Mark of the Ninja
You will find some element of stealth gameplay in many titles nowadays — it’s usually optional, and if you do get caught sneaking your way around, the chance to stand toe-to-toe with your enemies and fight your way out is normally there. Not so in Mark of the Ninja. Everything about this latest title from Klei Entertainment is built around stealth and the game is all the better for it.
Unsurprisingly for a videogame entitled Mark of Ninja, and indeed for a game based on stealth, you are placed in the role of badass ninja, tasked with saving your clan. The eponymous ‘mark’ refers to a special ink tattooed into your character’s body, imbuing him with special powers at the eventual expense of his sanity. At this juncture I could go on to flesh the story out in a little more detail, but given that the game hardly bothers to do so, this seems pointless. Indeed, the games narrative is entirely forgettable, but it functions as a serviceable pretext to get you on your way and in all honestly that’s enough, because it is in its gameplay that Mark of the Ninja excels.
At its most basic, Mark of the Ninja is a game about getting from A to B without being seen. Movement across the game’s 2D landscapes is fluid and intuitive and you quickly learn to move swiftly about the shadows, scoping out your route and monitoring patrolling guards’ movements as you plan your method of attack. Straying into the light will quickly get you spotted, so you invariably look for ways to stick to the shadow, popping in and out of cover, ducking into vents and crawling across ceilings as you carefully make your way forward.
While almost always sticking to its basic premise, the game gradually provides you with more and more options to get the job done. Early on you gain the ability to fire darts at objects, taking out lights, or triggering gongs to draw guards away. A number of other tools are added to your repertoire as you progress, such as noise makers to catch your enemies’ attention and smoke bombs to mask your movement. More often than not, Mark of the Ninja also offers you a number a different routes to your objective, so combined with the multiple tools on offer, there is plenty of freedom as to how you approach your task. Deciding how to tackle each challenge never gets tiresome.
While it’s perfectly possible to make your way through Mark of the Ninja without killing anyone, it’s often easier, and more fun, to take out your enemies using a variety of brutal stealth kills. As with the various distraction tools available in the game, there are also a number of techniques which can be unlocked. These techniques give you the ability to take out bad-guys from cover, swoop down on them from above or drag them through a closed door to meet their doom. Once you have taken out your target there are even more options on the cards: you could hide the body so as not to alarm other guards, but there is also the opportunity to place it out in the open to lure others into a trap. You can even string a baddy up Arkham City stylee, sending guards into a state of panic in which they accidently take out their own with friendly fire. It’s yet another example of the plethora of choices Mark of the Ninja offers the player to achieve their objectives and to ensure that gameplay always stays fresh.
One minor gripe is the introduction of a ‘farsight’ ability later in the game which allows you to view your surroundings in greater clarity, for want of a better description. When this ability is introduced you are forced to consistently use it to spot and avoid traps, which requires no skill and isn’t at all enjoyable. Fortunately, this proves to be short lived and is just a way of introducing players to the new mechanic. Nevertheless, while the ability proves useful as you progress through the game, I can’t help but feel that it cuts out the need for some of the careful scouting that would otherwise be necessary; it just doesn’t feel quite right in a stealth game where darkness and shadow are centre stage.
One of Mark of the Ninja’s greatest strengths is its visual style. I’m not talking about the look of the game per se, though the cartoon aesthetic which Klie have carried over from their previous game, Shank, certainly looks nice enough. Rather, the great thing about Mark of the Ninja is the way visuals are used to enrich the game’s stealth mechanics. Slinking in and out of the shadow in this game is not just about concealing your presence, it’s also about unveiling your surroundings; Mark of the Ninja employs something of a fog-of-war technique, so there is a need to peek out of vents, lean your ear against closed does, or peek over ledges to see what waits ahead. Duck back into a vent after spotting a guard and you will be left with a gradually fading red silhouette as the darkness rushes back in.
Equally important, and equally well implemented, is the way sound is displayed visually. Sprinting, smashing lights and other such rowdy activity will send out a circular ripple of sound which will draw the attention of any guard in it hits. Likewise, providing you are close enough, the footsteps of enemies will appear as small yellow circles in otherwise obscured areas allowing you to follow their movements. These visual clues are an elegant way of bringing sound into play and as with so much else in this game, it’s up to you whether noise is something you carefully plan to avoid, or something you want to turn to your own advantage. All this talk of ripples of noise, fog-of-war, fading silhouettes and the like may sound overally complex and distracting, but it’s really not. Once you have the controller in your hands and you see the game in action, it all feels very natural and intuitive.
A pleasant surprise is also to be found in the amount of content offered in what is a downloadable game. The campaign itself clocks in at around eight hours, which is pretty good in my opinion, but this is also a game with re-playability. Everything you do in Mark of the Ninja — taking out enemies, fulfilling optional objectives, being spotted by guards and so on — will either gain or lose you points. The perfectionists out there will want to come back and maximise their score for each stage, or at least trump their friends in the online leaderboards. There are also artefacts to find and scrolls to collect, the latter of which are obtained by completing short mini-puzzle levels hidden within the game. These puzzle levels are short and sweet and provide an enjoyable distraction whenever you come across one. Once you have completed the game, there is also a new game + mode which ramps up the difficulty, so there is plenty of content here for those who want to see it all.
Mark of the Ninja is everything a stealth game should be, striking a perfect balance between empowering the player and making them feel vulnerable. Light, shadow and sound are all used masterfully to enrich the games stealth mechanics and the multitude of visual techniques used to facilitate this are elegantly implemented. Collectibles, unlockables and mini-puzzle levels might serve as padding to a lesser game, but in Mark of the Ninja, they simply add to what is a very accomplished core experience. Thanks to a whole host of different tools and techniques, as well as the multiple routes open to the player, scouting, considering and executing your plan to get through each section unseen remains a pleasure throughout. If Mark of the Ninja has snuck under your radar, then I’m happy to inform you that this is a game you should consider picking up.