Klei Entertainment gets stealth. Ninjas and shadows should go hand in hand, but these lords of silence often play second fiddle to the more renowned samurai, or fight in broad daylight instead of striking from the shade. Take Ninja Gaiden for example. Heavy on action and light on subtlety, Ryu Hayabusa earns the title of “Most Conspicuous Ninja.” Developers must be asking, “How much enjoyment can be garnered from observing enemy patrol patterns, then navigating around them?” Even fewer games manage to make abstaining from combat meaningful or fun. Would it not be more entertaining to hew guards apart with unrivaled swordsmanship? Mark of the Ninja makes no attempts to satisfy the latter party, but Klei demonstrates that executing malevolent soldiers can be just as pulse-pounding and harrowing as going ten rounds with Kratos.
Contrary to the bandana-wearing, in-your-face protagonist of Shank, Mark of the Ninja’s lead character relies on the tricks of the ninja trade to suppress his foes. With a grappling hook, spike traps, poison darts, smoke bombs, and other ninja tools, the hero must hunt down and assassinate the corporate sleaze that ordered an attack on the Hisomu clan. Accompanied by a vigilant female cohort, you’ll navigate skyscrapers, sewers, and sandy ruins. At the same time, the inevitable draws ever closer.
You are no ordinary ninja, and your tattooed face is just the tip of the iceberg. The protagonist accepted the Mark, an ancient tribal pattern that identifies him as the Hisomu’s chosen champion. However, the ink used in the intricate design contains toxins from a rare flower that slowly drives the victims insane but grants them supernatural powers like teleportation. Thus, before they lost their mind entirely to the drug, previous warriors committed seppuku and upheld the clan’s honor. How (or if) you accept this suicide pact forms the underlying, albeit shallow narrative. The two-sided conclusion expects you to determine your own fate, yet the only distinctions between the opposing outcomes lead to separate thirty-second cutscenes. The remainder of the game you act without choice. Despite the derivative storytelling, I found the daydreamy effects of the toxin to be quite enthralling.
Dogs clearly do not care for the Spider-Man impersonations.
Mark of the Ninja contains the strong visual presence of the hack-and-slash Shank releases. The graphic art style makes for some very interesting silhouette work and eventual hallucinations. More importantly, Mark of the Ninja refuses HUD elements to indicate how well players have hidden. Every on-screen prompt reveals different information. The ninja adopts the shadows when in the darkness, his wardrobe becoming black and his blood red tattoos glowing menacingly once out of sight from watchful eyes. Here, flashlights’ illuminating funnels denote enemy fields of view. When standing in the light, the omnipotent rays showcase a uniform’s true colors, the hero’s included.
Sound plays perhaps a greater role than sight. Footsteps reverberate off the solid floors in faint white ripples, giving away adversaries’ positions despite one’s obstructed vision. More audible occurrences like crows cawing, chandeliers falling, and carnivorous beetles devouring mercenary flesh produce bright blue sound waves heard by all reinforcements in the immediate area. While noise can be your worst enemy, betraying your position even in darkness, this sense can also be your most valuable asset when exploited for diversionary purposes.
All this visual information helps to aid the primary character's survival. As a ninja, most close quarter skills remain useless in head-on confrontations, mainly because the hero refuses to draw his blade unless the target’s back is turned. Mark of the Ninja encourages stealth above all else, rewarding you with one-hit kills if you input the correct quick time event before the enemy breathes his last breath. And like a good ninja, players must learn to blend with their surroundings. Floor grates equal both an excellent hiding spot for yourself and for corpses once you pounce from under the soldier’s feet. Lamp posts and tree branches make for efficient perch points when scouting patrolling sentries or dangling their bodies like morbid scarecrows. Assassinating oblivious guards from railings also prevents potential suspicions when yanking the deadweight several levels below. But first you must learn these silent arts, all of which you unlock through the game’s store.
Remember Batman's rule about never killing his opponents? Yeah, forget that rule.
Each assassination attempted, detection avoided, distraction triggered, and body hidden rewards players with points on the leaderboards. These points also tie into honor, the game’s version of currency. Gaining a predetermined amount of credits may be the easiest way to cash in your pride as a ninja, but it’s not always the most fun. That right belongs to the optional objectives. Side missions divvy between different seal types, yet these only serve to unlock additional costumes that benefit varying play styles. One mission might task you with eliminating a courier’s guard without detection. Another might encourage you to shut off the building’s power supply without tripping any alarms. A favorite of mine challenged me to use the teleport ability to land on a perch, then assassinate a target immediately after. Yet those bonus costumes will make achieving certain goals easier. The Path of the Hunter garb guarantees that executions do not fail and equips the hero with two attack items that kill guards once activated. The Path of Silence outfit directly conflicts with the Hunter, instead bestowing the protagonist with two distraction items that lure opponents from your destination, but no sword.
But the best part: Mark of the Ninja exercises creative freedom to every encounter. Players could test their blade’s edge on that soldier catching some sleep during his shift, or you could throw a firecracker, hide in the nearest alcove, and wait until he passes by to slit his throat from the shadows.
Every enemy, except for key personnel, can be avoided and left to live another day. This freedom bases itself on the spacious level design. Although you dodge and dart from the left side of the screen to the right in 2D tradition, the verticality and interior layouts lead to very different engagements. You can duck into that ventilation shaft to elude laser beams, climb an elevator shaft, and reappear three stories up, or you may scale sheer skyscrapers, swing from lamp post to lamp post, and crawl along ceilings like Spider-Man without mercy. And rather than move with the aged pace of senior citizens, the protagonist maneuvers about his settings with a sense of urgency, even running up the side of buildings with unprecedented grace and agility.
This screenshot contains a wealth of information: the soldier's line of sight, his caution level, the halo depicting the source of distraction, the noise radius of the gong. These complex systems overlap without confusing the player.
Now admittedly, Mark of the Ninja runs into control issues once environment interactions begin to stack. Hiding corpses and crouching behind statues interfere with one another when mapped to the same button. The game's trying to differentiate between dropping from the wall you currently hold onto and switching your position to the ceiling led to a few raised alarms as well. However, the frequent save system allows completionists plenty of opportunities to perfect that alert-free run as each failure becomes a cozy encounter with the Restart Checkpoint feature.
For every Deus Ex and Ghost Recon that forces stealth-action down our throats, Mark of the Ninja lays a trap to counter. The only series this flexible with its approach to situations remains Metal Gear Solid, which Klei’s latest fascinates itself with, even going as far to include a cardboard box as one of selectable ninja tools. As much a puzzler as an adventure title, Mark of the Ninja’s striking visual effects, ample unlockables, insistence on player freedom, and no handholding almost dispatched this year’s bitter Summer of Arcade event (looking at you, Deadlight) from my memory.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Release Date: September 7, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: XBLA (Reviewed)