Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side scrolling Stealth-em-up developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Microsoft for XBLA. The game is based around staying in the shadows and avoiding combat at any cost; you can partake in combat but only to a minimal extent as you can be quite easily killed.
The game begins with a short cutscene showing mercenaries getting killed before you awaken from a dream covered in tattoos. Luckily, Ora, a female ninja is there to guide you; she helps you find your bearings and introduces you to the different items and controls available to you. You make your way from your small room across the grounds, past many armed guards, to get to and save your masters life. After saving your master, he fills you in on your duties and helps you remember what you had forgotten.
You took up the task of saving the clan by getting special tattoos. These tattoos, while giving you immense power and remarkable abilities; also come at the cost the wearers sanity. They are only called for missions of the utmost importance as the cost is so great. Once they have completed their assignments they are required to take their own lives before they lose all sanity and turn against their clan. Your task is to defeat Karajan, the ruthless businessman in control of the force that raided your home.
The game takes line of sight to a very literal degree. You can only see things that are in view of your character from the position he is in. Occasionally you will be able to see elsewhere but generally you have a small vision range. It really adds a sense of planning to everything; as you can’t always see what is up ahead you need to be careful that you scout out your surroundings carefully before making a move. Guards can only see you at range if you are in visible in light or within a very small distance of them in the light.
Almost all hiding places will let you peek out, allowing you to see areas which were previously hidden from view. Unless guards are actively searching for you, they can only spot you when you’re peeking; except you are lit up on a ledge below and directly next to them.
Sound is a major element in the game. Almost everything makes a noise: running, throwing darts, terrified guards, breaking power boxes. Some things don’t make a noise or can be upgraded to reduce or completely stop it from making a sound when it’s used. Either way any sound that is made, creates a ripple effect that can be seen anywhere on screen. It helps you identify where things may be as well as how likely you are to be heard.
Stealth is always the optimum route to take through levels but you may decide that a guard is worth killing. If that’s the case, then to begin with, you’ll have to take him out by creeping up behind him before executing him. A short quick time event will determine whether you manage to silently take him out of screw it up and treat the surrounding environment to his echo of screams. Obviously the latter will alert nearby guards and the former is the preferred option; also you score more points for a clean kill.
As you progress you will also unlock new ways to stealth kill your foes. From jumping out from under grates, to dangling from a chain; you will find much variety with what’s on offer. Each new move will allow you to approach a situation in an almost entirely new way.
Once they’ve been taken care of you also have a little to play around with, in the form of their bodies. At first picking up and dragging the evidence away seems like the best option; but then you find out that throwing a body into a guard’s field of vision terrifies him. They become paranoid, jumpy and will sometimes fall off of ledges or shoot friendly guards. Then again if you’re boring you could just hide the body for some points.
Items are varied and split into two types, attack and distraction. While you will always get to keep your trusty darts, you will also have to decide on one from each of these categories. Both types are pretty self-explanatory. Distraction items take the form of smoke bombs, flares, firecrackers and a cardboard box. Each has its own properties and allows for different approaches; smoke can block vision and lasers, flares can attract guards that see it or blind anyone wearing night vision.
Attack items contain spike mines, caltrops, poison darts and flesh eating insects. They all have their specific (and entertaining) uses, caltrops and darts are more for distraction while spike mines and insects will performs some outright kills.
As with darts these items can be used immediately, at the press of a button or you can enter Focus mode. Focus gives you that all important time to think; time stands still and you can queue up to three item uses for simultaneous use. It lets you make precise targets, shows trajectories and noise bubbles and it will allow you to attempt actions that can’t be performed in real time.
Despite stealth being the major element you can take a more aggressive and combat orientated role as well. While it’s not the preferred ninja style, you can go toe to toe with a single guard if needs must and maybe if you play it right, against two or more briefly if you escape soon afterwards. Guards will kill you in a matter of seconds if they get a chance to shoot you; so escaping is the better option if you do get caught out.
Each level is score based on points you earn by doing different things. It only penalises you for setting off alarms. Everything else will earn you points; just the less elegant interactions will score less. Also if you manage to kill no one or never set off any alarms, you will earn a ton of points; making a full “no kill” run of a level completely viable. It doesn’t factor time into the scores; so you won’t feel rushed or forced into making quick decisions just to get a high score.
As you progress though the game you can unlock new costumes that will enhance some characteristics or abilities at the cost of another. They are unlocked via completing different bonus objectives within the levels. They are very different in playstyle and really can change how you approach a situation.
New game plus is a feature scarcely used these days outside of JRPGs and it’s a pleasure to say that it fits into the game perfectly. If you found the first playthrough too easy or was to forgiving; then this is sure to change your mind fast. No sound indicators, enemies are: smarter, deadlier and you can longer see where they are looking. Also you only see what your characters eyes can see; leaving a blind spot behind you and giving you a much smaller field of view. You do keep all unlocks though, so you won’t have to start from scratch.
The story is told not only through the cutscenes (which are beautiful but too few and too short), but it is also told in part by conversations guards have. Sometimes it fills you in more overarching story details but can also be general banter. It is a reasonable story that some will find intriguing but might be a little predictable for anyone who hears or sees the clues throughout the game.
Presentation and Audio
Klei, have a very specific art style, that not only looks great but is well animated and makes everything stand out well. It makes it easy to see objects and characters if you are looking for them but there are a few traps that you can spot if you take your time to scan the area. Ambient noise and general sound effects are great and really work both mechanically and as atmosphere.
The game is easy to pick up and play. It introduces you to new elements at a good pace, then once you’re finished; it gives you the chance to prove all that you learnt the first time round. Checkpointing is generous to an almost staggering degree, leaving you the option to try new things without ever feeling penalised. It’s incredibly fun and has a huge variety of approaches. There is nothing more satisfying than terrorising a guard.
The best true stealth game released in a long time. There’s more than enough variety in gameplay; that when comparing how you solved situations with another person, there will more than likely be wildly different results. Once complete all the bonus’ you missed first time round will be there to collect, the challenging New Game Plus and the replay value of every level, will leave you with a ton to do.
This is a great game and caters to an audience that exists and is constantly being denied the games it wants by major publishers. More and more of the big “Stealth” games rely less on stealth and more on combat, with stealth feeling like it’s only a minor element of gameplay. This puts stealth front and centre, leaving combat to the rear. It’s the game many of us have wanted and waited for.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.