Klei Entertainment, most well known for the Shank series, takes a shot at the stealth action genre with Mark of the Ninja. Their stylistic charm returns, as well as a number of gameplay mechanics adapted from other games of the genre, though has this change of pace resulted in an entertaining experience?

If you’ve been following the genre, it’s going to easy to initially throw up Mark of the Ninja as a ‘been there, done that’, since the undoubted king of the Ninja stealth game is Tenchu. Where Mark of the Ninja differs however is in its core design, as the 2D aspect severely changes up the gameplay design, and at a first glance you might think it limits it. The narrative may take a back seat to the action, but the fast paced fluid platforming provides an experience that is unlike anything else on the Xbox Live Arcade as you sneak in the shadows and plan your attack.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mark of the Ninja is in its use of a mechanic best described as Fog of War. Most commonly seen in the strategy genre, it’s a technique that’s used to only let you see what the character can see, with the unseen area coated in grey shadows. Sight lines are hugely important here (as expected from a stealth game), though the concept of sound also plays a big part. Everything in the environment that makes a noise emanates a ‘sound radius’ to provide you visual information on how loud it is, and therefore if the enemies can hear it, they’ll be drawn to it. How you choose to use it will of course vary, as a more passive player may choose to sneak past unnoticed, while the aggressive player will create the perfect opportunity to strike. As in many games of the genre, the guard routines are relatively straightforward, and often easy to abuse, meaning that you’ll likely end up with a well organised pile bodies to dispose of.

The art and animation follow suite in Klei’s trademark style seen in their previous games such as Shank, providing a simple but effective, clean and colourful art style which combine to create a surprisingly atmospheric title. The bright contrasting colours are reminiscent of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, and the grimy sewers have a Gish flavour about them. The art team have really been put through their paces with the variety of the environments on offer, providing an elegant mix of both old architecture such as old castle ruins meshed with modern technology including lasers and security turrets, with both the weather effects and multi-layered scrolling coming together to provide some beautiful landscapes for you to sneak through. Subtle touches such as climbable surfaces having a white silhouette provide subconscious visual cues so you always know where you can go, even on the larger multi-pathed levels. Mark of the Ninja is primarily a linear affair, though you may end up relying on the map to make sure that you’ve checked every corner of each area for collectables.

The colour palette plays into the light and shadows, as it shifts depending on where your character is situated, a technique similar to that of Splinter Cell Conviction. Like Darksiders, Mark of the Ninja is no stranger to adapting concepts and mechanics from other games. Both ‘Mark and Execute’ and ‘Last Known Position’ also from Conviction make an appearance, with the aforementioned pausing the action, letting you cue up gadgets and perform some impressive grappling hook split second saves. The range of gadgets on offer is certainly impressive, really offering up a lot of choice for the player, and by the end of the game you’ll have a varied arsenal of toys to play with, including the ever prevalent ‘Cardboard Box’. As you progress you’ll come upon a variety of tougher enemies who you’ll need to stun first; add to that dogs that can sniff you, and enemies with night vision and gas masks, you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you.

The core platforming mechanics are what makes Mark of the Ninja so solid. After an initial period in which you may be quite clumsy, the smooth and fluid motions will come naturally, and it almost begins to feel like a side-scrolling Assassin’s Creed. The High and Low profile control approach has also been adopted from Ubisoft’s franchise, giving you control over how automated your character’s movements are. Once you’ve grasped the core controls, you’ll be scampering up walls and across rooftops in no time.

Mark of the Ninja is a game of two halves, literally. During the initial levels of the 8-10 hour experience, your abilities are rather limited, though by no means ineffective, but once you hit the halfway point and your gadget arsenal and ability roster is filled out, you can be much more aggressive, though only if you want to be. Within a few levels, you’ll be able to string enemies up to lampposts, pull them under grates or just mess with them through use of noise makers and gas, or be a little more direct with a spike mine or terror inducing darts. It’s never overwhelming however, as gadgets are introduced slowly, so when you get around to playing the New Game Plus option, you’ll really feel like a true Ninja. Later levels introduce more environmental puzzles where objects react to the light in interesting ways, featuring into the Challenge Rooms which are hidden in each level.

As with any good stealth game, it’s never a good idea to face an enemy head on, though as you progress, you’ll feel better equipped to both surprise and suppress your enemies with ease. You’ll be spending a lot of your time in vents, planning your next move, though it can sometimes come down to a lot of trial and error. Checkpoints are frequent, and even though the levels themselves do sometimes drag on a little, you’re never forced to replay large segments if you make a wrong move, as long as you’re following the core path. The checkpoints can come and bite you in the behind though if you decide to go back and clear out an area after sneaking through, or if you go off the beaten track, as one false move on a stealth run can mean you’ll need to do a bit of backtracking.

The narrative, while offering up a couple of interesting twists and turns never really steps into the limelight, and you’ll have a hard time remembering the character names after the credits roll, even though the finale is really quite special. It essentially boils down to a revenge story, which, after your Clan is attacked, you’re sent out to both find out why, as well as fulfil your destiny of the ‘ink’.

Everything is scored in Mark of the Ninja, be it throwing a body into a dumpster, distracting enemies, or even traumatising them to the state of friendly fire kills, there’s a surprising amount of player choice. The scoring is also very well balanced, and you’ll end up with a similar score if you choose to avoid combat all together, or decide to eliminate every enemy in the level. You’ll end up with the best score if you only enter combat when you’re guaranteed a high scoring kill, and sneaking past those who won’t net you the big points. There’s never a pressure of time however (except for a couple of scripted sequences) so it really pays to take your time and milk the guards for points if that’s the approach you’re going for. Collectables are in abundance here, from scrolls to artifacts, they’re just waiting to give you a point boost.

Mark of the Ninja is very much a complete package. The solid platforming mechanics work in perfect tandem with the atmospheric art and sounds to create a stealth action game that really allows you to strike fear into your enemies. While it won’t be for everyone, it certainly adds something unique and original to the Xbox Live Arcade.

Mark of the Ninja is now available for 1200 Microsoft points from the Xbox Live Arcade. A code was provided for the purposes of this review.



Author

James Steel
James Steel

James likes games! So much so, his collection spans 19 formats and near 2500 games. Keen to progress in both video games journalism and video production, he often finds himself tracking down games of all formats in the local charity shops.