Klei Entertainment is known for making 2D games with a really refined art style that are sadly a little lacking in the gameplay. While Shank and Shank 2 were by no means bad games, they were beset by a bit of monotony and a lack of polish in some of the fighting.
Mark of the Ninja is trying a completely different track, though, eschewing the over-the-top action of the Shank games and putting you in the tabi cloth of a ninja, one who has been gifted (cursed?) with an ever-growing collection of mystical tattoos which grant him great powers at the cost of his sanity. Can Klei make the transition from brutal violence to the beauty of a well-timed stealth kill?
The Path of Sight
Mark of the Ninja has a very strong cartoony art-style that combines thick outlines with a hint of traditional Japanese artwork. There is no ambiguity in Mark’s visual language; you know exactly when you’re hidden in shadow and where the guards are looking.
The 2D also works quite well in conjunction with the visuals as there’s no third dimension to muck things up. Although the game might seem incredibly linear at first, a lot of the rooms have multiple paths through them, which is helpful later on in the game when the enemies become much tougher.
Mark of the Ninja has excellent pacing to it, progressing smoothly up the difficulty curve; at no point did I feel complacent or frustrated with the challenges facing me. While the later enemies might be a tad overpowered, you have many tools at your disposal from the way you can interact with the environment to the new powers granted by the tattoos. Indeed, later on I was using my supernatural abilities far more often than my physical implements but the progression from a mundane toolbox to a mystical one felt spot-on with the tricks the game was throwing at me.
The story behind Mark of the Ninja is fairly simple and the choice it throws at you at the end of the game comes out of nowhere. These aren’t major slights against the overall package, as the stealth is more than engaging enough for it. If anything, I’m glad Mark of the Ninja makes some missteps in the narrative instead of the gameplay. And boy, is the gameplay ever excellent.
The Path of Stealth
From the very beginning of the game you’re told to stick to the shadows, as befits a ninja of your exceptional skill. When you’re hidden, your outline chances to black and white, same with the enemy guards you’ll be facing. There is also a noise meter that represents itself in concentric circles corresponding to the noise you made. Running will generate larger circles while latching onto a grapple point with your hook will make a smaller one. When one of the circles comes into contact with a guard, he will come to investigate, and if his flashlight reaches you, your cover breaks and your position becomes known.
At that point there’s a very Metal Gear Solid evasion phase where a timer counts down, but when you’re seen there’s no sense of unfairness. You know exactly what you did to get spotted and to the game’s credit you can restart from the last checkpoint and try again with no consequences.
You have so many tricks up your sleeve to remain stealthy like hiding behind objects and in dumpsters and you have a variety of distraction items and lethal throwing objects to use. One of your abilites is Focus, where holding down the left trigger will pause time, allowing you to highlight different objects and areas and chuck your equipment at them when you release the trigger. This is incredibly cool to use, and the game makes liberal use of it at some points.
There’s also a large number of ways to execute a stealth kill and when you do it, you need to pass a quick time event to ensure that you kill is completed silently. You can still succeed if you mess up the QTE, but the resulting murder is noisy and might draw guards. You can also use slaughtered guards to you advantage as terrifying an enemy will cause him to loose composure and shoot his teammates. Later enemies will have additional hiccups to factor in before you can gut them, like guards that need to be stunned before they can be executed to adversaries who behave a lot like you do.
The controls are so well done and the way the game communicates its stealth mechanics to you are so clear and concise that it rarely leads to any of the frustrating moments endemic to 3D stealth games. This is the way stealth games should be done.
Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic 2D stealth game with great gameplay hooks to keep you invested enough to try out new game +. There’s a whole host of gameplay modifying suits to try out, like one that eliminates any sound you make while running or the one that grants you instant stealth kills. In addition to that, there are challenge rooms, upgrades and other things to keep you coming back.
While the story might leave you a little indifferent, the gameplay is so strong that there’s no reason not to try this game. It’s coming to Steam next month (without Games for Windows Live!) so even you PC folks can try it out. Has anyone else played Mark of the Ninja? What did you think of it?
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