Sneak, stab, and slice your way through hordes of unsuspecting foes.
PC Release: October 16, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Usually these reviews begin with some incoherent analogy about how a game’s subject matter impacts society; the impact of ninjas doesn’t really need to be verbalized. Parents purchase entire catalogs of ninja costumes so their kids can look badass on Halloween. Everyone knows what a throwing star is. There are even ninja-themed restaurants where waiters deliver food and then vanish in a cloud of smoke. Ninjas have infiltrated the video game world too, but which ninja-themed titles are the real deal? It’s time for Mark of the Ninja to step out of the shadows.
Ironically for a game that’s about avoiding the spotlight, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most iconic platformers of recent years. The game was developed by Klei, a Canadian outfit that most gamers probably know better as the masterminds behind Don’t Starve. Before crafting an isometric adventure game about avoiding terminal hunger, though, Klei created a game that put stealth into a side-scrolling platformer. That was a feat that few gamers and critics thought possible back in 2012.
Mark of the Ninja is set in a modern world that’s forgotten all about ninjas, which is just the way they like it. One last clan of them ekes out a secret existence in present-day Japan… until an army of mercenaries kicks down their door. Players assume the role of the Marked One, a particularly skilled ninja who beats the gun-wielding mercs back from his home. Together with his best friend Ora, the Marked One is charged by Master Azai with a new mission: kill the wealthy aristocrat who leads the mercenaries.
As his name implies, the Marked One is no ordinary ninja. His body is covered in tattoos that grant him extraordinary powers, like the ability to see through walls and even pause his perception of time. The trade-off is that the ink in these tattoos will eventually seep into his brain and drive him mad. Before that happens, though, the Marked One can still use his powers to cause some good (or shed some blood, depending on who’s being asked). He can also depend on some neat-o ninja gadgets and, of course, his sword.
As previously mentioned, Mark of the Ninja is a side-scrolling platformer with a heavy emphasis on stealth. Though the Marked One’s abilities are formidable, he’ll go down in an instant if an enemy soldier shoots him. One of the game’s primary motifs is that the way of the ninja doesn’t change, even if the rest of the world does. The Marked One only has traditional ninja tools to wield against machine guns, lasers, and other modern tech.
On the surface, it may seem grossly unfair that players have only throwing stars and smoke bombs to wield against automatic weapons (and it is), but therein lies the challenge of Mark of the Ninja. Since players can’t exactly walk up to an enemy and challenge them to fisticuffs, they have to rely on stealth and subversion to defeat foes. The most common way to dispatch an enemy is to simply stab them from behind… assuming players can get up behind them without making any noise.
Even though the Marked One’s roster of tools and equipment is a bit rustic, it’s not ineffective. Smoke bombs work wonders for cutting through laser screens, just as throwing knives can make short work of security cameras and other electronics. Players can also gain experience and level up to access more sophisticated tools: a cardboard box is great for sneaking around Metal Gear-style, while a handful of flesh-eating bugs can make enemies quite… excitable.
Smoke bombs and swords are all well and good, but they pale in comparison to the Marked One’s powers. As previously mentioned, players can pause their perception of time in order to pick targets for throwing knives or listen to what’s happening in nearby rooms. The further players progress, the more formidable their powers become. The Marked One is also proficient at more conventional abilities like hiding inside objects and, well, just staying out of sight.
This combination of tools, powers and gymnastics makes Mark of the Ninja a true thriller, one that challenges players’ tactical abilities as much as their reflexes. Everything from ducking out of sight to stabbing a foe is implemented with silky smoothness, making it easy for players to execute complicated maneuvers. As a result, there’s no limit to the fun that can be had with Mark of the Ninja‘s gameplay. Its stealth is not only masterfully implemented, but also allows for endless creativity.
Another design element underlying Mark of the Ninja‘s skill with stealth is its level design. Each level in the game is riddled with hiding spots and secret passageways, giving players variety in how they approach their target. Does the Marked One take the front door and slip in and out of enemy patrols, or does he find a vent cover and sneak around in the air ducts? Each path has its own advantages and dangers, but they all allow for stylish stealth kills. They represent some of the most intricate platformer level design in years… perhaps even more so than Rayman Origins.
No matter if the player is a slash-happy psycho or a pure ghost, Mark of the Ninja grants points and bonuses for proficient gameplay. Players who simply sneak past foes may seem to gain more points than someone who leaves the enemy base bereft of life, but skillful kills grant points as well. Players can also gain points by completing challenges hidden in each level. Mark of the Ninja‘s points system exudes the same commitment to player freedom as its other design facets.
Mark of the Ninja impresses with its gameplay and level design, but the game’s artwork is what binds it all together. Like its protagonist, Mark of the Ninja dabbles in shadows, giving players a neat assortment of spooky temples and towers to sneak around in. The game’s foregrounds also explore darkness as a gameplay element; players who get caught walking around in the light will suffer the consequences, but hiding in those oily shadows leaves guards none the wiser.
Mark of the Ninja‘s backgrounds are similarly exquisite. Whether the Marked One is sneaking around Japan or Eastern Europe, the background paintings are all packed with detail and dark, strong colors. They add a grand sense of scale to the Marked One’s mission, reinforcing the notion that he is a small mouse scurrying up and down the corridors of a massive, malicious colossus. These bleak-but-beautiful backgrounds confer a dark atmosphere to the title, certainly one appropriate for a game about ninjas. The game’s soundtrack is a likewise collection of low, moody tunes.
Mark of the Ninja‘s characters and cutscenes are quite different from its intricately detailed environments. Much like Klei’s Shank games, the story is told in animated cutscenes whose style wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of Saturday morning cartoons. Though character animations don’t suffer for this style and the cutscenes are well-enough animated, their cartoony visage contrasts sharply with the more sophisticated visuals in the game’s environments. Mark of the Ninja‘s voice acting is acceptable, though the writing has an unfortunate tendency to get cheesy.
Mark of the Ninja‘s writing problem seeps beyond dialogue and into the game’s plot. Though the game excels at making players feel like a ninja, the story uniting those gameplay elements feels much less inspired. The tale is a pretty conventional revenge story; some guy trashed the temple, so get out there and kill him. Ironically for a game about stealth, Mark of the Ninja‘s plot twists can be spotted from a mile away. So yeah, don’t play this game for its plot; play it to kill guards with flesh-eating bugs.
Like some of the other platformers reviewed here recently, Mark of the Ninja‘s mediocre storytelling is not nearly bad enough to kill the game’s fun. Between its sophisticated level design and its smoothly implemented stealth gameplay, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most innovative platformers of the last five years. It’s an important title because its gameplay challenges platforming conventions, and does so with skillful design. Plus, it’s a lot of fun; it may not be the only ninja video game kicking around, but it is one of the best.
You can buy Mark of the Ninja here.
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