Stealth Over Brute Force: Mark of the Ninja Review For Xbox 360
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
I’ve become jaded when it comes to ninjas. Most games featuring these silent assassins have gameplay with gigantic swords, charging in head-first and destroying every enemy onscreen in a violent blood bath. What happened to silence and shadow? Aren’t these the traits of silent assassins?
In sneaks Mark of the Ninja by Klei Entertainment. This is a game where stealth, not brute force, is the focus. The 2D platformer is split into a number of levels, and each one has different goals. In one, you need to grab a tracking device off an enemy and in another, you to set fire to a building. There are always enemies between you and your goal, and the game asks you to choose: kill them or sneak by. Notice how charging headfirst, with a gigantic sword isn’t part of the equation?
Gameplay can be described simply: avoid detection and accomplish – or reach – your goal. This becomes slightly more complicated when you have to deal with soldiers, guards, dogs, locked doors, laser beams, pressure plates, noise sensors, etc. The list of obstacles Mark of the Ninja throws at you is huge, but it never feels overwhelming. Each enemy or element is introduced at a reasonable pace and the variety keeps the game feeling fresh.
The first mission has our nameless protagonist rescuing fellow ninjas and his master, Azai. Gun-wielding mercenaries and their commander Karajan have captured them and you’re charged to rescue them. Once rescued, Azai swears revenge, and you become the instrument of that vengeance. You need to use the power of a sacred tattoo to accomplish the deed, but it’s a double-edged sword. Every other ninja that used this power either died or went mad.
There aren’t any fancy tricks or sweeping narratives here. A bad guy wronged us, so we’re going to wrong him back. If you’re looking for a deep and moving story, I would suggest you look elsewhere. However, the narrative fits the gameplay and setting perfectly. It provides enough background to justify what you do in the game, but never goes on too long to get in the way.
While the story might be simple, the aesthetics of the game are breathtaking. Klei Entertainment has its own unique animation style, and Mark of the Ninja repeats the style we saw in the company’s other series, Shank. Cutscenes could have been taken from a Saturday morning cartoon show, and the game itself runs smooth as black silk.
However, the design isn’t just beautiful. Practicality is a part of many of the game’s design choices. Every character in the game, both your ninja and enemies, will change appearance if they are in shadow or light. When covered in darkness, characters are little more than a black and white outline. Alternatively, when in the light, the palette changes to show more colour and detail.
Another such design choice involves flashes of expanding circles to indicate how far noise travels, a distracted enemy, the range for guard dog’s sense of smell, and if an enemy unit saw you briefly. Eschewing elements like ‘sneak metres’, you still always know if you’re hidden because you’ll be in silhouette. Slinking away is prudent if you’ve sensed they’ve caught a glimpse (yellow circle appears onscreen). The feedback provided is natural extension of gameplay and graphics, and you feel as though you’re a shadow warrior yourself.
Along with amazing animation and design are superb controls. The game involves lots of climbing walls, sneaking into vents, peering over ledges and delicate positioning to dispatch enemies. Not once did I fight with controls. Of note were times when I had to transfer from a wall to ceiling, and crawl along like a spider. I was dreading a struggle because this kind of traversal is where games usually fall short. I was pleasantly surprised when that battle with my controller never occurred.
The only times I ever felt clumsy were by design. Killing from behind, above, below, and when in cover all provide unique and bloody animations. You’re prompted to press the X button along with a direction, and if successful, the kill will be graceful and completely silent. If you botch the quick time event, then your kill will be awkward and loud.
If killing like that isn’t your idea of fun, charging in is technically possible, but not recommended in the least. You must first knock an enemy to the ground with melee attacks, and only then can you dispatch them (clumsily) with your sword. One guard could be removed like this but if you rush a group, you’ll only get riddled with bullets. This can be a last resort if discovered while lurking, but you never feel as powerful or as deadly when resorting to these methods.
Combined with the huge list of enemies and obstacles are a collection of tools and weapons to overcome them. A grappling hook, received at the beginning of the game, is indispensable and allows you to quickly attach to grapple points around levels. Bamboo darts, another important item, allow you to break lights and distract (but not kill) guards. Other items in your bag of tricks like smoke bombs and spike mines are selectable. Along with sword, hook and darts, you can bring one extra tool and weapon for missions, but these require careful choice. The smoke bomb, for instance, can disrupt lethal laser beams. If chosen, however, you won’t have the noise makers which could split up a group of guards.
While some of these tools are gained as you move through the story, others need to be purchased with medals. There are always nine medals per level. Three are earned for reaching a specific score goal. Three are received for completing optional objectives like killing a specific number of guards, or never breaking a light. The final three are awarded for finding hidden ninja scrolls – one medal per scroll. With these medals, you can earn new ninja tools and weapons, outfits which slightly change your abilities, and new moves to dispatch your enemies all the easier.
Sneaking, sticking to shadows, and successfully pulling off assassinations all feel smooth as silk. Only when you’re found or if you botch a kill does it feel clumsy, and this was clearly by design. Melding with the darkness and dispatching enemies, without ever being seen, are the hallmarks of the ninja. Mark of the Ninja doesn’t reward charging in headfirst and swinging a giant sword around. While that might work for others, ninjas are at home in the shadows. They’re silent, deadly, and ever so cool.
Mark of the Ninja is available now on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1200 Microsoft Points
Final score: 5.0/ 5.0
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