Mark Of The Ninja – Review

Title   Mark of the Ninja
Developer  Klei Entertainment
Publisher  Microsoft Studios
Platform  XBLA, PC (Reviewed)
Genre  Action, Stealth
Release Date  7th September 2012 (XBLA), 16th October (PC)
Official Site

As you will have no doubt read in Ed’s 2013 Resolutions article, I’ve never been a big fan of the indie or the arcade; that’s not to say I didn’t appreciate their quality, but I always find myself spending my money picking up the AAA titles and then unable to justify the cost. Last year I found myself picking publisher bundles on Steam and getting a chance to have a go at some indie games – titles like Faster Than Light and The Walking Dead series really opened my eyes to just how good these games could be. Then I played Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja is the third game from developers Klei Entertainment, creators of Shank and the surprisingly titled Shank 2. Their latest release starts with silent protagonist waking up to find his ninja clan dojo under attack by armed troops. As you make your way through the battle ridden dojo, you release captured comrades and eventually free your master, Shaou Khan. Nah, I’m kidding, he’s actually named Azai. Once released, your master tasks you with the assassination of the man responsible for the attack and you are given the Mark of the Ninja, a tattoo that – while granting skills and power – also slowly drives the wearer insane. The ninja promises to fall on his sword before this happens and begins his journey, backed by Ora – a fellow ninja who really only serves to remind you that you have the mark and are becoming more powerful as you play on. It’s a classic story that wouldn’t go amiss in a 70′s kung-fu flick, but there are a number of twists and turns that keep the story fresh, and more than a few times when you think you are done, the game is  just getting started.

As a ninja, you will spend most of your time sneaking around. I know, go figure. Normally, stealth is something I really hate, and is one of the many gameplay features that I try and avoid where I can; why sneak when you can shoot people in the face? It’s done so poorly and without imagination in so many titles (see: Dishonored) that it becomes more of a hindrance than something enjoyable. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve uttered the phrase, “oh shit, it’s the stealth bit.

In Mark of the Ninja, through the use of sound, vision and light, stealth is done right. As a Ninja you would expect to move around in complete silence and, as a default, you do, allowing you to climb, drop and walk around without attracting any attention. Sound plays a vital part in the stealth system, if you move around too quickly a sound wave is created attracting the attention of nearby guards.  Destroy a light or kill a guard noisily and sound waves begin to attract enemies from further out, usually outside the visual range. Each guard has a field of vision, very much like games such as Metal Gear, but because this is a 2D platformer their field of vision is very rigid and represents an absolute no-go area; there’s no standing slightly on the periphery here.

Finally, light plays a major part in how the sneaking works. Visually the game is dark – and I mean literally dark. Shadows are the blackest black and in a room with the lights off details take on a black-on-white outline. Guards will often come equipped with torches that cast large cones of coloured background, making the lights stand out even more against the shadowy environment. There is also a very clever use of lightning and things like flares to create distractions or reduce the player’s ability to move around undetected.

This all comes together in situations like the following: you have to get past a guard who is facing you straight on. The corridor is dark, the lights are off but there is a ceiling-light directly behind him. The guard’s torch lights up a small area directly in front of him, and he is looking out into the light. There’s no way around and no way through, or is there? By throwing a knife at the lamp behind the guard, he is momentarily distracted by the sound, looking out of the torch light. This gives you the few seconds you need to rush in and perform a silent take-down.

This combination of vision, sound and light brings the stealth into sharp focus – as an experience it becomes slightly intense, but also allows you to come up with your own solutions to many of the puzzles. I often find myself using the ninja’s insane ability to jump, flying over a guard’s head as they approached, landing behind and taking them down. The take-downs themselves also keep you focused; it’s not just a single button push but a randomly generated QTE, which, if failed, causes you to noisily kill the target and possibly screw up your entire level. More than once I’ve found myself at the end of a level without raising an alarm only to fail the last incredibly simple QTE and have to restart.

Thrown into the mix is a simple character experience and customisation system. As you play through a level you get a score; sneak through, silently killing guards and your score will increase, hack and slash your way through the joint and that score will remain low. You’ll slowly begin to unlock skill points that can be traded to unlock various abilities and equipment, ranging from the hallucinogenic poison knife to the classic cardboard box. Before a level starts and at various points throughout you can set up your equipment and outfit.  Outfits are unlocked by completing various objectives on missions, like “don’t kill any guards” or “don’t raise an alarm”. They grant special bonuses or restrictions giving a level of replay value; one outfit removes your sword, but makes you move and run completely silently – perfect for sneaking through a level, but it can make combat situations a bit sticky.

Mark of the Ninja follows a very similar look to previous Klei Entertainment titles Shank and Shank 2 – the hand-drawn cartoon look is sharp and detailed, and honestly makes you feel like you are playing some kind of Samurai Jack game, which is not a bad thing at all and might be the perfect idea for a sequel – Mark of the Samurai? You can see for yourself from the screenshots just how good this game looks; colours are vibrant when they are there, which makes the darkness that little bit deeper. Maps range from Azai‘s dojo to skyscrapers and the back-alleys of a Middle-Eastern country, all of which offer their own unique style. The levels offer a number of different challenges, ranging from moving through sniper filled streets to escaping poisonous gas. All of the puzzles, that you would expect from this kind of side-scroller, are challenging but not game breaking.

I love this game and honestly I don’t have a bad word to say against it. It has not only turned me on to the indie scene – always a good thing – but has renewed my faith in a stealth as a gameplay element, which is something I never thought would be possible.

  • Feel like a goddamn ninja
  • Amazing bright and detailed hand drawn visuals
  • Simple character customisation
  • Puzzles that are challenging but not game breaking
  • Goddamn ninja!
  • Not all games are this good

Mark of the Ninja is bad news for other games that use stealth, as I’ll no doubt find myself comparing them. It is a masterclass in the stealth mechanic and, as such, other stealth titles should take note, or be marked down for iffy gameplay. It plays well, it is beautiful to look at and the story has a number of twists and turns to keep the player absorbed. It’s basically the best ninja game since Tenchu: Stealth Assassin. Running up walls, attacking from shadows and generally murdering unsuspecting guards, who only wanted to earn some cash for their poor family, will become your bread and butter. Buy this game, it’s bloody brilliant.

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  1. Chris Chris says:

    Good review mate, this one has been on my list for a while.

  2. Ste Ste says:

    I had my eye on this during the last Steam sale but never got around to picking it up. Must admit it looks good. Will have to grab it now.

  3. Edward Edward says:

    I tried playing this on your laptop at the HQ, and I have to admit I wish I knew more about it because it was something I would have enjoyed a lot more if I knew any of the controls :D

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