Mark of the Ninja was made by Klei Entertainment, who were previously known for their work on the Shank games. Shank and Shank 2 made quite an impression with their cartoon visuals mixed with candid violence, but were marred by common brawler tropes – namely repetitive design, and the button mashing you tend to get with unrealised controls.
Mark of the Ninja keeps the Saturday morning cartoon style rolling, but this game is no brawler. You play the role of an unnamed ninja; bestowed the title of champion of the Hisomu clan. You are awakened in the middle of the night by a fellow ninja to find your village under attack by a mercenary faction. After freeing your ninja compatriots and the leader of your clan you get some story to set your ninja apart from the rest; a tattoo which adorns him, made with a mythical ink turning him into a super ninja. Of course his new godlike status comes at a cost, for this is a tattoo of insanity!
There is more to the story, but it simply exists to move you from one level to the next and is, for better or for worse, quite forgettable.
Despite the lack of polygons, you might feel vibes of Splinter Cell or Arkham Asylum in this 2D side-scroller. Stealth is the key component here and Mark of the Ninja provides ample means to manipulate the enemies and move around an area unseen. Light and dark play large roles in this game; guards can spot you under light very quickly and when you kick up a fuss they’ll be quick to scan around the area with their flashlights.
Gameplay moves at a deliberate pace. While running around is an option, it creates more problems than it solves. Much like Splinter Cell and Arkham, you’ll perform best if you take a moment to surveil an area before making your move. Time is not a factor and experimentation is embraced. Checkpoints are generous and are quick to reload letting you perfect a level section by section on the fly.
You can slice and dice your way through a level, or you can play it Big Boss style and leave enemies nary the wiser you were ever there. While the game gives instant gratification to anyone quick to unsheathe their blade, the highest scores are gained by being merciful and only tallied up at the end of the level.
The controls are nothing short of superb. The movement is responsive and easy to grasp. Mark McNinja has a toolset that feels like it came right out of a Spiderman game – he can climb walls and ceilings, use a grappling hook to zip from ledge to ledge, or even hang from them. When you’ve become accustomed to the controls there’s a real sense of satisfaction when carefully laid plans come together.
One such early example had a room with a chandelier with two guards standing under it watching both sides of the room. When you’re just passing through with no regard for who lives or dies this room is a no-brainer. Trying to pass through on a no-kill run, however, this room requires substantially more testing. And when it all comes together, despite the fact you might have spent 20 minutes figuring it out, you can’t help but muster a big shit-eating grin.
There’s a skill tree and currency with which to buy these skills. Currency is gained through getting high scores, finding collectibles and accomplishing certain side-objectives in the game. These skills further compliment the abilities of our already very lethal ninja.
Completing side-objectives also unlocks items and weapons that change how you can approach levels. With those there are also a number of outfits you can unlock which grant you character certain bonuses, usually at the cost of some other effects. One outfit, for example, will amplify your stealth abilities; reducing sounds and the sight radius of enemies, but in turn will strip you of your ability to kill enemies.
Mark of the Ninja was a pleasant surprise; it’s a stealth game that plays to the strength of the genre and shows great polish in mechanics and visuals. While it’s a bit light on the story, the chances are you’ll be too busy admiring the well-crafted gameplay to care.