High above the city streets, as the rains pours from the night sky, a man paces. Hearing a noise, he moves to investigate. Looking above and around, he shrugs it off as little more than paranoia. A flick of a dart and the light above shatters… it’s an ominous sign of what’s to come. Shaken, the guard pulls out a flashlight and begins his search.
A shadow creeps slowly from above, the sheen of the blade revealing its deadly intentions. The guard feels a hand over his mouth and the sword at his back, but it’s all too late. It’s a flawless kill, just one of many – and it’s this sense of empowerment that lifts Mark of the Ninja above many of its big-budget contemporaries.
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade (Reviewed), Steam PC
Genre: Action, Stealth, Side-Scroller
Release: (XBLA) September 7th 2012, (PC) October 16th 2012
Unlike other studios that use the term ‘ninja’ as nothing but a namesake, Klei Entertainment has made it the focal point of their latest endeavour. The unnamed hero is far more subtle than Ryu Hayabusa of Ninja Gaiden fame, relying on patient planning to create the perfect scenario before going in for the kill. Whether you hit the lights, wait for a guard to turn around or pursue a different route altogether, there’s often more than a single path to victory. Things begin to toughen up later on however, where the hero must make full use of his advancing skill set if he hopes to survive. The game reaches a point where simply smashing a few lights won’t cut it anymore, pushing you to deftly switch between the skills and items available via the D-Pad.
Standard darts won’t harm enemies, but are indispensable when a distraction is needed. Smoke bombs, deadly traps and ‘terror’ darts add to the ninja’s arsenal, but all he really needs is the grapple (which allows for speedy platform traversal) and his trusty sword. Items can be upgraded and new techniques can be purchased after every stage, and while these make the proceedings just that little bit easier, they’re less important to the action than you might expect. The game throws an increasingly tough set of enemies in your direction – with dogs that can sniff you out of the shadows and one especially lethal enemy type who will actively hunt for you – and yet despite posing a stiff challenge at specific points, the game lends you enough powers to ensure that success is never out of reach.
Make no mistake, Mark of the Ninja can be tough going, and this is never more apparent than when faced with a hair-raising lock-in moment; these become memorable for entirely the wrong reasons and involve surviving for a set time under overwhelming odds. Dumb luck plays its part at these desperate times, but in a game that’s so content to let you control the pacing throughout, it’s a safe bet that such lapses will be forgiven by those determined enough to see them through. Keeping an eye on the noise circles is paramount to remaining undetected – timing a run poorly will betray your position, though this can also be used for distraction purposes.
As a master ninja you’re empowered yet never overpowered, and death will come swiftly to those who leap before they look. Running, sliding and grappling are all in a day’s work for our mute protagonist, though he might slip up on occasion when transitioning between a wall and a ceiling. Completionists will want to take advantage of his acrobatic skills as often as possible, exploring the world to find artefacts and well-hidden challenge rooms. Optional tasks request that certain criteria are met as you progress through the game, asking for a murderous spree one moment, and stealthy avoidance the next. You can bypass these objectives if you’re so inclined, and the many secrets and level select function encourage you to return later on, so you won’t need to feel guilty for rushing past them on your first playthrough. A new game plus option is unlocked after the credits roll, offering a stiffer challenge as you take to the rooftops with your upgrades intact.
Having accepted his destiny as clan champion, the ninja’s tattoos grant him special powers at a terrible cost. It’s his burden to bear, as he attempts to take down a shady organisation headed by the wealthy Karajan. Female assistant, Ora, provides insight into the character motivations and performs some introductory hand-holding, updating the mission and suggesting methods of approach. There isn’t much in the way of story with disappointingly few of the animated cutscenes that provide the game its intrigue, and while the tale might raise a few questions later on, this is basic fare that only serves to push the hero forward.
The animations are smooth and the art style creates an atmosphere befitting the context. The problem is that presentation in Mark of the Ninja is so limited by the themes at work; if bright areas leave you exposed and shady areas represent safety, it might be wrong to criticise a game for relying on darkness so heavily. It’s far from a colourful game, and you’ll have had your fill of silhouettes and multi-tiered interiors by the time you’re done. Going deep underground can definitely leave you wanting for greener pastures, so it’s a shame that there isn’t greater variety in the way of locales.
As a pioneer of the side-scrolling stealth genre, Mark of the Ninja is a game for those who prefer to try for the silent kill rather than merrily hop in with a finger on the trigger. Having a plan come together on later missions will cause feelings of both elation and relief, though gamers who require that brutal action fix might want to look elsewhere. It can be overly dark, frustrating in places and the story leaves much to be desired, but Mark of the Ninja provides over seven hours of predatory pouncing and cleverly combines a sense of power with that of vulnerability. Flawed but rewarding, this is one mission that budding ninjas would be foolish to pass up.
8.0 – Great. An enjoyable experience, fans and newcomers of the genre will be entertained. Any noticeable flaws are largely outweighed by the positives.