I always get a bit nervous before starting a new stealth game. They can be so restrictive. They’ll give you all sorts of tools, gadgets, and weapons but you never get to use any of them. Usually it is because the second you make a move you have a dozen people on you and the level is already compromised. The result is you end up using the same two moves over and over again because they are safe. The other thing stealth games like to do is make the game so blisteringly difficult it sucks all the enjoyment out of the game. Mark of the Ninja is NOT that kind of a game. In fact, it is the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with a stealth game in a long, long time.
Mark of the Ninja was created by Klei Entertainment, the same group that made Shank and Shank 2. This is apparent from the beginning as the art style and animation are quite similar. At times I felt the cut-scenes to be a bit too cartoony in comparison to the more mature in-game animation, but this is a very minor complaint. Overall, the game looks great and runs smooth and without a hitch. Levels are dark, moody, and creatively constructed. The background music is filled with the sounds of traditional Japanese taiko drums, but you won’t notice it much as you’ll be way too busy thinking about who you want to stab first.
The story is simple, you are a part of an ancient clan of ninjas.Their hallmark is their tattoos made of a special ink that offer enhancements to their ninja powers, but as always there is a catch. I don’t want to go into any more details and risk spoiling things for you because the ending is rather clever and makes up for some of its shortcomings throughout the game. Regardless, the story doesn’t matter all that much in Mark of the Ninja, what really shines are the gameplay mechanics.
Mark of the Ninja plays as a 2-D, side-scrolling platformer. You begin with a basic silent takedown maneuver and some bamboo darts to help take out the lights. You also have a grapple hook to help you jump up to certain high landings, light poles, and such. As the game progresses you’ll accumulate more items, traps, and tools of distraction to help you through the levels. Basically, you just want to make it from objective to objective. Guards will be scattered about and for the most part they follow set paths. You’ll be able to tell their range of detection as their lines of sight are indicated. Noise is indicated by a set of concentric circles that will ripple from your footsteps. If you are running, they will spread further and increase your chances of alerting a guard.
Guards can be confronted in a variety of ways. The best way to take them out is by sneaking up behind them and pressing X (when using a an Xbox controller) to initiate a stealth kill. An icon will pop up indicating a direction to hit the analog stick, press X again and the stealth kill is completed. If you are too slow or press the analog stick in the wrong direction, you’ll still get the kill, but it will be a bit noisier. If you do happen to alert a guard to your presence, you can still make it out of the situation. Rarely do you have to restart a level due to minor missteps, which makes this game great if you a more casual player or you just want to make it to the end of the level. In the case that you are sighted there are standard attacks you can use to knock your enemies out, but you have to make sure to finish them off while they are laid out on the ground or they’ll get right back up after a few seconds. You’ll get less points for the kill and perhaps a penalty if you raised any alarms; this is only a hindrance if you are going for a perfect run or for bonus objectives. Most alarms can be waited out by hiding.
In addition to your primary objectives, each level contains bonuses that you’ll want to seek out. There are multiple artifacts you can find that give point bonuses. Even more important are the hidden scrolls. There are three per level, two that are hidden and one that must be obtained by completing a challenge room. There are also three bonus objectives for each level such as stealing an item without being detected, or killing five guards with traps. Each scroll collected and challenge completed earns you a seal. These seals are very important as they are used to purchase new stealth techniques, items, and upgrades.
Mark of the Ninja does a great job at pacing. It starts you out easy just taking on guards, but then steadily piles on new challenges. Soon you’ll be navigating through fields of laser alarms, motions sensors, and traps. Even though there is often a lot going on on-screen, rarely did I ever feel overwhelmed or feel like the task at hand was impossible. Oftentimes games like this can get very frustrating for me, but that was never the case with Mark. This is not to say that this is an easy game. There are certainly a lot of difficult moments, especially if you want to go for all of the challenges and seals. Upon completing the game you unlock a New Game+ mode which increases the difficulty, decreases visibility, and removes the motion indicators. The game’s achievements are also very complimentary, adding challenges like completing a mission without killing any guards or being detected. In a lot of ways, the game is as difficult as you want to make it.
I highly recommend Mark of the Ninja. The story is a little flat and the characters are less than memorable, but the well-balanced and well-paced gameplay more than makes up for it. The variety of challenges and achievements will keep you happily busy for hours and you’ll love unlocking crazy new moves and items with the seals you earn. The game doesn’t punish you for minor mistakes nor does it rely on cheap tactics to artificially increase the difficulty level. I have to say that this is the most fun I have had with a stealth-based game since Batman: Arkham Asylum. I loved unlocking and upgrading the items. I spent over 13 hours on my first playthrough searching every corner of the map for scrolls and I cannot wait to get right into my second playthrough to finish off the remaining challenges and achievements. In the end, I give Mark of the Ninja an emphatic 4.5 out of 5 stars.