There has never been a shortage of ninja games over the years. Many of the best ones, such as Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden, have tended to be more action-based; focusing on speed and combat. Others, like Tenchu, focused on stealth as the primary mechanic at the expense of enjoyable action. The challenge through the years has been in making a straight-up ninja game that marries action and stealth elements. Aside from recent Batman games (which are kind of ninja-y), such a title had yet to emerge.
Until Mark of the Ninja came along, that is.
Having been partially raised by arcades, I appreciate the efforts of developers like Klei Entertainment for scratching the itch of that era left on me with games like Shank, a 2D action game reminiscent of classics like Contra and Rush n’ Attack. While that title didn’t exactly set the world on fire (yet did well enough to get a sequel in 2012), there was a definite growth spurt in terms of level design and ambition when it came to making Mark of the Ninja. It was originally released in summer 2012 on XBLA, and brought to PC in October. It is a 2D adventure in which you use skills and gadgets to navigate levels and complete objectives in order to uncover a mystery involving a mercenary group who has declared war on your society. Every section has multiple paths, each viable for a particular play style/character build. In addition to this, the game offers in-game rewards (which can be cashed in for new abilities and power-ups) for completing level-specific challenges.
Mark of the Ninja affords the player multiple options for navigating the game world. You have the freedom to sneak through like a ghost and kill no one, or to lie in wait in the shadows, picking off enemies one by one and leaving their corpses as a warning to the others (like me). While I generally don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of no-kill runs, I always appreciate and respect games that make it a realistic option.
Checkpointing in this game is generally not bad, and the level design is wonderful. There are a couple of moments however where you can get stuck because a ledge or platform disintegrated. One part in particular is in the catacombs where you have to basically restart from the checkpoint if you aren’t quick enough to get where you need to go. That sort of thing only happened a couple of times, but that kind of level design messiness got largely sorted out in the SNES era, so it was disappointing to see here.
One of the biggest challenges of developing a stealth game is in making sure the player can’t exploit the mechanics or enemy AI. It’s something very few games in this genre have been able to accomplish and unfortunately Mark of the Ninja is one of them. One easy way of dealing with rooms of multiple enemies is to hide behind a box/vase, lure one to you, kill him, and then wait for the others to discover the body and investigate. One by one, you can dispatch each guard without breaking a sweat. Moments like this demonstrate that the enemy AI is not particularly sophisticated, but to their credit they are extremely twitchy and will shoot at you on sight. This is a compliment, as ‘discovery equals almost certain death’ is an integral feature to a stealth game, and it definitely isn’t shy about reminding you of that fact.
This game is not the first one to try transplanting the stealth genre to a 2D plane, but it is the first one to really nail it. How did Klei make it work? Well, the first reason why is that controls are intuitive and rock-solid. Not only is horizontal and vertical navigation fun and rewarding, but you have the ability to instantly switch between being careful and deliberate, to quick and lethal instantaneously. Mark of the Ninja works well enough with a keyboard/mouse, but because it is all about pulling off multiple actions and making precise timing-based movements, it is honestly best experienced with a controller.
The real innovation with Mark of the Ninja however, is in how it manages to communicate a variety of messages without relying on cluttering up your HUD. What results is a game that is constantly feeding you important information without diverting your attention from the action at hand. Light beams, symbols, and emanating sound/smell circles give you all the information you need to know your status and safety at any given moment. The masterstroke of this is that it comes across as effortless, and is easy to completely overlook while you are playing.
I guess the best way to finish this review and express how much I enjoyed Mark of the Ninja is that I completed the mission where I snuck into en enemy’s tower, assassinated him, and sat back awaiting the credits; fully satisfied at the experience this game had provided me. My jaw dropped when I realized that there were still an entirely new section to do with even more ingenious levels and scenarios to tackle. In the end, any issues I have with menus or skill tree management are mere quibbles when laid against the dazzling array of brilliant design choices and excruciatingly tense moments on display here.
Just as Splinter Cell: Conviction demonstrated that this genre can exist in the current generation of gaming, Mark of the Ninja demonstrates that it can thrive in 2D as well. There’s been no official word about whether or not Mark of the Ninja will get a sequel but considering that Klei just knocked it out of the park with their first try at this type of game, I can’t wait to see what they come up with for an encore.
[+Captures 2D stealth perfectly] [+Challenging, varied scenarios] [+Many useful, fun tools and tricks] [-Some traps get you stuck] [-Easily exploitable enemies]