For all intents and purposes, Rise of the Kasai is Sony's attempt to get The Mark of Kri "right" on the second try. People fell in love with Kri's unique art style, which was often compared to Disney's
, due to the way the cel-shaded lines and "oil paint" textures came together to give the game the look of a big-budget animated film. Underneath the surface, however, Kri was a repetitive beat-'em-up with a few innovative ideas that were never really put to good use. Rise of the Kasai still has its repetitive moments, but it does a much better job of giving the player opportunities (and the option) to put the characters' stealth and combo-attack abilities to use. Meanwhile, the animation for the characters and cinematic cutaways remains top-notch, to the point that you'll likely forgive the babbly story and sometimes-repetitive gameplay because the graphics are so effing similar to what you'd see on a DVD movie that Disney or Don Bluth Studios had a hand in.
Rise of the Kasai is the sequel to The Mark of Kri, but, unlike a typical sequel, it doesn't simply pick up where the first game left off. The levels and story constantly jump back and forth as many as 20 years before and 10 years beyond the events that took place in The Mark of Kri. For the sake of those that didn't get a chance to play the first game, a few of the levels and cutaways in Rise of the Kasai offer a retelling of some of the events that happened in The Mark of Kri. That's a good thing, because the story is unashamedly deep. Everything revolves around a tattoo that a young female warrior named Tati carries on her back. This tattoo, as it turns out, is the Mark of Kri, which is one piece of a powerful spell that could be used to destroy the world. An evil sect known as the Kasai has been searching for this particular mark for decades. The game basically chronicles the significance of the mark, the Kasais' search for Tati, their recent defeat at the hands of Tati and her brother Rau, and an earlier defeat handed out by Burumusu (Rau's mentor) and Griz (Burumusu's then-mentor). The story is involving and, at times, convoluted, thanks to the narrative's constantly changing timeline. The various narrators (Rau, the Oracle, and Rau's bird-friend Kuzu) do a nice job of spelling everything out during the cinemas that occur in-between each level segment, assuming you pay attention during those sequences. The chattiness of the narrators combined with the drawn-out length of some of the dialogue sequences may test the patience of players that aren't normally used to digesting a "full-length" plot in a video game.
If anything, the cinematic sequences that occur between levels, and, for that matter, the in-game graphics too, are an absolute joy to behold and compensate for any "effort" that you have to invest in order to follow the story. The comparisons to Hollywood's animated fare aren't without merit. Bottlerocket Entertainment, the game's development studio (recently spun-off from Sony), was started by a group of artists and animators that had previously worked for companies such as Disney, Don Bluth Studios, and Dreamworks. Their expertise is plainly evident in Rise of the Kasai. The cinematic sequences employ a seamless mixture of hand-drawn, watercolor, and traditional cel animation, of such a high quality that, besides giving the game its own unique personality, also convey the feeling that this game could very easily have been made into a full-length animated film should the developer have made the choice to do so.
The "thick" line-drawn art style and smooth animations are evident in the in-game graphics as well. All of the characters have loads of redundant movements that make them seem more lifelike, even if some of those movements aren't terribly efficient. The animators didn't have to animate a Kasai guard sneezing at his post or Rau flexing every time he changes weapons, but by doing so they've given the game all of those little touches that distinguish big-budget first-party genre benders from the low-budget third-party hack jobs.
The environments are equally impressive. Each location–whether it's a Kasai village, a beach front, or a twirling mountain fortress–is expansive and full of detail. There are huts you can go into, ladders to climb, stockpiles to hide behind, and all kinds of little details that simply beg to be gawked at (like the meandering waves at the beach, or the flags dangling off fortress walls that billow in the wind high atop the mountain). Most levels are also as tall as they are wide. Many times, you'll be able to climb ladders or take stairways that lead to rooftops and perches high atop the land below. Surprisingly, the game puts a lot of the strain on the PS2's abilities and doesn't suffer much in the way of consequences. If you look really hard, you'll notice that the developers skimped on polygons for some features, particularly for high walls and far-off mountain scenery, and that there is some texture tearing here and there. Most people won't notice those flaws, or even care about them, since the game as a whole looks sofa king beautiful.
Be aware, though, that despite the cutesy animated looks, Rise of the Kasai is an M-Rated game and contains all of the trappings that the "mature" designation denotes. Sword-based attacks often result in limbs and heads being chopped off. Sometimes, entire bodies are just cut in half and left bleeding on the pavement. Bucket-loads of blood are commonplace. A good ninety percent of the game's audio consists of the various sound effects that weapons make and the resulting screams and gurgles that the enemies make while dying. The developers probably made the overall soundtrack so low-key (it's mostly just a loop of the wind blowing and birds crying out) in order to give the "voices of the dying" center stage. Oh, and just for good measure, there are a few cuss words and references to prostitution during the dialogue sequences. Personally, I'd let a well-rounded teenager play Rise of the Kasai, but I wouldn't let a child under 13 anywhere near it.
Rise of the Kasai is definitely one of those games that exists more as a piece of art than something you'd lump in with traditional beat-'em-ups. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, although you shouldn't plunk down your $40 expecting the second coming. As far as beat-'em-ups go, Kasai is mostly "run of the mill" with a few innovative features thrown-in.
The most obvious of these is the new team setup, which lets you pick one character while the CPU controls the other. Some of the game's 10 missions involve Griz and Burumusu. Others involve Rau and his sister Tati. Each character plays a little differently than the others, based on their size and speed, but the big gimmick here is that the character you pick will decide the path you take through certain portions of a level. There are times when one must split from the other in order to locate switches or find the high ground for a "sniping" mission, and times when both characters need to come together to cut up a large group of armed enemies. It can be a pain to have to protect the CPU character when it's low on health, but otherwise, the whole team concept works out real well. An especially nice side effect of the team setup is that you can experience a mission from one character's perspective initially, and then go back to it from the menu and see it through the other character's perspective the second time around. Since Rise of the Kasai is so story-intensive, that's not such a bad idea.
Stealth also plays a major role in Rise of the Kasai, much more than it did in The Mark of Kri. Rau's spirit guide, Kuzu the crow, is back, and this time he accompanies all the characters during their travels. At various spots, you'll see a beacon that denotes a perch that Kuzu can fly toward and land on. By tapping the L2 button, you can make him land on a perch and see what's ahead through his eyes. While walking around, your character will move faster or slower, or louder or more quietly, depending on how hard you press the analog stick. Push it a little bit and you can tiptoe through the levels and sneak up on guards. By tapping the stick toward a wall, you can make a character snuggle up to it and peer around corners. Once you've targeted an enemy, you have the choice to take them out with a silent stealth-kill or to hit them from afar with a headshot from a bow. The Mark of Kri had this same setup, but it was rarely used and often didn't affect the outcome of a level. Even though stealth is still very much optional in Rise of the Kasai, the developers have provided countless more opportunities to put it to use and have increased the number of enemies that appear as a "penalty" when a character is discovered. Furthermore, there are certain bonuses, such as extra costumes and battle arenas, which can be unlocked by satisfying stealth challenges associated with certain missions.
Aside from the team setup and stealth features, Rise of the Kasai is pretty typical for a beat-'em-up. When enemies appear, they'll try to attack you and your partner. You can swap between five different weapons per character (swords, staves, spears, bows, knives, etc), but the general idea here is to kill them before they kill you. Health recovery items are fairly plentiful, so most people won't have too much trouble getting through to the end. The control system may prove to be a little complex at times, but only if you choose to make use of every feature that's offered. The game employs the analog stick focusing system that was first used in The Mark of Kri, which allows players to select enemies by sweeping the right analog stick in circles. Different controller buttons appear above each enemy, which you can then press in order to attack them. Any unassigned controller buttons can be used to perform snazzy combination-attacks (often resulting in someone losing an arm, a leg, or their head). You can perform these snappy combos if you want to, and even figure out how to disarm enemies, but all of these actions are totally optional. If you just want to mash the X button, you'll do just fine. If you want to become the next Bruce Leroy, you'll need to put in some work.
The main single player quest spans 10 missions, which are broken up into roughly 35 smaller level segments. Most segments involve an even mix of stealth and fighting, although you'll run across a handful of switch-based puzzles and boss encounters as well. On average, each segment takes approximately 15 minutes to play, which means you can expect to invest about 10 hours or so into completing the entire quest. Beyond that, you're free to replay any mission as often as you like, and you can also unlock additional arena battles, artwork, and movie clips to pass the time with.
All told, Rise of the Kasai is worth playing primarily to experience its rich story and jaw-dropping Hollywood-quality animation. The underlying game itself is pretty average as far as beat-'em-ups go, but at least it's more fleshed out than The Mark of Kri was. And frankly, you really can't go wrong with a game that includes violent amputations and decapitations.