Review: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja not only perfects the stealth genre, it transcends it, such that even non-stealth-game fans are likely to enjoy its rewarding gameplay and captivating atmosphere.

“Fun” and “rules” are two concepts frequently placed at odds with one another, and yet one of the basic truths of video games is that they are fun because they have rules. Video games are simulations of various realities, built on sophisticated systems. Understanding the parameters and limitations of these simulations—what actions are and are not allowed, and what responses we should and should not expect—is often an essential part of successful and enjoyable gameplay.

A genre where rules are exceedingly important is the so-called “stealth game”. In a typical stealth game, the player controls a vulnerable (though often quite powerful) character whose primary charge is to ambush, hide from, and/or otherwise circumvent adversaries using methods besides direct confrontation. For this type of gameplay to be effective, there has to be a well-understood set of rules. How can I tell if I am adequately hidden? What actions will cause an enemy to sense my presence? If I am detected, what are the consequences? When these rule sets are skillfully designed and well communicated to the player, stealth games become a challenging organic puzzle that tests the player’s capacity for deceit and subterfuge. When they are not, stealth games become a vehicle for limitless frustration that test the player’s capacity for anger management.

Mark of the Ninja is a 2D action game that implements the essential design elements of the stealth genre impeccably. Developed by Klei Entertainment (makers of the Shank franchise) and available via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, Mark of the Ninja follows the Champion of the Hisomu ninja clan in his quest to destroy a powerful private military corporation that has assaulted his ancestral home. To fulfill his duty, the Champion must disable scores of heavily-armed guards, evade deadly and devious traps, and circumvent high-tech security measures.

Enemies can be distracted in a variety of ways. Investigation of mysteriously damaged floodlights and unexpectedly sounded gongs is a leading cause of guard-related death in this game.

Though his mission is daunting, the Champion is well equipped for the task at hand. A gifted ninja with superhuman abilities derived from his mystical tattoos (called “marks”), the Champion can effortlessly scale ceilings and walls, fling bamboo darts with unerring accuracy, and execute an unsuspecting enemy in complete silence. Despite this impressive list of powers, he’s hardly invincible; if a misstep or botched kill raises the alarm, a burst or two from a mercenary’s assault rifle kills him as dead as anyone else.

It is in its understanding and expression of the player character’s advantages and limitations that Mark of the Ninja truly excels. When performing noisy actions such as sprinting or using your grappling hook, blue circles indicate the radius within which these sounds will alert a guard. When standing in light or darkness, the Champion’s visibility to a foe is clearly apparent. In other words, whenever you end up dead on the ground with more holes in your face than nature intended, it’s pretty much always because of a careless step or a flawed strategy, and you’ll know exactly what went wrong.

Attacking an unsuspecting enemy results in a stylish instant kill animation. Attacking a suspecting enemy usually results in getting your head blown off and reloading at a checkpoint.

In addition to the expertly implemented systems for player feedback, Mark of the Ninja has a pretty generous checkpoint system, which typically responds to your untimely demise by restoring you to the point just before everything went all sideways. Together, the feedback and checkpoints encourage a satisfying level of experimentation and choice. If I let that guard catch a glimpse of me, can I return to the shadows quickly enough to sneak past him when he comes over to snoop around? If I hang this guard’s corpse from that lamppost, will it terrify those other two guards enough that they’ll accidentally shoot each other? I often found myself repeating a section multiple times not because I couldn’t complete it, but rather out of a desire to complete it as elegantly as possible. (Yes, I realize I just used “elegant” to describe the act of hanging corpses from streetlights.)

The artfully refined mechanics of Mark of the Ninja would add up to a pretty fantastic experience irrespective of graphics and story; however, the game manages to deliver on these other fronts as well. The characters are masterfully illustrated in Klei Entertainment’s trademark comic-book style, and the richly layered environments possess a sense of purpose that embraces the visual extremes of light and dark. While for some games, the graphics are the point of the game, for Mark of the Ninja, the graphics communicate the point of the game, by taking the practical requirements of the world and restating them in a visually compelling way.

The story of Mark of the Ninja is also impressive for such a mechanical game, though it shines somewhat less spectacularly than the graphics. The characters are as well acted and are developed about as deeply as one can expect from a handful of cut-scenes and some limited instructional and expository dialogue, most of which involves a stereotypically taciturn ninja clan. The plot is similarly pragmatic, although it contains a few twists that, while fairly predictible, are thoroughly appreciated in a game that could have just as easily have ignored narrative altogether.

The environments of Mark of the Ninja are a triumph of utilitarian design: beautifully rendered, yet wholly committed to the game’s essential purpose.

To summarize: Mark of the Ninja refines the stealth game to its functional zenith, and like all great feats of design, achieves in its complexity a certain simplicity. I believe that the elegance of its mechanics, along with its diverse opportunities for player experimentation and appealing aesthetic trappings, allow it to appeal to a wide audience. If you think you might enjoy pretending to be a bad-ass master ninja—which I’d like to think is pretty much everyone—then Mark of the Ninja is a game for you.

2 thoughts on “Review: Mark of the Ninja

  1. a) way to wax rhapsodic there buddy – wow.
    b) what happened to the old quad-chart? You really had to go the 5 stars route? What if it doesn’t warn me of impending tornadoes?

  2. Thanks for the comments, V. I ditched my old “DANG” review format precisely because it was too constraining. It would have been hard to write something like this or the Dust review within that framework.

    After playing around and thinking with various formats, I came to believe that the 5-stars standard is so ubiquitous because it actually communicates a rough assessment of the game pretty well, while still leaving a lot of flexibility in the text to expand on that assessment.

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