Today I was a demon.
(Crouched in the shadows / Breath held; a guard walks below / Earnest blade whispers)
I skulked vents and slunk along ceilings, watched my prey walk beneath me unaware. Every victim was bait for the next; his body dropped into a conspicuous puddle of light or hanged from a post in the path of a foe, where it’s likely to be seen. When you walk the Path of Nightmares, bodies are tools to cause terror and panic. And panic makes good cover.
Then I was a shadow.
(Silence is golden / Invincible in the dark / In the light fragile)
I watched, and waited. I studied my opponents, the room, the exits. I calculated, and threw a firecracker to distract the guard; dropped like a cat behind him, ran silently to the vent on the other side of the room. The Path of Silence makes you quieter, and grants you access to two distraction tools, but the cost is your sword; the only way forward is pure stealth.
Nightmare and Silence are the two styles I’ve had the most time with, and the most fun, but there are others – Path of Might, Path of the Hunter; Path of the Ninja, which is the default; Path of the Mark, unlocked through the story.
There is no one way to ninja. Each Path is viable throughout the whole game. You pick your Path and load-out before each stage; if you come across one of the very few spots that need a specific item/style to get through, there is a station to switch nearby. For the most part, you can choose the kind of ninja you want to be. Every level is designed with this in mind.
But there is no Path of Force – Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game. You cannot brute your way through. It is a game of cunning, patience and finesse – of hiding in shadows, behind grates and in vents, planning your moves before you make them; swift, subtle execution.
The game empowers you with clear knowledge of its rules. Everything that can catch you, betray you, is defined and coded – rings for sound, arcs for light, halos for spots the enemy thought they heard something. Rather than make the game easier, it makes it smarter. When a game hides its systems, part of your game time is spent decoding. That isn’t gameplay; it’s padding. By laying everything out, Mark of the Ninja is a focused, brilliant dissertation on how to ninja.
When I was a boy, I played games like a boy: fascinated, dedicated, sussing out the edges of their small worlds and systems. Months of gaming, spent on one title. I have grown old since, and have less time, less interest, and too many games. Most are one-and-done. Few ever inspire that feeling anymore; of being a kid, falling down a game hole, seduced by incredible play into staying, score chasing, completionism; coming up with excuses to keep playing because the play is so satisfying.
Mark of the Ninja whispers to me, like the best games do, when I’m not playing – you could do this, or this, or this. Path of the Hunter. Path of Nightmares. Path of Silence. Unlocking each optional path requires three aligned challenges to be met, parsed out across the stages. It wasn’t until the end of the game I unlocked the Path of Silence. After the credits rolled I started again, immediately, burning to try it out. I dove back into each level with a vastly expanded ninja vocabulary and no sign of fatigue. I am enthralled. I want to know every inch of this game.
Mark of the Ninja is a masterpiece.