Hiding from someone is not particularly difficult. If they’re on one side of the room and you’re on the other, you just get behind something, which obstructs their vision–simple; especially in the dark. And yet a game most of us have played is hide and go seek. When you see the seeker running around, checking under bushes, finding all your opponents and eventually leaving you the unseen victor, you feel smart, you feel quick- you feel like a ninja. Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth platforming game but foremost it’s a game about feeling like a ninja, and it nails it.
When the Hisomu clan is threatened by a military force who tracks them down after a ninja raid, a last-resort ritual is performed on a member of the clan which gives them extraordinary sensory abilities. This ninja, played by you, is tattooed with a special ink that greatly heightens your senses. The mark allows you to essentially “see” the exact range of sound (represent in-game by light blue rings emanating from the source) and know exactly what’s in the room on the other side of a door. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but add wall climbing, scurrying through vents, a grappling hook and a deadly arsenal of stealth kills and you’ve got yourself the makings of the best game I’ve played all year.
Stealth games are usually entirely about hiding, disabling enemies and erasing traps, but Mark of the Ninja adds the element of platforming into the mix. Most of the game will be spent solving puzzles while attempting to get from point A to point B, often involving several pit stops along the way. The puzzles range from difficult combinations of exposure and enemies to timing-based platforming and everything between, and they’re all thoroughly enjoyable. Every time I see a big building on the map full of guards I think ‘there’s no way I’ll get through that,’ then on the other side I think ‘I’m a god-damn ninja,’ and saying it never gets any less satisfying. In fact, after the first level of the game, I never once got detected without me knowing why – I never blamed the game for anything.
The two main mechanics of Mark of the Ninja are light and sound, naturally. When in the light, any enemy who is looking towards your character will become aware of you; the same is true for when an enemy hears a sound. Light is marked in clearly displayed arcs, and any sounds are displayed as blue circles A yellow ring represents the location where an enemy’s focus is directed, and the enemy in question will have a yellow circle with a question mark in it over their head. If an enemy can reach the location, they’ll come check it out, if they can’t, most enemies will point their flashlight at it. Later in the game these mechanics morph and grow, but the bottom line is always the same. As a player you’ll always be aware of when you can be detected, when you can’t, and why. Without this, Mark of the Ninja would probably be unplayable.
Being a ninja doesn’t just have to be about staying in the dark and keeping quiet; it can also be about cool gadgets. The main tools of the ninja in Mark of the Ninja are darts (presumptively kunais, but perhaps “darts” are more widely recognizable) and the “focus” mechanic. The darts, the supply of which is infinite, can destroy lights and electricity panels, hit objects which create noise, or be thrown at enemies to draw their attention. Focus, another ability granted by the tattoos, allows the player to freeze time to aim and mark targets for item use. Up to three actions can be queued; for instance, using a dart to take out a light, picking a ledge to grapple onto, and tossing some caltrops on the floor. When focus ends, all three actions occur simultaneously – again, you feel like a ninja. Patience and timing are of the utmost required abilities (depending on how you play) in Mark of the Ninja, and focus takes the greatest advantage of those concepts while sticking to the feel of ninja.
While the entirety of Mark of the Ninja can be completed without killing a single enemy, sometimes you just feel like stabbing people and that’s okay. As long as the player is currently hidden, most enemies can be killed with stealth kills. Simply walking up behind an enemy and pressing X initiates the kill, then a direction as indicated on the screen must be pressed along with the X button again to finish it. If input correctly, no noise will be made, but if you mess up, the enemy will struggle and make a lot of noise before they go down. There are a wide variety of stealth kills, though admittedly the cooler ones are unlocked as the game progresses, including hanging an enemy while dangling from a chain and killing an enemy from inside a Metal Gear Solid-esque box.
Mark of the Ninja allows you to stay hidden and sneak your way to safety, use items to distract or eliminate enemies, or even kill everyone you see; the game makes no compromises for your interests. Most puzzles and encounters in the game are clearly designed with the idea of a solvable challenge (usually get over there, or press that button, or move this object) rather than an attainable solution. The idea is to present players with something they can beat however they want with any solution they come up with, rather than a single solution they can find. The effect seems minute, but the difference is clear: instead of getting into the designer’s head and trying to get what they were going for, you’re purely playing the game, looking at the situation and solving problems the way you feel fit. And hey, if you fail, that’s okay. There’s always a checkpoint not far behind (pretty much before each “room” or “area”), so you’re welcome to experiment.
Keeping in line with allowing the player to solve solutions however they want, the game provides a few optional challenges to players. Each level has three scrolls to find with a neat haiku about the story. Roughly 25% of the scrolls require the completion of distilled puzzle-like challenges; there are just enough of these and they’re hidden far enough away that they’re rewards rather than momentum-breaking distractions. Each level also has three optional seals which usually involve something about the level’s scenario such as “steal both keys without being detected” or “kill all 7 guards in the catacombs.” The seals add a layer of difficulty to each level, and early on they ease the player into the notion of completing auxiliary challenges “just because.”
Once you’ve completed a few seals, you’ll find yourself completing puzzles in extraneous ways because the option is there and the game subtly invites you to. Mark of the Ninja does little more than dare the player to prove how ninja they are (to the game? to themselves?), so the player really drives their own challenge and entertainment on top of the actual game experience. As you complete seals, find scrolls, and hit score-based goals, you’ll accumulate medals (there are nine per level) which can be used to purchase upgrades. These upgrades cover open and stealth combat, traversal, gadgets, weapons and outfits, all tailored to allowing the player to both play the way they want, and feel a natural progression in terms of power and capability.
The tight, satisfying mechanics and the clear representation of information in the game are the reasons to buy Mark of the Ninja, but there’s also icing on this delicious cake. Klei’s seamless animation and amazing, hand-drawn art seen in their other game Shank is revisited here in Mark of the Ninja. Despite much of the game being in darkness, brilliant use of of silhouetting helps background features stand out and a subtle light-gray outline keeps the player from losing sight of his character.
Throughout the first 80% of my playthrough, Mark of the Ninja had one flaw- the story. There was some enemy guy, I wasn’t sure who he was or why he attacked the Hisomu clan (to which the main character belongs), and I wasn’t sure why my female companion Oda was narrating everything to me. It seemed like placeholder for the game, an excuse to make a kickass title about ninjas- then I started to get to the end. Without spoiling anything, the ending will make you think back on the entire game and realize the twist you “knew” was coming wasn’t the only trick up Mark of the Ninja’s sleeve.
Mark of the Ninja is just shy of a perfect game. There’s room for more, like with any good game, but Mark of the Ninja offers plenty and it’s all thoroughly engrossing- be it simple stealth puzzle entertainment or emergent player-driven goals to complete. Everything is just so damn satisfying. The way light is shown, and how obvious the “exposed” versus “hidden” mechanic is combined with the visual representation of sound (and all information in general) delivers this pure gaming experience where you’re 100 percent in control. The big red line at the end of a mission when you don’t meet a certain score bonus challenging you to go back and beat it, and the fact that you don’t have to if you don’t want to. The way the ending slips into your brain in the last two levels and really makes you think about all those haikus, and what being the marked ninja really means.
I could praise this game on and on (in fact I just did, you were there), but all of the analysis comes down to a few special points for me: I enjoyed every part of this game. Never even once did I feel cheated by the game, I ended up playing longer than expected, and still want to play. It comes with no buts, and I have no buts about this game. I don’t even like stealth games. They always have that one mission, that one scenario where the game is endlessly frustrating, and Mark of the Ninja has none of that.
It’s near perfect. So buy it.
Mark of the Ninja was developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Microsoft Studios. An XBLA copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.