It’s amusing to think that, despite how popular a subject for video games they might be, ‘Ninja’ are rarely shown as stealthy assassins. Games like Ninja Gaiden or the upcoming Metal Gear Revengeance tend to favor ‘over the top’ action instead of careful sneaking through the shadows. The Tenchu series was probably the last franchise I can think of that tried to focus on ninja being assassins. Fear not! Enter Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja.
Mark of the Ninja takes stealth gameplay and puts it in a 2 dimensional plane, something that could easily have gone wrong if not for the brilliant design. Everything in the game is specifically structured to challenge the gamer into finding the best way to move through an area to the goal … without being seen.
The player can only see things clearly within his justifiable field of vision. Areas obstructed by walls, doors, etc. are blurred so you never know exactly what’s in the next room. Running into these areas headlong will get you killed very quickly.
There are neat touches such as circles representing sound waves made from the movements of enemies, animals that help you plan out a strategy. Running creates a lot of noise which can tip off guards within earshot to your location, and once again, if you are found it will take a short amount of time for you to be killed.
However you can also use sound to lure enemies into a stealth kill.
Another cool effect are afterimages, if you peak into a room and duck back out, you’ll see red silhouettes of the guards in a room where you saw them last. In general it’s just cool how the designers managed to keep enough information hidden from the player to make them approach each situation with care.
Considering there are usually multiple ways to get to where you want to go, you don’t have to enter a room full of enemies if you can find a way to bypass the room through a vent or over the roof.
The freedom to approach the situations differently is a big part of the beauty of the game, whether it be in how you get from point A to point B or whether you choose to kill every guard you come across. Playing through I know that there are several rooms I’d never visited, even with spending some of the time exploring.
The game’s narrative is pretty straight forward. Your clan has gotten on the wrong side of some big crime boss with a title and a castle.
The player character is chosen as the champion of the clan to take out this enemy and receives tattoos that use some toxic ink that gives the individual supernatural capabilities, but unfortunately has the unsettling side effect of driving them crazy.
Champions are to kill themselves once their work is done to prevent becoming a threat to the clan. There’s a cute little twist revealed at the end that you may or may not see coming, depending on how hard you’re thinking about the story while playing. There is also a choice between two endings, but it never gets overly complicated.
As for the supernatural tattoo powers, you actually start off with one, then there are 2 occasions afterwards where you see a cutscene of them adding more tattoos which give you more abilities. The first ability you start with is focus, which allows you to stop time and queue up to 3 targets to hit with Shurikens, or to specify an exact placement of distraction or attack items. This can even be done in midair which becomes useful in situations where you have to destroy a circuit breaker as you’re falling to disable a laser defense system below you.
The second ability you get toward the middle of the game is called far sight, basically when you use it it is like a sixth sense that allows you to see where objects and enemies are within a certain distance around you, even through walls.
The final ability you get toward the end is essentially a short range teleport ability, which is utilized in some fun platforming trap puzzles.
Other tools at your disposal come in the form of items. In addition to Shurikens, you can carry one distraction item and one attack item. You start with a set one and unlock more as you continue, usually through buying it with honor seals you earn at the end of each level.
Distraction items are your usual firecrackers, smoke bombs and flash explosives. There is a wink to Metal Gear Solid as well as one of the items you can get for distraction is a cardboard box.
Attack items are more fun. Spike mines, drugged darts, and jar of flesh eating insects round out the assortment you can unlock by the end of the game. The darts are a joy because they cause enemies to flip out and start firing in terror, possibly harming other people or (when upgraded) themselves.
You can also upgrade other things with honor seals, such as acquiring new types of stealth kills like hanging from the ceiling or from behind a door. Items such as more health or speeding up lock picking are also available this way.
In general the game has a nice flow of difficulty, introducing new things to keep you on your toes almost every level. The game starts with items such as laser security systems and motion detectors, dogs who can sniff you out if you’re in range, elite soldiers who need to be stunned before a stealth kill can be performed on them and traps. Its a game where it pays off to be patient and take your time.
Visually, the game’s art style is similar to the studios previous titles, Shank and Shank 2. Sort of a smooth flash cartoon look about it that’s highly stylized. The music and voice acting are very good quality as well, though the main character is pretty silent apart from issuing some grunts of pain.
Once you’ve beaten it you unlock the new game and you can go through again with all the cool items you’ve earned. To balance that they make the game more difficult, removing visual cues of the sound waves and making it so that you only see clearly what’s straight ahead of the ninja as opposed to anything he could theoretically see if he looked around.
It’s a good challenge and adds to the replayability. Even without it, just going back and exploring different routes, going about a level a different way and completing some of the level challenges you missed is enough to offer hours of replay.
If you like stealth gameplay, this is a very unique and worthwhile take on the genre. I was impressed with how smooth the controls were and how the game continues to build on what you do with your abilities all the way through to the end of the game. Definitely worth the price and the time to play it.