Marked for Greatness
Let’s get one thing straight: I love stealth. I absolutely adore it. If I were legally allowed to marry a videogame genre, I’d tell stealth to get all gussied up, drive her to the nicest restaurant in town, and take a knee so hard I’d blow out my ACL. You can understand, then, why I was so excited to learn that Klei Entertainment, the folks behind the delightfully savage Shank games, were turning their attention toward the shadows.
That being said, I also know just how hard it is to do stealth right, so I was more than a little hesistant to see how Mark of the Ninja would handle the transition to 2D. Thankfully, the game’s sidescrolling platformer shell isn’t a hindrance in the slightest. In fact, the added layer of abstraction actually allows for some novel innovations that help to streamline the experience considerably. Whereas most stealth games tend to require a fair bit of trial and error before you get a grasp on the basic mechanics, Mark of the Ninja largely avoids that problem thanks to a pair of brilliant visual tactics.
Rather than forcing you to guess whether or not you’re safely hidden away in the shadows, the game uses two distinct sprites for each character―a full color one for when they’re visible, and a silhouette for when they’re not. In addition, any sounds you make are visualized onscreen with a circle. Anyone within that range will hear it, and anyone outside will remain completely oblivious. The two features might seem like subtle additions, but they do wonders to make the entire experience more readable and accessible, even for a newcomer to the genre. By taking guesswork out of the equation, Klei has cut down significantly on the most frustrating thing about stealth, the moments when it feels like you’ve been caught through no fault of your own.
It’s that added clarity that makes the sandbox of options at your disposal so much fun to toy around with. As you progress through the game and unlock more and more gadgets and abilities, you quickly realize that the areas you encounter aren’t puzzles with one or two optimal solutions. They’re a blank canvas. Do you impale a guard on a spike trap, so his friend will become terrorized and fire his gun off wildly, taking down a few of his friends in the process? Do you throw a firecracker to draw him away for the silent kill? Or do you opt for the silent approach, waiting until the time is right and slipping by unnoticed.
Better still, that wealth of decisions at your disposal are supported by a phenomenal unlock system. Completing each level under certain conditions—reaching a score threshold, finding hidden collectibles, or fulfilling optional objectives—earns you Honor points, which you can spend on new abilities and equipment in between levels. There’s also a selection of different playstyles, unlocked by completing those optional objectives, that allow for even deeper customization. What’s more, you can use anything you’ve unlocked on any previous level, so by the time you unlock the much more challenging New Game+ mode, you’ll have a massive arsenal of skills and gadgets at your disposal.
The only major frustrations come from the game’s control scheme, which leans on context sensitivity a bit too much for its own good. For instance, the button for performing a stealth kill is the same as the one you use to pull off standard attacks, and if you’re just a hair too close to a guard, you’ll punch him in the back and alert him to your presence rather than taking him out silently like you intended. On more than one occasion, this happened to me while the onscreen prompt for a stealth kill was still plainly visible above my target’s head.
Even setting the controls aside, Mark of the Ninja isn’t a perfect game. The plot is utterly predictable, the characters are all pointless cardboard cutouts, and the AI guards could probably stand to gain a few IQ points, but once the action kicks up in earnest, those problems fade into the background surprisingly quickly. The one thing that shines through above all else is how much the gameplay mechanics make you feel like a true ninja, equal parts deadly, cunning, and mysterious, and in the end, that’s enough for the game to make its mark.
SUMMARY: In an age when pure stealth experiences have become increasingly rare, Mark of the Ninja proves there’s still gas left in the tank, with ingeniously designed mechanics and a slate of gadgets and abilities that make stalking your prey from the shadows an absolute treat.
- THE GOOD: Everything you love about stealth packed into a gorgeous 2D platformer
- THE BAD: Characters so forgettable that I literally cannot tell you a single one of their names
- THE UGLY: Blowing your cover thanks to a goof from the context-sensitive controls
Mark of the Ninja is an XBLA exclusive.