Review: Mark of the Ninja
In the shadow of this year’s XBL Summer of Arcade, Mark of the Ninja was slyly tucked away with nary a pinch of hype behind it. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear that Klei Entertainment kept this inky black diamond a secret from me just to provide some sort of stealth-related metaphor to start the review off with.
Klei Entertainment are most likely known for their two stand-out titles: N+ and Shank. The latter was a beautiful comic drawn affair that often lost itself due to repetition, the former was a work of art that many lost footing with due to a steep skill requirement from the mid-section upwards. Mark of the Ninja is the lesson learned from both of those games.
As a general rule, your tasks in Mark of the Ninja is far removed from their last Ninja outing. N+ primarily involved moving from A to B without getting your heart stabbed in by a spike or your face smashed off by a steep fall, it was all built to be a linear test of skill and was all the more excellent (and difficult) for it. Mark of the Ninja is equally about moving from point to point, though the ways in which you do so are anything but linear. Set as it is on a 2D plain, and focused deeply on stealth mechanics, it’s no mean feat that they’ve managed to provide such a deep play pit of darkness to skulk around in.
Everything is painted in blotched ink pools and draped in beautiful Japanese artistry, befitting the game’s content and lending itself dramatically to the gameplay. Your character, for example, when hidden away from light and sight, is pitched in black and red – as is the environment. Only when you breach the shadows does the cartoon colour palette burst to life.
Visual cues are perfectly pitched. Everything from grappling hook points to hidey holes are clearly marked, but always within the boundaries of the artwork. Enemies wander with a cone of sight in front of them, and a cone of light from their flash-light gives you an immediate understanding of your surroundings. Even your own line of sight is wonderfully realised; only enemies that you can see in plain sight will be visible, otherwise their last known position is highlighted in fading red. Their footsteps resonate with pings on-screen, as do your own footsteps.
With these clever visual aids, you are always fully aware of your surroundings, your enemies and your choices at any given time and it takes a striking amount of skill to bring that to the fore without feeling hand-held. Truth be told, these visual cues are vital to the gameplay, without the benefits that a 3D world can provide, Klei Entertainment’s applies masterful brush strokes to its 2D world for immediate accessibility.
As masterful as the artwork and ocular highlights are, they’re backed up by a sleek and powerful toolset that compliments your Ninja’s tasks. Starting off with only basic abilities, your best chances of survival are to stay hidden, kill only when necessary and cover up your acts of violence.
A simple building will provide multiple points of entry, be they air vents, doors and grates. Not only does this ramp up the replayability, it gives you endless options when taking on a challenge in the first place. Do you drop in from a ceiling vent, pop the lightbulb with a Ninja dart to distract the guards, re-enter by the front door and slaughter them everything in sight? Or do you sneak on by, risking the chance that you may need to back-track and take on the same enemies again?
These options, and your expanded tool set as the game continues are where you’ll find the core of the game begins to reveal itself. Each level has 9 medals you can aim for, broken down into three sets of three.
The first set of these are collection quests, hidden scrolls dotted around the level in unusual or hard to reach places. The second revolves around score: with a high target set for a maximum of three medals that unlock incrementally depending on how well you’ve done. Setting a high score in itself is open to many options – there are bonuses for completing a level without raising alarms and without killing anyone, but each different type of kill can pour bonus points into your meter. There’s even the tactic of sneaking past a guard for a stealth bonus, then coming back to murder them in a twisted game of push and pull to charge your high score meter even more.
Lastly in the medals stake, there are three challenges per level – some may be simple “don’t get caught in this area” affairs, others are more elaborate: terrifying a guard into shooting another guard for instance. Most of these challenges really tease you into the different ways of playing Mark of the Ninja, as well as being fun in their own right they’re another example of an excellent training tool without training wheels.
It’s a clever way of showing you what your options are, and there are many, many options here. The medals you unlock are used to buy your set of tools, broken down into Technique, Attack and Distraction classes. Technique skills revolve around stealth and sword-play, a new uppercut attack or the ability to kill a guard from behind a door for example. Attack tools are used to kill or incapacitate your enemies; Caltrops to force guards out of their defensive stance or a trip mine to blow their legs out from under them. Distraction tools are used for the obvious: Firecrackers that can be thrown to attract a guards attention or the classic Cardboard Box disguise to fool unwitting Sentrymen.
Most of these items are used with an elegant time-stop to allow for aiming. Holding down L causes you to focus, completely pausing time whether you’re standing still or leaping through the air. At this point, you can then select three targets, each of them using a different tool if you wish. You could aim for a light with a Ninja dart, throw a poisoned spear at a foe to make them hallucinate, and ready your grappling hook to zip out of sight. It’s a poised ballet of Ninja weaponry, and one that never fails to giddy up your senses.
This all lends itself to a perfectly pitched difficulty curve of level design versus player ability. The earlier levels are easier due to the minimal enemy activity and wider spaces to play with, though your toolset is limited to the basic attacks. The later levels are cramped affairs that force you to think outside the box and fast on your feet, but complimented by an expanded collection of tools at your disposal. The entire game is an exceptional blend of speed versus patience – and with a lenient checkpoint system you’re free to try things the way you want without frustration when things go wrong.
There are so many other things to mention; new costumes that you unlock as you progress that, far from being a simple palette swap, completely change the way you play the game (though I won’t spoil these for you). A story that twists unexpectedly from left to right in equal measures, and a binary ending sequence that had me genuinely stuck for the decision I had to make. A New Game+ mode that leaves you with all of your equipment but ramps up the difficulty not just by throwing more enemies at you, but by changing the core game mechanics: Klei Entertaiment aren’t content with just providing an excellent game, they’ve provided an excellent game that just doesn’t give up with the meaningful unlockables and replayability. If the 1200 Microsoft Point tag is a sticking point for you, then take solace from the fact that, even 20 hours in, you’ll probably still be mopping up the last of the game’s secrets and achievements.
So just like the levels you’re sneaking through, there are multiple ways you can approach Mark of the Ninja as a whole – As a score attack game, as a story driven narrative, as a stealth game, as an action title… How it manages to excel at all of these things is a wonder. From the minds of a relatively small development team; they’ve taken the wall bouncing, physics defying, death dealing laws of N+, painted the world with Shank’s colourful cartoon styling and stuffed it to the gills with core content and extras. If you’ve been vying for a stealth focused game that does the genre justice, I can honestly think of no better game than this, from start to finish a masterpiece of both art and design. Don’t let this one sneak past you.