At first glance, Mark of the Ninja might appear to be your typical 2D ninja action game. You’re a ninja, for one, and you’re moving through sidescrolling levels, climbing up walls and throwing darts at bad guys. But the similarity to games like Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi quickly breaks down the moment you actually try to play Mark of the Ninja like either of those games.
In Mark of the Ninja, you are as fragile as a cherry blossom floating on a spring pond. Or something similar to that. Your foes here wield automatic weapons, and the fact is, it doesn’t matter how thick your shozoku is, or how quick you are on your tabi – bullets are going to kill you.
It is a game about stealth – a play-style almost exclusively explored in 3D games, since taking away the 3rd dimension seems to really limit how well you can avoid an enemy’s line-of-sight. But this is what’s so special about Mark of the Ninja – it manages to not only solve the design obstacles of 2D stealth, but makes the solution both as fun and as dynamic as its 3D counterparts.
What the game does to transpose stealth to 2D is to elegantly give the player feedback on almost everything. Player feedback is tucked into every aspect of its presentation. For example, to avoid the issue of the player being able to see too much of a level at a time, the areas on the screen that are within your ninja’s line-of-sight are illuminated, while everything else is shrouded in darkness. Though since your ninja’s senses have been greatly honed, you can still “see” somewhat into these darkened areas – sound waves, such as footsteps will be visible to you, letting you keep track of the movements of enemies above and below you.
The core feedback mechanic comes in the form of a ring of influence that appears before and after every action you perform. For example, you can throw a dart at a light and it will shatter and go out. When you aim at the light, a ring will appear around it, and if an enemy is within the ring, it indicates that they will notice the light break. If you are throwing a smoke bomb, it’s the same thing; the only enemies affected will be those within its ring of influence. This mechanic is used extensively elsewhere – when running, rings will pulse from your feet, alerting nearby guards to your location, and when attacking enemies you must try and pull kills off silently – a loud kill will create a ring that almost fills the whole screen.
This helps in rectifying an element of stealth games that can turn some gamers off – the fact that many times, you don’t know what the results of your actions will be until you try them and run the risk of death, and being sent all the way back to the start. Clearly defining the range of influence of each potential action cuts down on how much time you have to spend replaying sections. Paired with this is the fact that each time you set up any action, like aiming a dart or a smoke bomb, the game enters focus mode, which pauses everything on screen for as long as you wish to set up your shot. This allows you to plan your actions, making the game feel a bit more tactical while still retaining the feeling of vulnerability inherent to stealth games.
And you are truly vulnerable. Getting spotted is a big deal, because more than a second of sustained fire will always kill you. Performing your actions and killing enemies as silently as possible is as essential to survival as not being seen. This is made a bit easier by some tight handling. Each of your abilities feels very much under your control. Traversing walls and ceilings and transitioning onto a perpendicular plane is a simple maneuver, which is very helpful later in the game when accurately timed movements across all sorts of surfaces is important.
The game’s well-designed feedback system extends to beyond the end of a level. The end-level results screen clearly lays out the status of each enemy – whether you have crept past them, killed them, or they saw you or merely grew suspicious. Thankfully, if you are someone who prefers their stealth experiences to be no-kill affairs, the game doesn’t funnel you into either play-style. You get equal rewards for sneaking by enemies as you would for killing them. Upgrade trees are available for each play-style, and points are transferable to any tree, allowing you to customize your ninja to your needs. There are a lot of weapons and items to acquire, but I found that nothing quite feels as good as a sword – the secondary items never really felt as useful or adaptable and I rarely used them.
Mark of the Ninja isn’t initially a very difficult game, but it ramps up evenly and cleverly over its 4-6 hour playtime. New obstacles are introduced every few levels that force you to radically alter the way you approach scenarios – things like laser beams, elite guards, and poison gas – and keep the gameplay interesting. There are also hidden challenge rooms in the levels which contain intricate obstacle courses, but the downside is that they’re rewards aren’t very compelling. Besides a short haiku (which is sort of like Mark of the Ninja’s version of an audiotape, and can be found elsewhere just lying around) they don’t have much to offer beyond their challenge.
The story of Mark of the Ninja is fairly cliché by itself, but its beautiful cut scenes make up for a lot of the predictable narrative bullet points. The silent protagonist of the game is a ninja who has undertaken a mystical ritual that leaves him tattooed with a special ink that heightens his senses and abilities. The catch is that the ink breaks down the mind, and all those who undergo the ritual are expected to commit suicide after their mission. The plot goes down predictable paths from there and features some less-than-stellar voice acting, but the conclusion is surprisingly effective. A well-paced and artfully designed finale section ends the game on a high note, and presents the player with a significant final action.
Mark of the Ninja is a beautiful game on many fronts. The underlying gameplay systems are well-crafted and give the player complete control over its complex tool-set. The art is frequently breathtaking – while the foreground may have a lot of dim rooms, the backgrounds are exceptionally detailed worlds, and the animations look great on an HD TV. More than anything, Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic stealth experience whose innovations can hopefully coax this genre back from beneath the shadows.
Mark of the Ninja is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft points.