A clever stealh game that is an absolute joy to play.
Mark of the Ninja, somewhat appropriately, is a game that snuck up on just about everyone. Very little hype came along with the release. Regardless of Microsoft's lack of promotion, this is the best 2D action game to hit XBLA since Shadow Complex, and you could make an argument it's actually the best title to come out on the XBox so far this year.
The game starts you off with a level that, while serving mainly as a tutorial and spin-up for the rest of the game, is still incredibly fun to come back through later on. As you progress through the game, you will unlock new abilities via multiple methods - finding hidden scrolls, completing more puzzle based "challenge rooms," completing specific tasks within levels, and racking up as many points as possible via clever stealth and effective killing. As you unlock new abilities, you begin to feel an incredible sense of empowerment that is usually absent from stealth games. Rather than feel like you're constantly hunted, you are the hunter. At times you literally terrify guards so badly they are overcome with fear and take their own life (often killing other guards in the process). You feel so dangerous you can almost start to feel sadistic in setting up how you're going to take out two or even three guards at once.
Each level introduces at least one new mechanic or "gotcha" that will force you to rethink how you approach gameplay. The game makes life easier for you if you break overhead lights and stay in the shadows, so they introduce unbreakable lights. Hiding behind objects will cause guards walk right by you never suspecting a thing, so some of those objects are booby-trapped in later levels, forcing you to run. Normal guards are a silent one hit kill provided you execute the kill maneuver properly, so bigger & stronger guards are introduced that you have no choice but to engage in hand to hand combat. By the end of the game you have faced a large variety of scenarios, and the beauty of the game is there is almost never just one way to approach it, and it is paced well enough so you never feel like you're in over your head.
The 2D graphics look fantastic, with a strong sense of cartoony style, and animation is very smooth. Between level cutscenes play out in cartoon form and, while not quite as impressive as the in-game visuals, are entertaining enough and carry the story well. The moments leading up to the final event of the game are especially beautiful.
While there isn't a large variety or amount of music in the game, what is there fits. The normal gameplay sees just occasional hints of music here and there, with a fittingly "ninja motif." In typical stealth game fashion, you also have your I-just-got-spotted intense music. There is one actual song in the game, right before the final moments - the same moment with the standout graphics I mentioned above - and it is impactful.
If I was forced to come up with any negatives, the campaign is a tad on the short side. Then again, it's a 15 dollar game, and the New Game Plus mode adds a second playthrough option that was just as fun as the first time...maybe even moreso. New Game Plus adds some restrictions (limiting your vision to what you're actually looking towards and a get-shot-and-you're-dead health meter) but this is easily overcome by being able to bring all your abilities over from your first playthrough, allowing you to play the game with a very different approach.
No multiplayer is included with the game which may limit its lifespan for some players. I could definitely see an exciting stealth-based multiplayer mode dreamed up if we ever get a sequel. That said, the single-player experience is so outstanding I didn't feel left wanting in the slightest.
It's a shame Microsoft put the effort into crowing about the games for what was an appropriately nicknamed "Bummer of Arcade" promotion this year, then just sort of blindly threw Mark of the Ninja out on a random Friday release a few weeks later. I have not played a better XBLA game in years.
Disclaimer: time played - approximately 8 hours through normal mode & New Game Plus, both to completion. All achievements unlocked.