The Xbox Live store is starting to become a crowded place, with many games to choose from, but without much information on what to expect. Sometimes, a game hides some sort of surprise, a twist or a gameplay element which you truly didn’t see coming, which is why they feel so satisfying to play. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja is exactly that type of game.
The game opens up with a gorgeous intro scene, with the same art style as a top notch cartoon as we’ve become familiar with from Klei Entertainment, explaining how ninjas from your particular clan earn tattoos or “marks” which grant them incredible powers. The downside is that the ink is extremely toxic, meaning the ninjas only have a certain amount of time before they start hallucinating and eventually going insane. Whenever a champion is chosen to tackle a mission and is therefore “marked” with this ink, it will be his only mission. The ninja kill themselves once the mission has been successful, so they won’t have to live through the madness that follows.
The premise is simple: you are a ninja chosen to kill the President of a mysterious weapons and tech company who ordered an attack on your village, killing many. You must use the darkness to your advantage to avoid being detected by the enemy and so you can strike when they least expect it. The game starts off simply enough, with your ninja just being able to move and hide in the shadows but, throughout the game, more and more elements are introduced including your trusty katana, smoke bombs to distract your enemies and spike traps that kill enemies.
Your character is limited to his katan, one distraction item and one lethal item, meaning that at the beginning of every mission (and at certain checkpoints) you get to pick what you want to bring with you. Every item changes the way you can tackle missions and enemies, but the missions are cleverly designed so that every item is useful, meaning there is no “bad choice” when it comes to picking your loadout.
The level design is excellent in Mark of the Ninja and is probably some of the best level design in the whole XBLA store. Like I said, all the levels are designed so that they are solvable with any loadout, and often offers many different ways to tackle the same objective. Do you want to be a pacifist and try and make your way through the level without killing a soul? You can. Or maybe you prefer making intricate plans to lure your enemies into their doom by mixing and matching your items and your skills? That works too. The flexibility is simply outstanding for a downloadable game, with levels of care and attention that match a full-priced AAA title.
While Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game at its core, but it plays very similarly to a puzzle game; you observe enemies and obstacles from the darkness, memorize their patterns or look for a way to reach them and then play it out. Your planning and timing must be flawless, as almost any mistake will cost you your life. Just like a real ninja, you are an unstoppable killing machine in the dark whilst hidden, but if you are spotted and in the light, even your heightened reflexes and marks can’t save you from bullets. There is very little room for error, which is why the game encourages you to take your time. You don’t have a timer or a bonus for completing a level quickly, but you do get bonuses if you pass by undetected, distract, kill from a hiding spot or don’t kill at all. This means that if you get spotted, you lose that bonus at the end of the level. If you want a good score, you’d better take your time with the challenges the game throws at you!
Another feature the game deserves to be recognized for is its art style. I already mentioned the beautiful looking cut-scenes, that are on par with many of the best cartoons out there in terms of quality, but Mark of the Ninja carries that art style throughout the course of the game. Everything looks hand drawn and is cell shaded, from the characters to the environments to the weapons and effects; the game looks stunningly beautiful. You view changes depending if you are standing in light or darkness, rooms are obscured if the door is closed and light up when you press yourself against is, as if you are peeking through the keyhole (also thanks to your heightened senses and madness-inducing tattoo). It really is a beautiful game to play through and one of the most visually impressive games I have seen this generation.
The animation is also fantastic; characters smoothly transition from one animation to the next, they react realistically when they are against a surface, and they shake and stumble when they are frightened. The kill animations are bloody and look just as great, the only downside being that they tend to get repetitive early due to the lack of different kill animations. However, there were some definite issues with the overall control scheme.
At the beginning, controls aren’t an issue, but as the game progresses and requires you to pull off more complex and accurate moves and jumps, they get a bit in the way. Most of the time, if, say, I wanted to hit a switch and quickly jump on a ledge before I would be spotted I would either miss the jump or hit another object in the way which caused me to interact with that. Only after several tries did I get that right. Another example is when I wanted to do a small jump so I could land behind an enemy and assassinate him, I would more often than not jump a much longer distance and awkwardly find myself face to face with the man I was trying to creep up on. Other than these minor issues with the controls in these circumstances, the rest of the time I had no issue and the controls were accurate and reliable, and compared to Klei’s previous game, Shank, the controls move like a dream.
Once you beat the game, which takes about eight hours, you unlock “new game plus” which allows you to replay the game whilst keeping all your upgrades you purchased, but enemies are harder and smarter, you don’t see circles around objects when they make noise (a lifesaver if you are trying to pop a light bulb without being detected!) and you can’t see very well behind you. Other than that, you will have reasons to go back to the game, you can try to improve your score or beat a friend’s score in a level, you can try using different loadouts which only became available late in the game right off the bad, and you can try out the different outfits which modify the way your character plays. In addition to all this, you’ll want to go back to see how the game would have ended differently had you made a different choice… but that’s all I’ll say on that!
Mark of the Ninja stands out due to its exceptional art style and simple, yet flexible gameplay. It’s truly one of the most notable releases on the XBLA store in a long time and stands at the top in terms of quality and attention to detail. It truly is a game which will leave a mark.
Mark of the Ninja is available on XBLA through this link http://bit.ly/xboxninja for 1200 MS.
Editor’s Note: Front Towards Gamer received a review copy of the game from Klei Entertainment.