Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: PC, Xbox 360
Mark of the Ninja is a side-scrolling stealth/action title from Klei Entertainment. You may know Klei Entertainment from its other side-scrolling series, namely Shank. However, instead of stepping into the role of a guns-blazing action-orientated character, Mark of the Ninja sees players taking the shadowy route, playing as a ninja. This isn’t just an ordinary ninja however, as you are enhanced by mysterious tattoos that grant you a variety of supernatural powers as you progress through the game.
There is a slight drawback to these powers however, as you are told that you will follow the route of all those before you; driven insane by the mystical ink, and must promise to commit seppuku once the madness takes hold. The plot isn’t wonderfully complex; there are a few twists and turns along the way, but otherwise, it is a rather forgettable tale. What is most important is how well the game does in making you feel like a deadly ninja-assassin, and it certainly does that. Obviously, playing as a ninja means you can’t run into armed guards without a second thought. Mark of the ninja is a game that promotes patience, tactics and of course, brutal stealth kills. It’s an interesting take on the stealth genre, one that seeks to promote the old ways of stealth found in titles such as Metal Gear Solid and the earlier iterations of Splinter Cell. ‘But does it work?’ I hear you ask. Yes. It totally works.
As a ninja, shadows are your friend. In the earlier stages in the game, there are a multitude of shadowy areas for you to wait in and stalk your prey. However, as the game progresses, you must create these for yourself. One of the variety of items at your disposal are your trusty ninja darts, that allow you to take out lights from a distance, leaving guards ignorant to their impending doom. Further on through the game, lights with cages and lightning strikes all present an opportunity for you to be exposed, so timing is crucial if you wish to pull off your kill.
And boy can you kill. Kills from vents. Kills from above. Stringing guards up on lampposts. Kills with trip mines. Kills from hidden spots. As you can see, there’s plenty of ways to dispatch any troublesome guards. Despite most attacks being one-hit-kills, you must be careful, as upon pressing the kill button the game forces you to swipe either left or right to ensure your kill is silent. Miss that chance, and your poor victim will emit a blood-curdling scream, perhaps alerting guards to your position. It’s an extremely satisfying mechanic. Taking out a light, dangling from a lamppost, silently stringing up a guard and leaving his corpse as a warning to any other foes feels great. The variety of ways in which you can take out foes, terrify guards and dispose of unwanted corpses really makes you feel like a ninja. And I haven’t even come onto movement yet.
As a ninja, you would expect to be one of the most mobile characters in a videogame, and this is certainly true in Mark of the Ninja. Players can use a grapple hook to move quickly between suspended bars and poles, run up the sides of skyscrapers and clamber along the ceilings above the heads unsuspecting guards. This flexibility of movement further reiterates the feeling of actually playing as a ninja, which other ninja-based titles sometimes miss. All of this movement comes at a cost however. Move too quickly, and your footsteps will create sound waves visible to you. These can be heard by guards, and are likely to lead them right to you. Be calm, patient and stealthy, and you will be rewarded.
Exposed to a guard or two almost certainly seals your fate, and the protagonist is only able to take one or two shots before it is game over. This adds a certain difficulty to the game, as once discovered players can only use hand-to-hand combat to try and knock a guard over and make a quick escape. However, knowing that one or two shots can kill you encourages your patience. You are not an unstoppable killing machine who can run at guards armed with machine-guns. You are fallible. Seasoned gamers should not have too much trouble with Mark of the Ninja’s difficulty, however a New Game Plus options allows you to play through the game with more challenging AI, limited line of sight and no visible sound waves.
Whilst I have spent a lot of time talking about the game mechanics, I have slightly neglected the visuals. Klei Entertainment is known to paint vivid, cartoon-style characters and environments, and Mark of the Ninja is no different. Presented in an almost morning-cartoon visual style, but with a lot more blood and murder, Mark of the Ninja’s graphics are fantastically refreshing. Each environment, from Japan-inspired cities to desolate deserts are beautifully rendered, with a distinct style that is classically Klei. Visual effects such as rain, lightning and of course lighting are brilliantly realised. My only gripe would be a lack of variety in enemies; guards mostly appearing to be a rather large family of twins. Coupled with the crisp visuals, the sound design is top notch. Cartoony cutscenes are well voice-acted, with the general humming and conversation between guards providing a great sense of tension. Obviously, every sound counts in Mark of the Ninja, and so a rather subdued soundtrack is outshined by sounds that have a heavy emphasis on movement.
The game is split up into several stages, which are ultimately linear. However, the variety of ways in which you can approach your target, be it elegantly dancing across the rooftops, or sneaking through the various vents ensures that it feels anything but. At the end of each stage you are assessed on how stealthy you were, how many guards you killed or missed (the game even offering a points bonus for a non-lethal playthrough). Points are then used to upgrade your deadly abilities, allowing you to purchase various weapons and items including smoke bombs, caltrops and ferocious scarabs that turn a corpse to dust. There is a great amount of replayability here, which further lengthens the time you could spend on Mark of the Ninja, rigorously training yourself to becoming the ultimate killer.
Overall, Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic title, particularly for the small asking price. Klei Entertainment has done a brilliant job in resurrecting what seems to be the almost-dead stealth genre. If you’re put off by side-scrollers, then now is your time to put that aside, don your mask, grab your katana and jump into the shadowy world of Mark of the Ninja.