Mark of the Ninja Review: An Elegant Stealth Platformer
When you think of stealth based video games, you may think of classic 3D based games such as the Metal Gear or Splinter Cell series of games. Stealthily slinking around environments waiting for your opportunity to pick off unsuspecting guards one by one. But how would this formula work in a 2D platformer? The fine folks at Klei Entertainment have answered this question with their latest offering Mark of the Ninja for XBLA. The studio is well known for the Shank series which are in your face, combo heavy beat ‘em ups, but how well do they make the shift over to the stealth genre? Read on to find out.
Mark of the Ninja manages to cleverly breathe new life into the stealth genre
In Mark of the Ninja, you play as an unnamed ninja who has received a special set of tattoos in order to better serve his clan. The tattoos give him tremendous power, but at the eventual cost of his sanity. When the clan is attacked, you are tasked with exacting sweet revenge on your enemies. From the start of the game, you have almost no weapons or tools, but in the vein of Metroidvania titles, you will soon build up your repertoire. These ninja tools do a much better job of making you feel like a stealthy badass than most other ninja focused games out there. Your standard ninja sword, for example, is only used for one-hit kill stealth takedowns. Simply attacking an enemy head on unleashes a flurry of punches and kicks that will (eventually) knock the enemy down, allowing you to kill the enemies while they are down. Ninja darts are used to grab a guard’s attention by hitting objects to make loud noises, or to break out search lights, allowing you to slink through an area in complete darkness. Other tools include noisemakers, flares, a cardboard box (!), caltrops and more. My personal favorite is the grappling hook, which allows you to instantly grapple to certain points with the press of a button. You can even upgrade your skills to a point where you can dangle from the hook, grab an enemy, and string him up from a perch, scaring other guards ala Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Speaking of the guards, you’re always bound to find a plethora of guards between you and your objectives. In true stealth game fashion, many are chatting with each other, walking along their patrol paths, or smoking a cigarette with their backs conveniently pointed towards the air vent you are hiding in, waiting for your to drag them in. The guards all have a limited line of sight, which keeps you virtually invisible in low light. However, stepping into the light or getting hit by one of their flashlights will send them into alert mode. Alerted enemies will waste no time killing you, and about 2 shots is really all it takes. However, you can manipulate the guards into shooting their own comrades by terrifying them. The enemies evolve throughout the levels, eventually throwing in riot shield guards, dogs, elites, and even other ninjas. I oftentimes found myself eschewing my normal playstyle of “kill everything you see” because there were just too many enemies around to risk it. Mark of the Ninja encourages you to pick you fights carefully, or you could just play through without killing anyone. The choice is yours.
Speaking of choice, the levels are really well designed. You could choose to barge in through the front door of a building, sneak in through an underground passage, or climb through air ducts via the roof. And while you ability to use the environments and tools to their fullest extent is limited at first, you can, as I said before, upgrade your skills with upgrade points obtained by beating levels with a high score, meeting certain requirements, and finding hidden scrolls. New skills allow you to execute stealth kills on enemies in different ways, such as pulling them through doors and vents or dropping down on them from the ceiling. On top of that, completing the optional objectives in the levels will allow you to unlock new costumes, each with varying strengths and weaknesses.
As with the Shank series, Klei Entertainment manages to make Mark of the Ninja visually appealing with some great character and environment designs. No matter how long you’ve been playing, you’ll still be amazed at how much this game looks like a cartoon, albeit an extremely bloody cartoon. Everything moves in a very fluid way, your character included, making the game feel very much alive. While I love this game, I have just a few tiny complaints. While the enemies are fun to kill and terrorize, there aren’t alot of enemy types, and there really aren’t any bosses in the game. The stealth kill animations are really cool, but it would have been nice to see a few more random variations. Also, the environments don’t really change up, so expect to infiltrate alot of 2 story buildings. Still, these complaints are small, and shouldn’t bother you at all, even after you’ve mastered the game and gone onto the harder New Game Plus mode.
Mark of the Ninja has shown me that the stealth genre can totally work as a 2D platformer. Hopefully, this sets off a trend of more developers (hopefully, it’s Klei again) who try this formula out and expand on such a simple concept. Mark of the Ninja is available now on XBLA for $15.
Final Score: 9/10