Mark of the Ninja wasnít on my radar. In fact, I had never even heard of it until we briefly passed by it in the indie section of PAX last week and paused a few seconds to admire the graphics. Or maybe I had heard of it and just never committed the rather plain name to memory. Iím hoping that the forgettable naming, the lack of pre-release buzz, and the non-ceremonious Friday XBLA release donít doom this game. This 2D stealth game from the makers of Eets: Chowdown and Shank is absolutely something you should be playing. I can hear a lot of you asking, ďBut what about me? I hate stealth games. Should I ignore this because stealth games suck and are no fun?Ē
Well, very intelligent reader, I agree that most stealth games are the absolute worst. However, YOU should be playing Mark of the Ninja. Sometimes games are designed so well that they transcend their genre and Mark of the Ninja does just that. I get fed up with most games that make me sneak around because they become frustrating and repetitious as I trial and error and error and error my way through them. Wait, through them is not correct. I meant until I quit them. Mark of the Ninja sidesteps a lot of that mess with its 2D visuals and mechanics. To begin with, the appearance of the game is gorgeous and reminiscent of high-end graphic novels and animated shows that are aimed at a more adult audience. The looks arenít just for show, as the visual cues play a big part in how the game is played. This is apparent in basic mechanics like visual cones projecting from guards and rings that show how far noise will travel if you were to shatter a light with a dart. Additionally, the screen brightens when you are out in the open and dims to indicate you are hidden in the shadows. Itís all really simple to understand feedback that takes out a lot of the uncertainty that creeps into a lot of stealth games. The stealth becomes second nature.
Mark of the Ninja also nails the controls so that scaling up walls, crawling through vents, and grappling onto overhangs always feels natural and fluid. While incredibly nimble, the ninja is equipped with a limited arsenal (a sword, bamboo darts, noise-making fireworks, and spike traps) and doesnít stand much of a chance in head-on fisticuffs. This small assortment of items combined with environmental hazards can be used to distract guards and lure them to a place where you can dispatch of themÖ and then their corpses. Most importantly, everything reacts the way you would expect it to and there are no nasty surprises to ruin your carefully laid plans. Any time I got spotted or killed, I was clearly at fault and I knew why. That makes restarting sections have the potential to feel more rewarding than punishing. I know I often decided to restart at the last checkpoint when I was spotted simply because I knew I could get through a section much cleaner. And some of the mechanics are just maniacally brilliant. Not only can you sneak up and quick kill enemies (with actually enjoyable quicktime prompts), but you can also torment them with the freshly deceased bodies of their cohorts. Tossing a lifeless guard out of the shadows at a patrolling guard freaks them out and causes them to nervously start randomly firing at anything that moves. With multiple paths through the levels, there really is a lot of room for creativity and the blood-spurting assassinations are the perfect gift for a job well done. But the greatness of Mark of the Ninja doesnít stop there.
Each level has three mini-goals, three hidden scrolls, and three score goals to accompany the main mission. Accomplishing these tasks rewards you with coins that can be traded in for new ways to sneakily take down foes (like hanging upside down from your grappling chain), new distraction items (such as smoke bombs), and new attack gear (like hallucinogenic darts). Along with varying guard types and puzzle mechanics, all of these new abilities keep the game fresh as you can develop new tactics and they make going back to replay levels very appealing. There are also unlockable ninja loadouts that enable customization in what you bring with you. For example, maybe youíd like to carry two distraction items instead of bringing along an attack item or vice versa. Mark of the Ninja also contains a lot of fun Achievements that encourage the experimenting with all aspects of the game, and even challenges you to pass through entire levels without being seen or harming a guard. Doing so is a blast, as you need to really get creative with how to handle seemingly impossible situations. Should you master all of these aspects, thereís also a New Game+ that ups the difficulty by removing some of the audible and visual hints.
Mark of the Ninja is a modern marvel: developer Klei has made an accessibly fun stealth gameÖ even for those of us that detest the genre. Itís simply a great game with fluid animation, addictive and compulsive puzzle platforming, and an upgrade system that expands the replay value. Heck, even the story and animated cut-scenes are a lot more gripping than they initially appear. You may have noticed that I didnít talk about any negatives in this review. Thatís because I honestly canít think of any worth bringing up. Iím confident this is a game thatís going to find its way on a lot of ďBest ofĒ lists this year. It may have snuck up out of nowhere, but Mark of the Ninja is absolutely a name you should commit to memory and a game you should be playing.
Outstanding | Very Good | Fair | Poor | Awful
Recommended Buy Price: $15.00
Current MSRP: $15.00
Mark of the Ninja was provided for review by Microsoft. I completed the main campaign in nine hours accumulating 22 out of 30 Achievements for 260 GamerScore. I have gone back and played an additional two hours already. Mark of the Ninja is an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive.