Review: Mark of the Ninja

MarkOfTheNinja

I don’t particularly like stealth games. By and large stealth games are designed to be a counterpoint to the guns blazing action titles that saturate most of the console and desktop market. They are supposed to be tense experiences which make players feel like bad-ass superspies who get in and get out of an enemy facility without anyone ever knowing they were there. In reality, most stealth titles – or even worse, normal games with mandatory stealth sections – rapidly devolve into prolonged game over screens as guards murder you after you somehow tipped them off to your presence. It is never clear whether or not a guard can see you if you can see them or what exactly will spawn a cry of alarm. The end result is that “stealth” often means “trial and error,” the trial being the gameplay and the error being waiting around to get filled with bullets so that everything resets to the last checkpoint. They are not what I would typically define as “fun” games.

This preamble should serve to highlight what an accomplishment Mark of the Ninja is. Not only is Klei’s new 2D platformer a well made game, it is actually a fun stealth game!

As one might guess from the title, players will take on the dark and deadly habit of a ninja given a mystical tattoo (read: this ninja has a mark). These tattoos made of sacred ink confer powers to the mysterious hitmen and are the subject of some goings on of rival ninja sects and other organized crime groups. The plot of revenge and betrayal plays out in evocative and thankfully short cutscenes. The art style is the same shown in earlier Klei joints–broad lines, bright colors and dramatic actions give a great sense of what is happening in a classic cartoon style were dialogue is at a minimum but expression is not. The palette is significantly more muted than something like Eets, but then this is a tale told mostly at night. I say the story scenes are thankfully short because what voice acting there is can best be termed adequate, and the characters and plot are nothing that has not been seen many, many times before. The tale sets a nice context for the missions, but really the whole affair is unnecessary. In all honesty, if the movies and voice of the lady ninja that shadows you in most of the game are why the game is almost a 2 gigabyte download, I’d rather that had all been cut out.

The game is the thing worth remembering here. As said at the outset, this is a stealth game. Consequently, the ninja has no real direct way to kill the guards that are aware of him and so it will be up to players to either sneak by or sneak up on guards to accomplish objectives, usually gathering some item or taking someone’s life. The game is shown from a side view that has cartoonish but detailed backgrounds which usually do not affect the game. The ninja can climb on just about any surface to get around. While the jumping is responsive and easily directable, the easiest and most efficient way to get around is using a grappling hook to move from grapple point to clearly labeled grapple point, zipping all around the levels, infrequently touching the ground.

The thing that sets this apart from other stealth games is the way in which it conveys information. Most hide and seek games feel like trial and error because it is usually not clear what a guard can see, what makes noise, and, more fundamentally, what information the game is using to determine whether you could be detected. It is easy to tell that an alarm will go off when Solid Snake runs across an infrared beam, but if the game does not show all fields of vision, it is difficult to say when or if he might be seen.  Similarly, the range of appreciable sound often seems random. Mark of the Ninja solves this problem by artistically presenting all of this information to the player. Whenever, for example, the Ninja runs and does not stealthy creep, big, white ripples of sound dance across the screen in sync with the heavy steps letting players know exactly how far the sound has traveled. Those hunting for ninja also make noise that is displayed on screen so that it is possible to see their approximate location, even if they are actually hidden from sight, as all enemies are when they are not in the Ninja’s direct line of sight.

Anything that makes noise, including the screen-filling effect of the strikeable gongs, is represented on screen. Throwing a kunai makes an appreciable whistling noise that one would expect to hear in a game, but it is not displayed because it is not a noise that the game cares about. As sound information goes to the player’s eyes and ears, it gives the illusion of playing in a world where you are able to use both sight and sound effectively to navigate the levels. In reality, you’re relying on sight. If one were actually trying to sneak around, you would have to use sight and sound to approximate where people were, impossible with the fidelity of most home theater sound systems. Everything is presented very clearly. Thus, failure becomes a result of haste or poor reading of a situation, not an inability to tell what is going on.

(Note: Making the important sounds visible should also make it possible for deaf players to finally play a stealth game without losing half of the important information.)

With the information about the world at hand, players can decide whether or not they want to murder every guard in sight, or ghost their way through the levels neither harming or being seen. It certainly is an increased challenge to not be spotted or not leave a mile long trail of corpses.  If a guard is to be snuffed out, the Ninja must first sneak up on him and then press a random set of button prompts quickly. If successful, the kill is silent. If not, there is a huge racket and usually a score of guards running to investigate. Should the Ninja be identified, he can choose to either try to knock the discovering guard down to administer some loud sword/neck therapy, a very difficult task when the game begins and no kung-fu moves are available, or simply run away. The better part of valor results in a timer on the side of the screen which shows just how long the rent-a-cops will keep searching every hiding spot and ventilation shaft until they give up and assume the assassin that slaughtered ten of their friends left the premises. Unrealistic sure, but at least you don’t have to restart every level upon discovery.

Later in the game, various tricks and traps become available. Some simple firecrackers can district guards and pull them away from their post to investigate the noise. If wanting to make sure that guard does not come back, the Ninja can throw a ground trap down to eviscerate a guard that happens to wander over it. My favorite item to use are venom tipped throwing knives that cause anyone hit with them to panic. A terrorized guard will wander around looking back and forth and possibly even accidentally shoot one of his squad mates in an attempt to get whatever nightmares he sees in the shadows. When these are used it’s not like I killed anyone. In addition to all of these nasty means of severe discomfort at your disposal, many of the levels contain traps that will put an end to any trespasser’s ambition. Used correctly the distraction items or even just showing yourself to a guard can get them to kill themselves on the traps contained in the level. Watching a guard die on the same massive spikes which plunge through the floor and finished you a moment ago before a reload is very satisfying. It almost makes you feel clever. “Almost” because the clever thing to do would have been to not die on the trap the first time you saw it and thought you could run past it with no problem.

To add some replayability, every level has a series of metagoals to accomplish. From the basic “Get to the objective without raising an alarm” to the bizarre “Get sniffed by all the dogs,” they create completely optional obstacles to increase the challenge, and your score. Some of these goals are at odds with getting through a level without murdering any of the poor saps wandering around with assault rifles, but this does compensate for the tedium of going through a level leaving everyone alive.

The game has a bunch of hidden scrolls scattered through out, the discovery of which increases the end level score, as well as other collectibles. The most interesting of these are a series of torii (traditional Japanese gates) which lead to Challenge Rooms. Each of these portals instantly transports the nameless ninja to a puzzle room where the goal is to navigate the traps by hitting switches. They are more challenging to the brain in terms of what players will actually need to do to complete these rooms, but in reality you’re just hitting switches. It’s the how that makes it hard. The only thing that detracts from these rooms, some of which are quite clever, is that some of them can only be completed if the ninja has certain pieces of gear equipped. These particular rooms are near resupply stations in the main campaign which allow the right gear to be swapped in, but it is still annoying to have to exit the challenge room to equip the right items. This problem does not rear its head in every one of the puzzle levels, but the problem is noticeable enough. Once would be too many times given the general level of gleaming polish in the game.

Should you want some more Ninja, which you probably will, the game does feature a New Game+ mode where all powers and ninja tricks unlocked the first time around remain but the ninja’s perceptive abilities are vastly reduced and the enemy attacks are far more lethal. Many of the visual assists present in the main game are removed from this harder setting, so much so that it is almost like the main character has the visual acuity of a guard he has slaughtered and danced around. For me, this takes a lot of the fun out of the game as it can often devolve into the problem I usually have with stealth games: I get spotted, die, and do not really learn from the experience to know why I failed. It gets a bit away from enjoyable, but it can still be entertainment for those with patience and a desire to memorize guard patrols. To me, it feels like work, but stealth purists will likely love the added challenge.

One could say that from a certain perspective the first run through the game is easy, but I would say that it is better described as smooth. It is low on the impurities of frustration and guesswork that plague the majority of the genre. This makes Mark of the Ninja a fun time that gives players enough information to be able to plan and proceed with, to either avoid or dispose of guards.  There are enough optional goals and different ways to complete the levels to grant a good amount of reason to come back after the credits roll.  Throw in looking good and controlling well makes this an easy XBLA recommendation.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Game allows for varying degrees of lethality to complete levels
+ No immediate “Game Over” if discovered
+ Responsive controls

Cons:
- Repetitive kill animations
- Bland story

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (also coming soon to Steam)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Release Date: 9/7/2012
Genre: 2D Stealth/Platformer
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.