These days we see a lot of “stealth games.” You know the ones, where stealth is merely a bullet point and you can just as easily run and gun your way through. There’s nothing wrong with these games, but for stealth to really resonate as gameplay you need a sense of vulnerability, something often lost in these hybrids that make combat an equally viable option. The developers at Klei Entertainment, who you might know from the Shank series, have built a true stealth title and what’s a more perfect setup than the arguable archetype for stealth: ninjas.
The story of Mark of the Ninja spins a fun tale of revenge and skullduggery. It starts with the unnamed and tattooed protagonist waking up in the middle of attack. After saving his ninja clan, the player learns the tattoos signify this ninja as a champion. This comes at a cost though; the ink, made from a rare desert flower, grants incredible powers, but it also slowly drives these champions insane so their final act must always be to take their own life before the madness takes them. With that fated incentive in place, the ninja master orders him to track down the mercenaries responsible for attacking the clan and deliver some swift-and-silent-sword-to-the-face justice.
Mark of the Ninja‘s is a 2D action platformer and the main focus is on stealth. The unnamed protagonist personifies basically everything you’ve ever heard about ninjas, fictional or not. You can climb up sheer walls and along ceilings, dispatch enemies without making a sound and deploy all manner of ninja tools, like smoke bombs and grappling hooks. Many of your ninja tools are also in short supply, but have pretty important effects, like distracting a guard, despite being simple in nature. Though it’s somewhat questionable that a smoke bomb or throwing darts at a wall can’t also draw guard’s attention like a noise making firecracker. It doesn’t really hurt the game once you understand the balance implications, but it is logic breaking.
The game strikes a perfect balance of making you feel like a badass when everything’s going well in stealth but also keeping you vulnerable to the guns the mercenaries are packing. You can dispatch enemies instantly if you’re attacking from a hidden location or view, but you’ll need to successfully pull off a QTE to determine if it was silent or if the guard gets off a yelp. If you do get detected, you’re usually better off making a run for it than fighting it out toe to toe. It’s this vulnerability that reinforces the focus on stealth, and every guard becomes a decision to risk an execution to eliminate them or to try and sneak past them entirely.
Something that’s a little unique to Mark of the Ninja is an aspect of terrifying your opponents. Certain items or actions, like leaving a body strung up in view, can frighten foes enough to even start blindly firing on their fellow soldiers, which is a great distraction to sneak on past. Using fear to deal with enemies is something that we haven’t really seen elsewhere very often and brings an interesting new dynamic to Mark of the Ninja‘s stealth.
At the center of the experience is how Mark of the Ninja handles difficulty. The game is as challenging or easy as you want to make it, as each level is littered with hidden collectibles and optional challenges. This optional content might take the form of a specific puzzle room to bypass lasers with guard bodies or a special objective in a level, like getting a point undetected. You’re also rated at the end of each area based on how many of the options you’ve completed and how you dispatched or bypassed the guards. It’s rather simple to cut a bloody swath through the level, systematically stealth executing everyone, but a true ninja master doesn’t need to leave a single mark on the guards while moving through the whole level unseen. This varied approach gives you a lot of incentive to replay levels and challenge yourself in new ways. There’s a grim satisfaction at thinking, “Yeah, I could have killed you, but I’m letting you go … this time” as you dangle out of view above some unsuspecting guard.
The game is only slightly marred by the controls being a little dodgy at times. The main issue is how many context sensitive actions the same buttons govern, which can sometimes send you jumping off a ledge if you’re not careful. Some of this ought to be expected by the simple nature of the game itself, it’s supposed to tug at a need to be both quick and accurate to avoid detection, but it can get frustrating when a body and a hiding spot occupy the same area and the same key is used to interact with both. Also, at least one of the keybindings was just awkward for the standard WASD layout. Thankfully you can disregard the screen prompts and either use another button for the same action or simply remap the key in the options menu.
Bottomline: Rather than pushing off being sneaky to sections or merely offering it as an option, Mark of the Ninja is a return to form for the stealth genre where bypassing an opponent is just as thrilling as killing them.
Recommendation: Mark of the Ninja is a must have for those who’d rather slink through the shadows instead of going in guns blazing.[rating=5]
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Game: Mark of the Ninja
Genre: Stealth platformer
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): PC, Xbox360
Available from: Steam