Ninjas are certainly not a new occurrence as a game subject matter, but rarely have they been portrayed as the masters of subterfuge and stealth they were. Essentially carrying out near impossible acts, invisible to all eyes. This is the angle Mark of the Ninja approaches the audience with. And this 2D stealth side platformer reaches such entertaining heights, that on its own begs the question, why haven’t more games embraced this aspect of these popular Japanese covert agents?
There’s an easy answer, creating a stealth game which is intuitive and challenging, while keeping player frustration to a minimum for the length of an entire game is a difficult task. Mark of the Ninja executes so deftly on its implementation of gameplay, and methods of communicating game situations, it makes the task appear trivial. The elements of the interface which serve to keep the player abreast of the status of the game world really covers everything you’d need to know and more.
These include, cones of vision/light sources, colour distinctly changing when in light or dark, and prominent circles indicating sound ranges, detection proximity and enemy focal points. None of these are new techniques, but they are put into practice such that the active and potential threats, as well as opportunities, are very apparent. The only slight misstep amongst the interface is the upgrade system menu not as instinctual to use, but this is really a minor gripe, and easy to get past considering how phenomenal the game is where it really counts.
Always knowing what’s happening on the screen, also helps clearly define which of your ninja tools and tactics are viable in the different situations. As with the elements which enlighten the player about what’s happening, your weapons and abilities are not exactly paradigm shifting. Instead it is more about choosing what to do and when. Each time a “significant” ability is introduced as you progress through the levels, you’re forced into a scenario where it must be used. But afterwards, the levels are meticulously laid out to offer multiple methods to get through the puzzle like areas comprised of a variety of enemies and traps. Some of the mostly upgradeable ninjutsu instruments you earn include stealth kills from every conceivable angle, terror inducing tactics like hanging your victims, versatile smoke bombs, and hallucinogenic poison darts.
Many of the tools at your disposal will need to be utilized to get through levels flawlessly. With each checkpoint serving to re-up your perishables, it’s clear you’re encouraged to use and experiment with them, unlike the commonly utilized stealth trope of depravation of special gear. There is also a very generous checkpoint system, while you continue to play, limiting the frustration of repeated traversal just to get where you were the last time you died. As new tricks are unlocked, the level design follows in lock step, introducing new enemy and trap types, forcing you to come out of your current comfort zone. Along with enemy types, as you change areas, the locations are aesthetically different, and they always offer a new twist on the established stealth gameplay. If excluding the New Game Plus option, a single first play through will run roughly 5-7 hours, and the changes from area to area go a long way to keep the game fresh and challenging from start to finish.
One unexpected thing which I found pushing me from level to level is the story. On the surface, it’s a standard revenge plot, with the added twist that your character is chosen to be tattooed with the ink of a poisonous flower which bestows mystical ninja abilities. The caveat is, you’re told this road inevitably leads to insanity or committing ritual suicide before the insanity takes full grip of you.
Accompanied by very high quality cell shaded, animated cutscenes, the narrative forms an interesting enough revenge tale on the surface. It appears to drive towards an obvious conclusion, but the last third takes a few enjoyable turns which really push you forward wanting to see what’s next. This tension created in the storytelling, really compliments the tense anticipation of the gameplay, and the changing level scenarios which seemingly take their cues from the story beats.
Overall everything comes together to create a unique and extremely engaging experience. Klei has brought the high quality art, style and animation their Shank series has excelled at, while stepping up hugely on the game design end of the spectrum. Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game which has potentially universal appeal to dedicated game players, even those who may have reservations about the stealth genre. At 1200 MS Points ($15) it’s difficult not to recommend it, with its ample quality and quantity. Clearly it is one of the best XBLA games this year, and has become one of my favourite games released in 2012, period.
Check out Mark of the Ninja on Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the 360 version of Mark of the Ninja.