Mark of the Ninja is Pretty Damn Great
I’ve always had a few problems with stealth games. While I enjoy the genre as a whole (I’m pretty sure I’ve owned all of the Splinter Cell games at some point or another), I don’t think I’ve ever played a stealth game where the actual stealth mechanics felt right. Enemies tend to be too savvy or not savvy enough, failing to notice a hulking dude barely concealed in a thin lair of shadow two feet away from them while three green dots glow vibrantly in the “dark” (and hey, if they do notice you, there’s always a hay bale nearby or a cardboard box to slip into). There’s an imperfect science to stealth games in which the player usually ends up having to learn how to work around the wonky nature of the AI instead of actually learning how to be stealthy. All of this makes Mark of the Ninja that much more impressive, as its offering of side-scrolling stealth-action platforming is damn near perfect.
Instead of going into that, however, I’d like to discuss the story first. I’ve heard a few positive and negative opinions on it, and while I’m going to remain as spoiler-free as possible, it’s actually pretty decent. That sounds a bit like a back-handed compliment, but most indie games (with a few notable exceptions) place more of an emphasis on gameplay rather than plot or character development. Mark of the Ninja doesn’t have a whole lot of that, but the story is serviceable (if predictable). What really sets it apart is the pacing; the game moves at an impressive clip, never feeling like it’s doling out too much information while constantly keeping the player interested in the events unfolding before them. Throw in a plot twist near the end and a neat Saturday morning cartoon art style reminiscent of Samurai Jack, and you’ve got a plot that’s fun to watch unfold from both a storytelling and visual perspective.
And speaking of visuals, Mark of the Ninja is gorgeous. The animations are fluid, and the cartoon-y art direction really lends the game a unique vibe. Colors are stylistically muted when they need to be and vibrant when they don’t. As you might expect, shadows are put to brilliant use in the way they play off of light sources in the game, with the foreground usually silhouetted with heavy blacks and greys. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the visuals is the way that the stealth indicators are completely integrated with the game world. Instead of relying on meters or percentages to let the player know how concealed they are from enemy eyes, Mark of the Ninja relies on a very binary system. You’re either hidden or you’re not. This places a huge emphasis on avoiding light sources at all costs. Even more remarkable is the way the game handles sound; spheres of noise bloom outward from the source of the sound, whether it be a ninja running loudly through an air duct or a shuriken connecting with a light bulb. If one of these sound indicators comes in contact with an enemy, they’ll come to investigate, often with flashlights or flares at the ready. This system creates some unique opportunities for distraction and can lead to some memorable set-ups with the right amount of planning.
Mark of the Ninja is a game that knows how to own its art style, each new screen a wonder to look at. The only other games I can think of that resemble it are two of Klei’s previous titles — Shank and its sequel. While those games largely failed to entertain for any length of time, Mark of the Ninja never wears out its welcome. In fact, after completing the campaign I immediately jumped back in, if only to try the ultra-challenging new game plus mode (which eliminates any stealth indicators and severely limits your field of view, while also making enemies more powerful). The plot isn’t the only aspect of this game that has exceptional pacing, either — you’re always getting new gadgets to toy with and new moves to learn via an upgrade system that keeps the gameplay feeling fresh hours into the experience. It’s also worth noting that the controls are fantastic, with movement feeling fluid and precise. Each button is also mapped smartly and its clear that the fine folks over at Klei Entertainment know how to build a satisfying side-scrolling action game.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of stealth games, don’t let that deter you. Mark of the Ninja is one of the finest experiences I’ve had this year with the Xbox Live Arcade and video games in general.