Klei Entertainment strikes quickly and without warning in Mark of the Ninja, delivering a nearly perfect stealth game that takes you by surprise and leaves you breathless.
- Perfectly executed stealth gameplay
- Well-designed levels offer multiple paths and options
- Diverse upgrade tree, collectibles, and New Game+ offer plenty of replay value
- Mechanics-driven graphics are also quite beautiful
- Schlocky ninja story falls apart in the endgame
- Minor control hiccups
- New Game+ a bit too easy with all of your carryover gear
Mark of the Ninja Review:
Mark of the Ninja is a fitting title for a game that leaves such an indelible mark on the stealth genre. The 2D side-scroller from Klei Entertainment feels like a mash-up of two of its previous fan-favorites, N+ and Shank, blending the agility and high-flying acrobatics of the former with the hand-drawn art style and comic book gore of the latter. Those are just bullet points, however. At its bloody, sword-pierced heart, Mark of the NInja is a masterfully assembled stealth game that is highlighted, first and foremost, by instant-feedback mechanics that turn the surrounding world into a shadowy, murderous playground for your dark ninja arts.
The first thing you need to do is unhook yourself from the concept of an action-based ninja game. While you'll plunge plenty of swords into plenty of soft bits, you'll also receive equal or greater rewards for running through levels without alerting anyone or stopping any hearts. Whether you go the bloody or bloodless route, Mark of the Ninja rewards the careful, measured approach.
This is actually supported by the game's backstory, which introduces the main playable character as a ninja in a clan renowned for not drawing a blade until a kill is guaranteed. This means that you can't simply run amok across a level without a care for who hears you. It's not so much that the odds are stacked heavily against you -- though that is increasingly the case in the later levels -- but rather that you can't actually dispatch your pursuers unless you go about it quietly.
The story is the stuff of cheesy ninja fiction from the '70s, but in the best sort of way. You volunteer to save your clan by becoming a sort of super-ninja powered by magical tattoos, though the body art carries a heavy price: once your mission is completed, you've got to off yourself.
The unfolding story eventually reveals that things are not quite as simple as they seem, of course, and eventually your adventure comes to embrace an old ways vs. future technology sort of theme. You know... classic ninja stuff. The only real plot stumble comes at the end. I understand what Klei was going for in the final chunk of the game, but the exposition supporting it doesn't come across clearly enough. It's a minor complaint in the larger picture, but it's one worth mentioning.
Since we're talking complaints, I may as well also take a moment here to mention the controls. While Mark of the Ninja's protagonist is extremely agile and responsive, it can be a bit too much at times. This might be more user error than design flaw, but more than once I found myself trying to react quickly to a situation, only to end up performing some accidental repeated action because I moved too quickly.
Mark of the Ninja's underlying influences are a bit of a mash-up, the Shank-meets-N+ vibe I described at the outset, but the true success is Klei's masterful execution of the game's stealth elements. Moving through each multi-path level, you feel like the badass ninja that so many games aim for and fail to deliver on. You're at your deadliest when bathed in shadow, and the game's design supports this with instant feedback on the screen that gives you a clear sense of how your sneaking is perceived in the world around you.
Noise, whether it's caused by you or your foes, is realized visually as an expanding-then-contracting bubble that emanates outward from the source. You might not see the soldier patrolling in the next room, but you can "hear" him as the tiny ripples of his footsteps pace back and forth. You can run at any time to move quickly from A to B, and you're able to instantly tell where your footfalls can be heard based on the sound bubble that then surrounds you.
Light works largely the same way. There's no oblique shadow play going on, nothing where you're worrying over whether you might be seen where you're standing. It's all very black & white, as it were. If you enter a pool of light and your ninja is illuminated, enemies looking in your direction can see you. If you're standing in the shadows, they can't. Some endgame enemies cart around sensors that will spot you no matter what, but these are built on the same principles that sound is; stay out of the detection zone and you'll be safe.
Using sound and light to your advantage is fundamental to finding success in Mark of the Ninja. Sometimes you'll want to make a noisy run or dart quickly through a pool of light to draw attention in a certain direction, allowing you to more easily position yourself for a kill or slip quietly by. You can always peer through vents and doors and even hide in plain sight by concealing yourself behind certain parts of the environment.
You can also really mess with the minds of your enemies. Bodies can be stashed in secret locations to keep your presence a secret, but it's oh so much more fun to toss a corpse off of a ledge and into a group of living soldiers, and then watch as they go crazy with fear, shooting in random directions and muttering to themselves.
As you proceed through the game, you'll unlock additional tools and combat abilities to aid you, spending currency on an upgrade tree divided into three sections: ninja skills, noisemakers, and combat tools. You'll also unlock new outfits that offer different cost/benefit options, such as a non-lethal-focused costume that allows you to run noiselessly in exchange for your ability to carry a sword.
Do you want to become more lethal from the shadows or a more capable martial artist for those occasions when you're discovered? Maybe you want your laser fence-confusing smoke grenade to also stun enemies? Or replace your caltrops with a swarm of flesh-eating insects? These are all options that you get to explore, with a New Game+ mode allowing you to carry over your unlocks in exchange for a stiffer challenge.
All of these skills and tools become available for purchase gradually as you proceed through the story's 5-6 hours. The unlocks match the pacing of each level perfectly too. You'll never feel either underpowered or overpowered, though the drip-feed also makes New Game+ pretty easy to breeze through, even with the amped up difficulty.
Landing The Killing Blow
Mark of the Ninja is as close to perfect as a game can be. Any criticisms I can level fall short of being even minor annoyances within the bigger picture. In an age where the lines between non-action genres increasingly blur to support a more fast-paced direction, this is stealth gaming done right. An achievement made even more remarkable for pulling it off using a 2D presentation. If you play only one Xbox Live Arcade game in 2012, there is no better option out there than Mark of the Ninja.