the Kasai. They are an organization that gained power when Griz's leader betrayed their people to join the enemy. Their goal is a simple one. There are several cursed bloodlines in the Three Kingdoms (I know what you're thinking, but remember; this is not a Koei game), and some people of these bloods will carry a cursed mark on their bodies. These marks are actually the lines of a powerful and evil set of magics that will summon the gods of the Kasai. So, naturally, the Kasai want these people. Enter big guy and skinny old guy. As you play, you'll see how they came to become the last of their people. Then, you'll see how they came to adopt Rau and Tati (Rua's sister, who carries a line from the most evil of spells on her back; the Mark of Kri). 

You'll also be shown an amazing story of smaller scale as you see Tati struggle with the dark forces upon her body and the strong willed sense of good that Rau forces upon her. You'll also see a nicely shown theme of free-will versus destiny/determined action. Think of this game as having a sugar coated story (the animated way of showing things unfold), with a three course meal of plot behind this saccharine shell. 

Even when the game becomes almost impossible to stomach anymore, the plot will always pull you back. This is really saying something, since even games like Xenosaga 2 cannot pull off such a feat (and this is from a Xeno-fanboy). So, in the end, between the brilliantly shown style of animation, the unique non-linear approach to story-telling, and the wonderfully narrated plot (as told by Rau's spirit guide), this is one of the most amazing plots you'll find outside of an RPG...hell, this would be in the top 5% of RPG plots, even. 

Game Play 

On second thought...let's stay with the good features of this game... 


On one hand, these visuals definitely don't live up to the high quality of Mark of Kri. On the other hand, and especially if you never played MoK, the visuals are freakin' sweet. 

For those who played MoK; the visuals are very dark this time around. It wouldn't be so bad, except the darkness doesn't set the mood as much as it takes away from showing the wonderful fantasy escapist eye-candy that the first game gave us. Also, the drawing of all cut-scenes from a initial charcoal looking sketch is removed. Instead the visuals start as the sketch look, but then are just replaced, rather than re-drawn in real time, with the final vivid imagery. 

For those who haven't or have played MoK, the visuals are still a nicely done method for displaying a world that has the epic fantasy characteristics of a world done by Tolkien. There is so much history and depth to the overall plot that the only way to do it justice is to show the game with what looks like hand drawn animations for every movement from in game to in cut-scene. Even with less of the bright colors of MoK, the game still shows off some jaw dropping eye-candy. Best of all, it's done with a way that emphasizes minimalist styles. Instead of being given so many details that it all becomes lost in the 2D screen's depiction of a 3D world, the lesser amount of details adds to what we can actually take away from these visuals. 

While the still images to the right only done minor justice to RoK, the fully animated and live game is something that words cannot do proper justice to. This is a game franchise that has created it's own unique visual style, and it's a definite risk that more games should try. 


The audio also sets the tone in so many unique and amazing ways. The music is a nice blend of fantasy and tribal themes that really emphasizes the dual fantasy and tribal themes of the plot. The music ranges from subtle and entrancing during slower parts of the game, up to blood pumping and exciting when the action takes off. This game features some of the more original and listen-able music that has ever graced the PS2...or any console, for that matter. 

To add to the joy that Kasai's audio gives, the sound effects are wonderfully crafted. If you strike stone with your weapon, it won't make the same noise as if you strike wood. Nor will it sound like when you strike metal. In fact, each weapon you carry, and each object you strike, will influence a unique sound from your attacks. Beyond that, you have the sounds of what one would associate with a tribal world. There are gongs you can strike to distract your foes, and they sound authentic. Birds will chirp and fly with a flutter of wings. Creeping on stone sounds far different than running, as does changing your ground from stone to dirt. Each sound is properly placed, uniquely performed, and completely authentic in quality. 

To round out the three parts of audio, there is a good deal of voice acting. Most of it falls upon Rau's spirit guardian and the oracle, but almost every character is given enough lines to show the associated actor's skills. Notice I did not add "or lack of". The acting is all brilliantly done with unique accents that can only come from a world of the Three Kingdoms (still not ancient China). The oracle is a weakened omnipotent being, which is usually not voiced in any appropriate way in prior video games, but her voice is perfectly acted in Kasai. The spirit guardian has a strong and deep voice mingled with the unique accent of this world that tells you, as a gamer, that this character is old, has seen too much sorrow, and has power that is not revealed in it's small falcon-like body. 

The only problem the audio ever features is that the accents, combined with lowered voices to fit the mood of a given plot element (like a sad event), can become hard to hear and distinguish. However, in the end, the audio does like the visuals did; it enhances what starts as a wonderful plot, and turns it into something far greater than the sum of it's parts. 

Game Play 

Up until now, you would probably think this game has really won me over. I probably am even sounding a bit like a fanboy. Well, the game play is where this all changes... 

There is some good to the mechanics of this game. Most of all is the fact that you have the same style of combat and controls as you had with Kri. This begins with a nice blend of easy to control stealth action with a really unique (well, it was unique in it's tested and still well done) method of combat. 

While traveling, if you put away your weapons, or if you just carry a ranged weapon (like Rau's bow), you will sneak around. You can duck behind low walls, move flat against walls, etc. It's the usual stuff you'd see in Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, but with a far more forgiving nature to the controls. During this time, you can set up ambushes, study your enemy's movement and actions, you can take a quick head shot with your bow, or make a stealth kill on up to 2 foes at a time with your bare hands. Most impressive are the stealth kills. These are done by sneaking up behind an enemy, and then targeting the foe. Once the dude's targeted and in range, you hit the action button and watch as Rau (or whoever you're playing as) grabs him and proceeds to kill him in a special way. These can range from throwing an enemy head-first into a wall, to snapping his neck, to grabbing a guy from around a corner, throwing him to the wall, planting your sword through his chest, waiting for him to breath his last, and then retrieving your blade (that one's my favorite). You can even get up to two enemies at once with a simple series of button taps (which the game always displays for your convenience, and will tell you if you've done them correctly by playing a drum sound). 

In combat, the ingeniously devised controls continue to show their mettle.  To select a target, you have much more choice than in a typical game that forces you to target lock a single foe.  In RoK you can just use the right analogue to create a red beam that emanates from your avatar.  If you spin the stick, the beam will spin and be controlled.  This beam will serve as your target lock.  If you wave it over an enemy, then that guy will be assigned to your X button.  If you wave it over another, he will be assigned to your square button, and a third foe can be put on your circle button.  This means you can enter a heated battle and still be able to use some intelligence in your attacks...not just fall back on button mashing as you face a dozen enemies.

Also, when you have less than three targeted enemies, you can perform combo attacks.  To do this, you simply have to start an attack with the button assigned to your intended victim.  Then continue your attack with a mixture of both your target's button and an unassigned button.  You be rewarded to a nifty slow motion killing attack that is chock full of visual wonder and gore.

Plus, to help you decide if you want to go stealthy or full of rage, you have your spirit guide.  As you play, you will see pillars of light.  These, when you look directly at them, will allow you to send your spirit guide to them.  Once there, you can look through it's eyes to see what's coming up next in terms of enemies, your partner, special items, interactive situations (like a ladder than only the spirit guide can move into position) or more observation spots.

So, now that the good has been said, I can summarize the bad parts of this game in a much shorter format.  The bad parts all come down to your partner.

In the game, you will start each and every level with a choice of who to play as.  The choice will either be between skinny guy and big guy, or Rau and Tati.  When you chose, the other player still enters the level, but under computer control.  That sad part is that most levels can be fully accomplished without your partner (I've played as Rau and handled all of my goals and all of Tati's goals in ~75% of the levels involving this pair).  Actually, the sad part is really that your partner may be control by AI, but he/she will have none of the intelligence part.

If you're in a level or part of a level that requires independent work, then your partner will do fine.  However, if you're directly working together, you can forget about stealth and logic.  If there is an excellent stealth opportunity, and you simply must scout ahead with your spirit guide, be warned that as your spirit guide flies to the assigned lookout location, your partner will have already blown your cover.  I don't mean your partner will "usually" blow your cover.  This is an absolute.

Considering you will have a game over screen if either you or your partner dies, this will lead to a lot of frustration as Rau tries to scout out an area, only to see Tati being butchered in that area.

It doesn't end here, however.  Your partner and you must share resources on some levels.  While you will both have different ammo pick-ups, you will share health increasers and refills.  While this may sound bad, it does, like I keep saying, get worse than it first appears.  Usually, your partner will only use an item if she/he is almost full on health and you are dying.  For example, as Rau, I watched Tati get her ass handed to her, but then she refused to use the health pick-up right in front of her before she ran to the next fight...she died in the next fight, along with my game.  However, another time, she took a health item that was right in front of me when she was almost full and I was going to die with the next hit I took.

Plain and simple, this game would've been beyond awesome...if only they did one of two things.  Either they needed to make all levels solo, or give the option to make them solo (like in Sonic 3, how you can play as Sonic without Tails), or to allow this game to be played 2-player co-op.  That would've been sweet.


So, in the end, Rise of Kasai has so many strong points.  The plot will truly keep you playing more, even when the AI of your partner is driving you towards insanity.  The visuals and audio will set an atmosphere that is nearly impossible to expect in a video game.  Plus, when you're solo, the game play of Kasai is intuitive, fun, and easy to be able to expand upon.  Sadly, this game loses all sense of entertainment with the poorly planned choice of making Rau, or whoever you feel like playing as, have a partner.  To have altered this choice would've created a game that would've been unrivaled in this genre, but I guess a lack of a computer controlled partner would've left this game without any innovation...and for that, we all must suffer.  Luckily, the plot, visuals, and audio all allow me to give Rise of Kasai a 7.75 out of 10.  If the AI problems weren't there, this would be a 9.5+ in an instant.




You will need to get accustomed to some really small and poorly scripted fonts...which is easier to do than to get used to the AI






Yes, combat is about as exciting as this still image...


Rau and Tati...can't you feel the sibling love?

Kuzo, Spirit Guide and Narrator


The cinematics are amazing in their simplicity

Rau helps a Kasai go peacefully into the night