Sneaking its way into critical acclaim through maintaining traditions
By Terry Randolph
Developer: Klei Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: Sept. 7, 2012
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade (Played), PC
Rated: M for Mature
Stealth games and I never get along. Every time I play one it seems luck thinks my attempt at being methodically patient is boring. Most times I have to fight my way out of trouble using up most of my resources in the process. The problem I believe I have with these games is that they go against the grain of what I believe gamers expect when playing one; it forces you to think, to be patient and wait for the right time to make the necessary movements. There may not be a lot of enemies to face, but they will take you out fast if exposed. It is a dilemma of wanting to play the game the way it is meant to be while pushing the pace at a level I am accustomed too. By the time I reach the end I am left feeling bitter at the experience because of that contrast. Few games have been an exception for me like Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While diverse in their approach to what players face if caught, both games did a great job not punishing the players too harshly and left them feeling accomplished after escaping harrowing situations.
Mark of the Ninja, from Klei Studios (developers of Shank), is a callback to the old school stealth game mechanics with a dash of modernity. Timing is everything; one slip up in execution and the player faces a swift death. After every level progression a new, more formidable enemy is introduced in order to add a layer of complexity to gameplay. Checkpoints have multiple pathways to reach them, and the most straightforward routes tend to be the most damning. Environments can work against you but can also be used to the player’s advantage; take out lights to reduce visibility or hit something to create a distraction. These are the traits that often lead to that bittersweet experience for me with these games. Ironically, with Mark of the Ninja wearing its influences proudly and embracing its predecessors tradition this was one of the better gaming experiences in a while.
The story treads familiar ground; the hero wakes up to find his teacher abducted and clan attacked by heavily armed forces. After defeating the armed adversaries, players watch a cutscene heavy on the exposition about the clan (the Hisomu clan). The main protagonist is then sent out on the mission for revenge on those who attacked the clan. The player also learns that the main character has tattoos all over him with ink from a special flower that grants powers. All of it comes at a price; over time, the users sanity will slowly erode and bring them into insanity. When the ninja reaches the point of madness, they must commit seppuku (a ritualistic suicide). Overall, the game goes through the typical twist and turns examining traditions versus adaptation, honor and sacrifice. After the “prologue” level (also known as the “tutorial” level) and lengthy exposition dumping, Mark of the Ninja instead switches its focus on stellar gameplay.
Switching its focus abruptly becomes its biggest detriment; the plot goes nowhere in terms of its tone or pacing. The themes Klei Studios try to explore are only done on the surface and bring about no immersion. By the time the campaign grapples towards the conclusion, most scenes meant to have an emotional payoff come off as false. It leaves the game feeling a little lifeless in its execution. While that may match the concept or belief that a ninja must do away with any sort of emotion, the “poignant” moments do next-to-nothing impacting the player.
At the same time, the shift of focus Mark of the Ninja’s gameplay makes it a strong game. Every levels break down into several checkpoints to reach with multiple pathways to get there. This allows exploring the many ways players to take on any one situation. Each level is a playground of experimentation; take out lights in order to reduce visibility, throw a swarm of ravenous insects on an unsuspecting enemy to create a distraction or silently kill your enemy to name a few. There are also optional objectives you can work towards for each level that provides an extra layer of challenge. Accomplishing these objectives leads to having new suits that change the approach to each level; one suit might allow you to be able to run without creating sound but take away your ability to replenish your stock at checkpoints.
If getting from checkpoint to checkpoint is not enough there are scrolls and artifacts hidden around each level to find. Some of the scrolls will have to be earned through completing a challenge room that is a giant “puzzle”. The points you earn from completing the additional objectives, finding the scrolls and artifacts and your play style allow you to buy upgrades. After players finish their first run of the game, they can take a stab at “New Game Plus” which allows you all the upgrades you have so far but the enemies are tougher. Not to mention, the campaign is a solid length for a downloadable game, clocking in at a solid 6-8 hours. Ultimately, all of this makes Mark of the Ninja fun to play and gives players even more incentive to replay the levels.
Occasionally gameplay suffers from several issues that seem to plague some of the best games; backtracking in several levels and the repetition of gameplay. While the kills are fun to execute, they can get repetitive to look at towards the last third of the game. This could stem from the fact that it is a download-only Xbox Live Arcade (and PC) game. Another issues is how precise Mark of the Ninja wants from you; there were often times I found myself doing something other than what I was trying to do. For example, if you mess up on the button prompts for a silent kill it leads to the enemy shrieking to alert other enemies. There were times when I made sure to press the correct buttons, but found the character having “failed” to do it.
Visually, this game looks fantastic. Everything from the cutscenes to the background animations creating an ominously dark, foreboding tone. The cartoon-like animation allows for a sleek, clean look to matches the aesthetics of a 2D sideview platformer. Movement looks very quick and gives a nice contrast to how slow the main character moves. However, the game at times can feel a little “too clean and crisp” for me in moments where it needs to be “ugly”. Again, the kills in the game look very sleek, but the cleanliness of it lacks the impact of how brutal it should be. Keep in mind this is something very minor and can be more of a personal preference than a legitimate concern.
Overall, Mark of the Ninja is a game that wears its influences on its sleeves and succeeds for doing so. The stellar, solid gameplay mechanics and visual presentation make up for the lack of story and forced emotional moments. Plenty of customization and approaches to playing the game give it plenty of replay value. This is a solid game for people wanting to try out a stealth game, especially with the price tag. For being only $15, it is more than worth the price tag.