"Gather round all of you, who would listen..."

As soon as I heard these words from Sony's Mark of Kri on the PS2 I knew I was onto something pretty special. Now don't be put off at all by the simplistic looking graphics, there's more graphical depth and animation goodness in this title than most on the market at the moment. It might look like a kids game to you, but if you don't give it a go, you'll miss out on a pretty 'Barbaric' story and a very engaging, if somewhat short (*cries*) game.

The game throws you into the role of a young Barbarian known as Rau and right from the start it sucks you into an excellently woven story. With some of the best narration 'voice' acting that I've heard in a while. His Raven 'Spirit' Guide called Kuzo, who is also the game's narrator and has an accent that would fit perfectly into the pages of Robert.E.Howards' 'Conan', accompanies Rau on his journey.

Rau is a young man with a powerful destiny that unfolds as the game progresses, but I want to get one thing off my chest right from the word go here. There's only one major problem with Mark of Kri and you know what that is? (*points to the first paragraph*) It's too short, there should have been much more, I wanted more and I was bitterly disappointed when the game ended. I don't care that it has an Arena mode and you can unlock things, I wanted more story and more levels, it needed more, more and more damnit. I never wanted this thing to end!

The game plays from a 3rd person point of view and only switches to first person if you engage Rau's 'Longbow'. And you need the 3rd person to cope with the way it plays and the amazingly cool combat system, which we'll go into in some depth in a moment. Because at the heart of Mark is a revolutionary combat system that not only wipes the floor with most games of this type, but leaves them with a severed head and shaking corpse.

It might look like a Disney game at first glance with the colourful backdrops and simplistic looking characters, but this isn't close, it isn't some namby pamby let's go and collect the magic tome to save the mouse from oblivion game, or another endless platformer where you're spending hours wondering 'Do I jump here?' or not. No it's an action/stealth game that's as brutal as it is wonderfully animated, and there are so many nice touches in Mark of Kri I don't know where to begin to be honest.

· Graphics: Mark of Kri features some of the simplest, yet effective graphics in a console game to date. Simple as in they're not exactly the most realistic characters you'll find, they're big, exaggerated and almost 'Hanna Barbera' in their look, but that's not a bad thing, they could also be described as 'Frazetta' what? Who's he? Frank Frazetta, famous fantasy artist...drew lots of naked chicks and many Conan pictures - use the web young Padewans and you will see. The whole look of Kri can be described as 'Cartoony' but it's the kind of Cartoon that you'd watch on Saturday morning while the kids are asleep, the one where big muscled men ram spears into their opponents guts and use them as a flagpole.

· Animations: Bold and over the top, this is what we like to see, many fighting moves and a huge array of spot animations litter the game for all characters, there are too many to talk about, the whole thing is superbly animated and oozes style, poise and panache. Don't agree with me, well, we'll send Rau round to change your mind with an Axe! I mean come on, when you attack someone with his longsword, you'll watch Rau flip the sword around a few times if he needs to change hands, or toss it in the air, before ramming it into his opponent and screaming. 'Fua Raussu!' or something like that. It has to be seen to be believed.

· Sounds: Well, it has thumping good music and excellent spot effects, some gloriously slick and sick combat noises accompany the severing of limbs and the wails of dying men. If you like your violence superbly fantasy sounding then this is the game for you. The characters you'll face in the game often scream and cry out as you fight them, the ring of steel on steel, or steel on wood if you're using the spear as a weapon, is really satisfying. Need I say more, no; this is top quality sound work.

· Voices: Kuzo is excellent, and so are a lot of the main cast, the tutorial voice is a bit off but I can forgive them, as long as you press this button, and do it NOW! Seriously, there's nothing here that really stinks but Kuzo's voice shines through with a powerful tone and quality that keeps you stuck to the screen.

· AI: Woah, this has to be some of the best AI in a combat game to date, gut someone in front of them and they'll wave their arms in the air, back off and usually make some kind of 'Oh no' comment, in a suitably scared voice. Makes you feel as though you could take on the world, of course if you don't watch out they'll come back at you, as their courage returns. They also think pretty well, use group tactics and attempt to surround you; some of them will call for help if they think the odds are against them. Watch out for Horn Blowers.

· Levels and Backgrounds: Like the main characters and supporting characters, these are suitably created and gorgeously drawn. They're also fun to play; wonderfully designed in places with places to use your stealth moves to great effect. In fact there's a whole level devoted to silent killing, and it's one of the best levels in the game. A quick note here is that as the game loads, you'll notice that the story is told by Kuzo, and in the background, often the level is drawn in - this is gorgeously done and really does help to evoke the right atmosphere - plus it's great to watch.

· Save system: Save Scrolls litter the games levels, you can carry a limited amount of these things, so you're always wise to use one when you're at your limit and you find another one.

Ok, so those are some points I found really needed mentioning, but where are we going now? We're going to talk about the meat and potatoes of the game. The chunky, dripped gore, gameplay. Oh and I'll note, right here and now, for all the parents that might be reading this. Mark of Kri is not really a kid's game, although there's no real gallons of blood, it's got enough to sate anyone but a Mortal Kombat fan. It's in the animations that I find this game oddly disturbing considering how well they're done, but I'll give you an example of one of those in action. Right now, we're going to talk about the Combat system and a few other gameplay features.

As I said before, at the heart of Kri is a wonderfully simple, effective combat system that should be emulated by many more action games. So let's talk about how that works, before I forget and talk about something else. You use the right analogue stick to target foes and a quick sweep of it, sends a focus beam around 360 degrees, anyone caught in that beam is marked with a O [] or X - / is left free. You'll find out more about that later on.

A quick tap of an O [] or X button sends a single strike towards the opponent marked with that button, starting to see where this is going? Good, basically that's it, but the way it differs from other games is that Kri has a context sensitive system, and Rau never really does the same attack twice depending on where his opponent is in relation to him. At one time he might spin around and do a long slash towards the O opponent, but another time, he might slap the guy on the head with the pommel of his sword, stunning him. The fun is in watching all of this unfold as you play.

Tapping O followed by a [] or X button will send Rau into an attack against all three targets, depending on where they are, he'll swing, he'll chop or he'll reverse his sword to stab behind him, yes the developers have watched a fair few Conan films I think. But if you target only 1 opponent you'll find you can use the unassigned buttons to perform combos in game, some of them make Mortal Kombat look like a kid's trip to the Zoo, barring the blood and gore of course.

Rau hacks, he chops, slices and dices off the head of his opponent before yelling the final word of the combo. All of this, performed with a gratuitous violence camera that keeps the action right where you want it most of the time. Then he takes the decapitated body and rams his sword through it a few times before throwing it away. Enemies that see this, often back off and it allows you to gather your wits.

Every weapon, barring the bow, has a combo list attached to it and you can pull up that list at any time. While we're on the pause menu, you'll also see a Challenges menu, this lists what you have to do in each level to unlock a special reward, cheat or the like. Yay for unlockables, now make the game longer next time (*grr*). I will note as well, each of the melee weapons (There are 3) has the same combo button sequence, but vastly different effects/animations. It's genius, no more, no less.

The sword, the spear and the axe all come out to play, and the last two can target more and more enemies, in groups of 3, up to nine for the axe. And this is where the game becomes a slaughter fest, because it will throw insane amounts of opposition at you, and when you have the axe - it's a charnel house. Heads flying, limbs flying, bodies cut in twain...yes, I did say it was violent, someone please wake up Grandma - I think she passed out from the descriptive verbs.

Hold down R1 and all your prayers are answered, blocking in Kri is absolutely genius, and once more - context sensitive. Yeah, you just hold that button down and Rau moves his weapon to intercept most strikes against him. You don't have to do a thing really; course you have to time a quick strike in return, and when you have many opponents it can get very tricky to survive. But that's the best thing about it, because it's actually a game where you need to use quick thinking and quick thinker tactics, do you block all of them, do you risk a hit and take a big swing with Mr Axe? Do you? Well, that's up to you.

The Bow is another weapon of the gods, and in Kri you can use it to silently dispatch foes. Simply hold down L1 and your Bow view kicks in, Rau can aim in this view. When the X icon lights up over an opponent you're in for a hit, but if it flashes, it's not an instant kill...so you aim up or down a little, until it's solid. Press the fire button and bingo, dead in one shot. The power is back in the hands of the player, hooraah! Or should that be 'Fuua!!!'

Can it get any better than this?


Remember the Horn Blowers I warned you about? Well if you let those buggers toot away you'll find that they summon reinforcements, and what should have been an easy kill turns into a fight for survival. One that you might not win, since in later stages of the game the enemies are armed and armoured with a number of nasty weapons, and can throw Rau a serious beating.

Fear not, Barbarian, er...Stealth! That was it; a quick selection with R2 and Rau puts away his sword, spear or Axe. Now you can sneak along and as long as you don't get too close to an enemy - they won't see you. Unless you're trying to sneak right up in front of them that is, then you deserve that spear where the sun doesn't...

The trick is to sneak up to them, right up, but not too close. A quick flick of the right stick and the X button appears above their heads. It'll flash if you're too far away, so get closer and wait till it turns solid. When it's solid, press it and Rau will silently dispatch his enemy. There are a number of cool animations for this and I'm not going to tell you any of them, they're worth finding out just for the 'ooh' and 'ahh' factor, and in my wife's case the 'eww' factor, which was worth getting the game for.

There is even an option for sneaking along a wall and stealth killing from around it, same thing, mark the enemy, slide along the wall...wait for the X button to go solid above their head and tap it. Rau leaps around and usually pins his opponent to the wall with his sword, sick? You bet! But wait, there's even more, how about being able to get the drop on two people at once? You can in Mark of Kri.

Tag two guards who're facing away, sneak up to Mr X and then tap the correct button combo you see above their heads, get it right and Rau offs them both. You can also do this if you're perched on a roof or ledge above your enemies, as long as they're not aware of you. Superbly done, and animated as the rest of the game, just as gory and with a real flair for the dramatic.

Rau can also send Kuzo ahead to scout out the unknown, watch the guards and even trigger levers and read ancient languages. He can see through the eyes of his Raven and various guards are marked with icons, just to show you who they are, what they're armed with and if they're armoured. I'll leave you to discover the rest about Kuzo, but he's a pretty cool addition to the game.

Rau can interact with levers etc with the / button and this is why it never shows up in the combo lists. Now one word of warning before you go any further, and it concerns being 'unarmed' apart from the fact you can't block at all, and you can only pull off a couple of punches, you can however steal your opponents weapons and kill them with their own sword, spear, dagger or axe. And it's pretty cool when you see it in action, a quick cinematic almost as Rau borrows said stabbing thing and returns it via a short but painful method.

Tap R1 to do this at the time of the strike, DO IT NOW!

Mark comes with a comprehensive, if a little anal, tutorial that allows you to learn the basics and advanced techniques of all the weapons in the game. It's narrated by one of your friends in game but suffers from being overly cheesy - and the constant cries of TRY IT NOW start to get on your nerves after six or seven simple tasks. Still that aside, it's pretty fun to learn how to use the various weapons and only happens if you select the tutorial from the Tavern intermission level.

This game is so close to being the perfect stealth/action game that it hurts to give it a lower score than say ooh 98%, but I feel I must deduct a few points for the odd camera hiccup and the shortness of the game. While there is an unlockable Arena mode where you can finish challenges to unlock even more goodies, it's still not the main game, I wanted it bigger and I wanted it there and then, still I do really hope there's a sequel. And I am more than happy with what I do have in my paws at the moment.

To close out, Rau is a supremely animated character with a number of wonderful moves and quirks. Climb a ladder with your sword out? He'll put it away in his sheath before you climb, when you reach the top, he'll rip it out again without you having to press a button. It's little touches like this that really help make a game into something else, same as wall sliding, Rau intelligently puts his own back to the wall if you go near it, again, no button pressing and you can slide around the wall and keep going, none of this, coming off at the end of it.

I really did enjoy this title, and as I keep saying, barring the shortness of it. It really needs more people to give it a go.

So in the words of your trainer in the game.

Rau, you need to go out and buy Mark of Kri, go and BUY IT NOW!