“Hey the light went out” - “indeed it did my friend” I mutter to myself as I slink slowly towards my prey from the shadows, while unsheathing my silver sliver of cold hard steel to administer a new form of acupuncture - to rid him of the ailment of life. Then quick as a flash back into the shadows to locate my next prey. Mark of the Ninja is a series of moments, each distilled down to the primal experience of the hunter and the hunted, with yourself at the top of the predatory food chain. Klei Entertainment have dragged the game back to the roots of the stealth and ninja genres to pull off one of the most focused and well designed stealth experiences in years.
In print Mark of the Ninja sounds like a step back in the genre, where you play a ninja out to get revenge on a rather shady armed outfit who have wronged your clan (where have we heard that before?) all in two dimensions with an old school coat of paint. You have little or no modern gadgetry, certainly no guns and no special magic powers to speak of. In doing so Mark of the Ninja has been freed allowing some brilliant gameplay to emerge. Comparisons to Shinobi series must be drawn here as it has the feel of a modern day reincarnation of the the legendary gaming series, which is a massive compliment.
Throughout Mark of the Ninja you get the feeling that Klei have had to reign themselves in, not giving into the usual trappings of the modern stealth game and as a result they have innovated with the basics to give you a fresh yet familiar experience. Klei have focused on three main areas of innovation in Mark of the Ninja - sight, shadow and sound. “Well duh“ we hear you cry, of the course it's centred around those aspects it’s a stealth game, but the implementation is the best part of Mark of the Ninja.
The removal of radar and its replacement for instance demonstrates this, with sound essentially turned into a visual cue and becoming a more subtle version of radar. Most actions in the game produce sound and this is shown by a halo appearing around the event or action. The larger the action and sound means a larger halo and more chance of being noticed. It can also work to your advantage by allowing you to track some unsuspecting henchman's footsteps when you are not looking directly at him or skulking in an air vent or drain scoping out the area. This conveniently brings us onto sight, which again has been given a makeover. We have established that you can no longer rely on radar so sight is much more important, but to know exactly where an unsuspecting grunt is in any particular area you need to have direct line of sight. When your environments are intricate networks of odd shaped rooms, air vents and roof tops finding the right spot to scope out your victims position while staying hidden adds another layer of challenge and will make you stop and think from time to time.
What stealth game worth its salt would be seen without copious amounts of shadow enveloping every environment safely allowing your protagonist to pull faces and make vulgar hand gestures at their potential victims before moving in for the kill (the exception being a certain baldy assassin where you murder people in plain sight dressed as a chicken)? The shadow mechanic is probably the least tampered with and will allow you to get to grips with the nuances of Mark of the Ninja quite quickly. You have a nice visual marker for when you are enveloped in shadow and are invisible and when you are fully illuminated, that being your screen becoming saturated with colour when you are lit up and drained of it when you are hidden.
Combining these three fundamental mechanics together to give a solid foundation to Mark of the Ninja drives a real advantage and puts it ahead of the competition. The realisation of this for us at The Digital Fix was with these innovations you have a much greater level of immersion and you especially don’t find yourself glued to the corner of the screen for seventy-five percent of your play time looking at little dots on a radar minimap, and instead actually plan your entry into a play space before taking the plunge.
When you start with such a great foundation anything else is the icing on the cake, when you throw in a few ninja toys such as darts and firecrackers the gameplay then opens up even further, especially when you admire the finely crafted maze like levels to traverse. Not only do you have henchmen, guard dogs and lights to contend with but in the advanced tech world of your antagonists you also have laser trip wires, automated gun turrets and even movement sensors to worry about. When you combine all these variables you will find yourself intending to play for ten minutes before tea and the next thing you know it is two in the morning and you have a disgruntled spouse and possibly a very well fed dog on your hands.
The inclusion of extra challenges within each level to facilitate a venture off the beaten track or perhaps force you to tackle a situation differently are a welcome distraction, and in most cases far from generic. They also help the acquisition of seals, which are your in game currency to spend on upgrades to your ninja skills which open up opportunities for you to dispatch foes in more elaborate and useful ways. As you may have also guessed you will be scored at the end of a level on your ninja prowess which can then be uploaded to global leaderboards for ninja bragging rights and extra seals to spend depending on your score.
Now to the very plump cherries on top - the controls in Mark of the Ninja are very tight and again help with immersion as within five minutes you should be fluent in dealing death. Combined with a very complementary art style which Klei are known for with their original two Shank games (among others) it shows very fitting and clear visuals all backed up by the music and sounds suite which have nailed the atmosphere of the game with their subtlety. The story arc is probably the weakest part of Mark of the Ninja and by weak we mean totally competent and easy to follow with a good if not predictable twist.
In all if you like video games and ninjas, you cannot put a foot wrong with Mark of the Ninja you have the most refined stealth game in years (even in 2D) with pin sharp gameplay mechanics and superb level design. Combined with the extra bells and whistles (or should I say bamboo darts and firecrackers) brought by the challenges, RPG style upgrades and score attack mechanic to bring in longevity. Mark of the Ninja is a beaming example of excellence on XBLA and Klei will certainly have left their mark on everyone who experiences it.
You can find Mark of the Ninja here on Xbox Live Arcade. Other formats for release have not been confirmed at present.