The ninja, a silent assassin and master of the shadows, is a fitting character for any stealth game. However, aside from notable ninja titles such as Tenchu, Shinobi, and Ninja Gaiden, this powerful, yet fragile, master of death has had little success in the video game world, especially in the stealth genre. That is, however, up until now. In Klei Entertainment’s new 2012 XBLA title Mark of the Ninja, a true ninja stealth game is realized, recasting the ninja as a master of darkness and shadow, and reestablishing the scale on what a pure stealth-game should be.
Presented in a 2-D side-scrolling style that harkens back to the traditional 8 and 16-bit eras, Mark of the Ninja is a crisp and gorgeous looking game. Using a similar cell-shaded graphic style that was used in the Shank series, Klei has managed to create another classic and amazing look in Mark of the Ninja. Rich and labyrinthine environments are expertly drawn, and utilize classic stealth gameplay mechanics-such as lighting and shadowing-perfectly. Every time you make a successful stealth kill, the background darkens and the camera briefly zooms in, highlighting you and your victim as you drive your blade into their body. A somber and minimalistic musical score adds tension to every move you make in the game. With every run, jump, climb, and kill, the animations are clean and smooth, making it feel like your playing and watching an M-rated HD cartoon.
The ninja is amazingly mobile, able to scale walls, grapple to elevated platforms, crawl through ventilation shafts, and more. With all of this, the controls are unfailingly responsive and quickly become an extension of your thoughts, allowing you to do exactly what you want, precisely when you want to. Items are mapped to the D-pad, creating an uninterrupted and smooth gameplay experience; however, a great deal of the controls’ success and pacing of the game is due to how exceptionally readable the world is. Simple cones of light and line of sight allow for zero confusion when it comes to staying invisible, and your fine-tuned ninja senses of sound are represented through visual ripples.
You begin the game with the most basic of ninja moves; however, as you complete levels and secondary objectives within those levels (such as not being detected), you’ll earn medals which can be spent on upgrading your ninja’s skills and arsenal. Soon enough, you’ll be able to dispatch foes from behind doors, underneath vent shafts, while suspend from a zipline, or even from other hiding places, such as a trashcan or cardboard box. The ninja is no pushover when it comes to a one-on-one confrontation; however, he isn’t invincible when it comes to overcoming great odds. Just like The Dark Knight, the ninja has to rely on shifty gadgets and a deep mastery of stealthy takedowns in order to overcome his adversaries. From simple noisemakers that distract enemies, to a cloud of insects that devours them to the bone, you have a diverse arsenal of ninja gadgetry that can facilitate in creating the perfect kill or distraction.
Mark of the Ninja also boasts a serious scoring system for each level. Upon finishing each mission, your awarded with a score and medal-earning XP for completing it either lethally or non-lethally. Kill every enemy, and you’ll net some points. Hide their bodies, and you’ll net some more points. Or you can opt to not kill and just sneak by everyone, which in turn will net you a serious amount of points. These two distinct and core play styles are only further perfected by six additional play styles that become available as you progress through the game, like for instance the “Path of Silence”. In this mode, running emits no noise, and you’re allowed to carry two distraction items; however, there is no room for a sword. This completely changes the way the game is played and experienced, and creates a high replay value that is rarely seen in stealth games today. In addition, upon completing the game, all of these added upgrades culminate into the New Game Plus mode, which ups the difficulty level by making enemies tougher and limiting your environmental cues. On the plus side, though, you start with all of your perks and unlocked gear.
Mark of the Ninja has an extremely high replay value, though chances are the story isn’t what’s going to be sending you back. This being said, the story is seemingly straightforward and simple. You are a ninja that has accepted the “Mark” for his clan, but the venomous ink of the tattoo will eventually lead you to madness. The “Mark”, however, imbues you with superhuman powers that transforms you into the ultimate master of shadows. Once you have fulfilled your duties to your clan, you have vowed to take your own life before descending further into darkness. This narrative is mainly told through voice acted animated cut-scenes, although more of the narrative is revealed through hidden scrolls and challenge rooms located within the nooks and crannies of the levels. Klei does a good job with this narrative setup by adding some twists and surprises that are just engaging enough to keep you interested in the story, even though it ends with a bit of a whimper.
Few complaints can be made when it comes to Mark of the Ninja. Sure, the story might not be as compelling as others, but in the end it doesn’t really matter much in light of the satisfaction you get from the gameplay experience. This being said, Mark of the Ninja is a truly fantastic game. Presented as a 2-D platforming side-scroller, it utilizes classic stealth gameplay mechanics, creating a pure stealth experience that set’s the bar high for future stealth games. With its comic inspired visuals, excellent control scheme, smooth pacing, and high replay value, Mark of the Ninja is one stealth title that shouldn’t be missed. The master of stealth and shadow is back, and it’s a ninja.
This review is based on a review copy of the XBLA version of Mark of the Ninja by Klei Entertainment