Game Review: Mark of the Ninja

I know I’ve been doing a lot of game reviews recently, but that’s because I’ve been playing a lot of games. Tomorrow (which technically happens in 35 minutes) I’ll be doing part two of my Thirteen Houses Project, so stay tuned for that.

Anyways, so here’s Mark of the Ninja, a 2D stealth-platforming game developed by Klei Entertainment where you play….a ninja.

I know right? A game called Mark of the Ninja where you play a ninja, I never would have guessed.

Anyways, you play as an unnamed ninja of the Hisomu ninja clan, when a heavily armed force attacks your dojo, it’s up to you to hunt down the perpetrators and destroy them. The story isn’t really anything you haven’t seen before (although the ending level, which I won’t spoil, is amazing), but you probably won’t be playing this game for it’s story.

You will be playing this game because it makes being stealthy ridiculously fun.

First, a caveat, I can’t remember the last “pure” stealth game I’ve played, probably because I’ve never played any of the Thief games. However. I do like to give stealth a try when it’s an option in other games–as when I mostly sneaked my way through Alpha Protocol. Eventually I would have to resort to shooting because I’d either a) grow impatient with stealth and just start shooting or b) because most games will, sooner or later, force you not to be stealthy, but I like to try, dammit.

As I’ve already implied by calling this a stealth game, Mark of the Ninja is all about slipping unnoticed through its various levels. You have a variety of tools to help you reach this goal, from your basic throwing darts (good for destroying lights), smoke bombs (provides cover and a means to get past lasers) and flares, just to name a few. At the end of each level, the game awards you with points for doing things like not killing any guards or raising any alarms. There are also special bonus objectives known as Seals (ie. getting through a section of a level without killing anyone) and collectible scrolls which generate Honor, which is what you use to buy upgrades.

Besides your array of tools, you can also freeze time (you will need to do this, a lot) grapple onto ledges, crawl through vents, climb over obstacles, stealth kill enemies in interesting ways, and conceal yourself in certain set pieces, and you’ll need to do most (stealth killing is optional most of the time) of these things if you want to successfully avoid all the guards in your way. You’re a ninja, not a samurai, so if they see you, you’ll only be able to take a few hits before going down.

Since the game is based around moving as quietly as possible, sound plays a big role in gameplay. Sound is indicated by blue spheres or fields in the level. Enemies may be alerted by the sounds you make (this includes the sound you make by running) and areas that have attracted the guards’ attention (which they will then investigate) are indicated by yellow circles. You can use this to distract guards so that you can slip past them or stealth kill them as desired.

Yellow circles indicate places where guards will investigate sounds/ninja sightings.

Graphically, the character sprites are cartoonish and the colour palate is very dark (appropriate for a stealth game) but the art does have a certain appeal. Underground portions of levels seem dank and dreary. My favourite levels were the ones with the lightning storms (these were also some of the most challenging, as enemies can see you with the aid of flashing lightning).

In a nutshell, the game gives you a variety of tools and then cuts you loose in it’s giant levels to mess around. Many levels have a couple different routes to take to get through them, and occasionally you have the option to steal from important NPCs rather than kill them.

The game is also wonderfully immersive, I can’t even begin to count the times where I was leaning forward in my chair while my character hung from the sealing, a guard’s flashlight inches from his nose, chanting “Don’t look here, don’t look here…”–only to remember that I wasn’t really a ninja and was in fact playing a game. If you want to feel like a total stealthy badass, this game delivers in spades, waiting patiently for a guard to turn his back for a second so you can drop into a vent is strangely exhilarating, as is hiding in a pot or other set piece at the last second before a guard sees you. My favourite parts of levels were the ones where you had to keep using your grappling hook to grapple ledges that crumbled ofter a few seconds.

If I did have one gripe with this game (and this has been noted in other reviews) it’s that, for all the focus on not killing your adversaries, the game’s many upgrades are overwhelmingly focused on killing (and stringing up the bodies). It’s especially annoying when the game gives you a substantial bonus for not killing anyone in the level. Fortunately, the developers seem to be keen on releasing a special edition with a non-lethal “takedown” option to make it easier for pacifist players.

As for length, Steam has me clocked at 16 hours, but I should note that I didn’t go out of my way to find the collectible scrolls or complete seals, and I only tried one of the special challenge rooms, so it may take you a bit longer (or not as long, since I probably didn’t do very well).

Bottom line: If you’re a fan of stealth games and you haven’t played this one….why are you still reading this? Seriously, go and pick this up, it’s amazing. I believe it’s available on XBLA and Steam.

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