Mark of the Ninja is a stealth platformer released on September 7, 2012 for the Xbox Live Arcade. Klei Entertainment developed the game and Microsoft Studios published it. Klei Entertainment is the small developer of Shank and Shank 2, the eets series and Don’t Starve. The game was part of PAX Prime’s huge Indie Mega Booth and won Machinima’s Best of PAX 2012. While the Summer of Arcade for the XBLA has come and gone (and in most cases underwhelmed), fall is rapidly approaching and with it a slew of new Arcade titles. The end of summer brought us a highly stylized neo-samurai title and the beginning of fall brings gamers a highly stylized ninja game.
The story starts with the protagonist infiltrating a complex to steal an item under heavy guard. After disposing of the guards, he wakes up to news of gun-wielding mercenaries invade his ninja temple. A female ninja, Ora, finds him and tells him that he was spared from imprisonment or death due to his slumber, but now he must go and save his chained up ninja brethren and Azai, his sensei. At first, the protagonist needs to get by using the shadows and stealth to avoid his enemies, but eventually he gets a ninja sword allowing him to assassinate enemies quietly. Eventually, he frees all the surviving ninja and Azai. The leader of the mercenaries escapes death, but the master is safe, so that is the most important part. Azai reveals to the ninjas that Karajan ordered the mercenaries to strike. Angry and sullen at the audacity of this rich fool, Azai swears vengeance and asks the protagonist to use the power of the forbidden and sacred tattoos to unlock great powers and become the instrument of revenge. The caveat of this power is that the tattoos will eventually drive the chosen one crazy and at that time when the wearer becomes most erratic, he/she must take his/her own life in an honorable suicide.
As the protagonist goes deeper into Karajan’s world dispatching guards along his way, he finds that Karajan is always a step ahead of him. The rich man escapes before the protagonist can even get near him. With the help of the Ora, they eventually devise smarter plans to block Karajan’s means of egress until he is trapped. Along the way, the simple blood oath sworn by Azai becomes something more and by the end, the protagonist and his partner learn the horrible truth of it all. Once revealed, the truth leaves the protagonist with a dilemma. As the story progresses little turns show up until the end of the game when a major twist comes to the surface.
The story for the majority stays in revenge mode either against one party or another, but the protagonist always is the instrument of that revenge. Even though revenge is the main entrée, there are bits and pieces that change the nature of the revenge. While never straying from a quest of revenge, the story is about uncovering the mistakes and lies of those people in power. Once the truth comes together, the protagonist has to make some choices about what to do. A wrinkle to the story comes in the form of the tattoos. More importantly, though it is what the tattoos do to the wearer over the duration of use. The story is equal parts about revenge, truth and trust.
Mark of the Ninja’s gameplay focuses heavily on stealth, but throws in elements of platforming and even a good dose of action. For many portions of the game, sneaking past enemies without raising an alarm is necessary because the player has no access to weapons, so they cannot in anyway harm the enemy. Like most stealth games, the titular ninja cannot take much damage so if an enemy spots the ninja and raises an alarm then all enemies within the area will unload hail of bullets into the ninja causing death rather immediately. That is not to say that an alarm is an automatic death, if the player can hide without tipping off alerted guards then the alarm goes down and the player can resume sneaking through the level. Health in places regenerates, but once wounded avoiding further contact with enemies becomes necessary. The game gives players a good idea of the guard’s ability to see them and their sightlines, as well as, how the noise they make effects the area around them and where guards think noise is coming from. In addition, players can distract guards by destroying lights or using noise/distraction tools to throw guards off their trail or lead them where they want the guards to be. This makes sneaking through the levels less about trial and error, but players can know when and where they are tipping off guards and control where they want the guards to be. This is one way to go through the game and it is possible to complete the game and each level without killing a single enemy (except of course for those required to die in the story).
The ninja is mainly a silent and sneaky figure, but ninjas are also deadly. The game does not forget about this fact and in addition to stealth and distraction tools; the player has access to a ninja sword for brutal stealth kills. For players who do not have the patience to sneak around levels, the game gives them the option to sneak up on guards and gut them. While this is an option, the player has to remember that the ninja does not give up his/her presence, so if they kill enemies they have to make sure no one is looking and that no one finds the body, otherwise the jig is up and the enemies will go on high alert. Players can hide bodies to avoid other guards finding a lost comrade or simply kill all the guards then no one is looking for missing guards. A fun thing to do is string up a dead body for a patrolling guard to find causing them to be terrorized and then shoot at other guards due to fear. At first, the player has access to one stealth kill and they must perform a simple direction plus x command to perform the kill quietly otherwise the enemy will scream out and alert others to the player’s presence. Eventually, the player can upgrade stealth kills and move sets, in addition to upgrading distraction and attack tools. The player also gains access to attack tools like caltrops and attack mines to take out guards strategically without having to get in close. While killing guards in the beginning is fairly easy, stronger enemies show up and killing them requires timing and well placed attack tools. By the end though, with certain enemies the player is better off avoiding than killing because it takes more effort to kill them than to sneak past them.
Regardless of which path the player chooses or if they mix them up, a score is assigned at the end of each level that allows the player to upgrade skills and tools. The score is a mixture of actions taken against guards, finding skills and performing special actions during the level, finally the score total has three level grades. Getting all nine “honor points” gives the player more upgrade points (honor points are awarded for scrolls, special actions and final scores). One of the things the player gains later in the game are access to different paths (six in total and different costumes to go with them). The first one is the costume the player begins with and then the others are unlocked based upon different criteria that give specific bonuses, such as one that makes stealth kills happen automatically and allow two attack items but they cannot use distraction items. Thus using these new costumes is a strategic move. The game balances stealth, action and platforming nicely and makes moving through the levels tremendous fun and rewarding when the player gets full honor points.
Graphics and Sound
The art style of the game has a highly stylized feel with excellent figure work for the characters and enemies; the protagonist despite featuring a rounded costume seems angular and poised to cut through enemies with his body. While each level’s spaces and rooms at times have a similar feel to other ones due to vents, there are enough distinctions to the backgrounds, items and make-up of each level so they do not blend together allowing each level to standout. The animations for each of the stealth kills are delightfully brutal. A beautiful touch to the astonishing visuals is the way light and dark play off the levels and characters. Naturally as a ninja, the protagonist needs to stick to darkness. When the player is under the cover of darkness, the tattoos glow and when in open light, his costume is plainly visible and the tattoos are drabber. The way light and dark play in the game gives a nice contrast to the art and graphics of the game. In the sound aspect of the game, it has full voice acting aside from the protagonist and it does a solid job of emoting the drama of the story and gives life to the characters. The music is decent enough, but due to sound being important to gameplay, often it takes a backseat a majority of the time. The sound effects and background noises in the game pop and make gutting a distracted guard extremely satisfying.
Mark of the Ninja is a stunningly well-made, beautiful looking game that is addicting to play and tremendously fun. It manages to balance the three different gameplay elements well making the stealth component of it easy to grasp even for players who may not particularly enjoy or excel at stealth games. By giving a firm grasp of the geography to players and a good moving camera, the gamer can keep track of where guards and how the noise and their visibility alerts those guards. The graphics are slick and beautiful to look at with fluid animations and everything seems to move very quickly despite how methodical stealth gameplay can be. While the story is not the deepest experience or version of a revenge tale, there are enough wrinkles to the story that keeps it interesting. The full voice acting is a nice touch and the ambient sound in the game sound great. With a “New Game Plus” mode that unlocks after completing the game that gives an added challenge to the game, Mark of the Ninja has great replay value. Klei Entertainment has made a game in Mark of the Ninja that provides plenty of highly satisfying, addicting and entertaining hours of gameplay. Mark of the Ninja is worth picking up for Xbox owners. Anyone interesting in checking out this game, here is a quick link to its Xbox Live Marketplace listing, http://bit.ly/xboxninja.