Developer: Klei Entertainment / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
The amusing thing about video games starring ninjas is how very few place an emphasis on stealth. As Metal Gear proved, sneaking was possible even in the 8-bit area, yet the likes of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden went down a more aggressive, action-oriented path. Aside from the hit-and-miss Tenchu series, we have ended up getting our stealth fixes from Thief, Hitman, Splinter Cell, and more recently, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Klei Entertainment wants to change that with a ninja game that’s all about the deadliness of hide-and-seek while also delivering one of the best 2D games 2012.
Mark of the Ninja does take a narrative page from other ninja games, particularly Sega’s Revenge of Shinobi and the PlayStation 2 reboot of Shinobi. All three games involve a slain clan and as one of the remaining survivors, the hero spends the rest of the game on a revenge quest. There’s an added layer of foreboding dread in Mark of the Ninja as some of the skills the playable protagonist unlocks run the risk of corrupting him, not unlike the possession premise from this year’s unremarkable Ninja Gaiden 3.
Based on an impressively brief first chapter tutorial, Klei Entertainment places a strong level of trust with gamers who have a general idea on the fundamentals of stealth gameplay. Once you have a basic understanding of diversion, darkness and hiding behind objects, the game’s killing and platforming almost becomes an afterthought, in a good way. You can often address a given situation in multiple ways, underscoring one of the differences between simply good level design and excellent level design. The latter applies consistently throughout Mark of the Ninja, whether you want to distract an enemy with a shattered light bulb for a clean kill or bypass him altogether.
The control responsiveness is reminiscent of a sleeper hit GameBoy Advance ninja game by Hudson (published by Konami) called Ninja Five-O. Both games allow you to smoothly stalk, kill, and escape using a grappling hook within mere seconds. It’s also notable that Mark of the Ninja affords you a millisecond grace period to be within the field of view of a guard or motion sensor before either is fully alerted. This opens up another level of creativity that wouldn’t have otherwise existed had this game operated on stricter rules. And like all great stealth games, there’s also satisfaction making it through areas undetected only after having carefully studied guard patterns and their field of vision.
For as naturally skilled as our ninja might be, Mark of the Ninja does have a thorough set of kill, distract, and defend abilities to unlock. If, after playing a level or two, you’ve decided what kind of play style you want to adopt (e.g., kill everyone, no-kill), you’ll also have a selection of outfits tailored to those play styles. There is a small curious set of upgrades focused on melee combat which seems to imply that one could try a ‘direct approach’ playthrough, but based on the numerous times I have been spotted by guards, I doubt such a playthough would be as rewarding as the stealthier alternatives. For one thing, the achievement list doesn’t have any melee-based awards, aside from one that involves stunning a guard. Furthermore, these sentries are incredibly skilled shooters who can take off all your health in a couple seconds. The melee abilities help in making the skill tree look more robust and are certainly helpful for the busy gamer who just wants to get to the end of the game as quickly as possible, but you’re really doing yourself a disservice if don’t take advantage of the game’s countless hiding spots and use those areas to pull off stealth kills or no kills. By making the most of the tools of distraction, you can witness the depth of the A.I. behavior and capitalize on it for the rest of the game. The NPC guards move and act with a reasonable sense of vigilance and are especially lethal when they’ve confirmed your presence. It’s especially intriguing to see them freak out when they witness one of their buddies die and have no idea where you are.
There is an open-linear elegance to Mark of the Ninja’s level design. While each level does have a specific end point, they’re not always at the rightmost side of the chapters’ maps, and you often have multiple routes to choose to from to get to those goals. Due to all these paths, a completionist–one who is already spending extra time getting every kill possible–would do well to explore every single passage since valuable artifacts are littered throughout the levels, often in the most unlikely spots.
Mark of the Ninja is particularly remarkable for being one of the most completionist-friendly games ever made. This significance of the game’s checkpoint layout is stellar, where it feels like a new checkpoint is marked after traversing about two screens worth of a level. And when you consider that Mark of the Ninja doesn’t penalize the player for resetting to the last checkpoint and that the reload times a incredibly short, a lot of gamers will find themselves having a lot of do-overs. The game encourages mulligans by both rewarding and indirectly shaming your performance. Each level’s results screen shows every enemy from the level and how you chose to deal (or not deal) with each guard and guard dog. When you see that you didn’t put an X on every enemy on the list (denoting you killed them), you’re just that much more motivated to replay the level. Moreover, each level has their set of specific skill challenges, whether it involves reaching a checkpoint in less than a minute, not hitting a single light bulb, or making a guard react to another guard’s untimely death. Completing these optional assignments and finding treasures will add to your score and unlock the currency to upgrade your skills, so there’s also a sense of practicality in exploring as much as you can.
It also cannot be understated how well the entire game flows, in terms of introducing new obstacles and variables at a steady pace. It’s positively intimidating to start seeing guard dogs and lasers brought in early, making you wonder what challenges could possibly await six or seven hours into the game.
Mark of the Ninja’s art direction was led by Klei creative director Jeff Agala, whose team has a penchant for pulling off a Cartoon Network-inspired visual style with very Mature-rated touches of blood and violence. This includes depicting the character animation with exaggeration and helps accentuate every sword slice and every dropped jaw when a guard has been dealt with fatal cuts. There’s a brief feeling of brutality in one animated kill sequence, where a fallen guard is stretching an arm toward the assassin in a vain attempt to plead for his life.
Agara’s work on the Shank games gives Klei Entertainment’s products a visual sense of continuity, making one wonder if Shank and Mark of the Ninja are part of the same universe. What is unique about this game is that the layered backgrounds and foregrounds are notably more flat than the visuals in Shank. It helps give Mark of the Ninja a stronger 2D feel, not unlike antiquated Japanese wall art, which I suspect influenced the game’s look.
Lastly, you can’t talk about Mark of the Ninja’s visuals without talking about its lighting, or lack thereof. Aside from the obvious benefits of setting the levels at night, the story manages to justify the dark settings, turning countless situations to the player’s advantage. For once we have a game worth playing in the dark that isn’t a survival horror game. Of course you can turn up the gamma if glare is interfering with a daytime play session, but you definitely lose a lot of the game’s dark charm.
Silence is certainly key in Mark of the Ninja’s gameplay, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a soundtrack; no soundtrack would be deafening anyway. The ambient sounds are often subtle but pervasive and help in coloring this world of shadow, making it the most sinister new age soundtrack you may ever hear. This emphasis on ambience helps give contrast to the appropriate moments when the pace builds up, often propelled by Taiko-influenced percussion.
Many of the sound effects are actually for the enemies’ benefit but Klei did a spectacular job in showing the player exactly what the enemies hear and the range of sound generated when making specific noises. You’re also given the luxury of adjusting the aim of your diversionary items as the game will tell you whether or not a guard will notice the distraction based on how far you plan to throw the item.
After the mixed reception of Shank and Shank 2, it’s hard to blame gamers for being skeptical about a follow up from Klei. Mark of the Ninja is not “the game that they were meant to make” because Klei is a talented enough studio that can do even more with different styles of 2D gameplay. Yet, the studio has not only redeemed itself, it also managed to make one of the best stealth games of this generation and also one of the best ninja games ever made.