I came into Mark of the Ninja with mixed expectations. Part of this was due to my experience with developer Klei Entertainment‘s Shank title. The animations and art of the game were shockingly well done, and while I enjoyed the basics of the 2D beat-em-up enough to play all the way through, a lack of variety sullied the adventure. Another apprehension is my experience with stealth games. They’ve been negative. My reaction to stealth gameplay is the same as when encountering an escort mission in a game; I give a groan and trudge through it as a chore. Both limit my gameplay options, and as a player who values the freedom games provide, I find them distasteful at best, but more often frustrating.

With these preconceptions in mind, I started up Mark of the Ninja. The game’s premise is that you play a silent protagonist whose ninja training and tattoos composed of mystical ink make you the most capable warrior to take out the enemies who attack your ninja clan at the beginning of the game. An interesting twist to the otherwise rote concept is that the same ink and tattoos that heighten your senses and make you more powerful will also be your downfall as the ink is said to drive people to madness. In an effort to stymie strong warriors from becoming insane killers, the ninja society has a tradition dictating that the marked person will commit harakiri before they step over the precipice that separates sanity from the depth of mania.

My biggest criticism of the story is that it doesn’t provide interesting texture to an otherwise great environment. I wasn’t particularly interested in why the characters were doing what they did, nor if the clan I was joined to survived or not. It’s not bad, I just found it unengaging. While there are a few cutscenes that provide story (all done with the same mastery of animation that was evident in Shank), most of it is conveyed by finding scrolls throughout levels that will trigger a voiceover that adds some context to the world through way of haikus. I was never particularly eager to find these scrolls save for the fact that it added to my upgrade point total at the end. To Klei’s credit, while I feel the story is flat, they manage to present in such a way that it’s unobtrusive enough that for those who don’t want to engage it don’t have to. As I mentioned, the majority of the story is delivered through voice overs that don’t stop the action and they’ve also made cutscenes skippable.

But while Mark of the Ninja’s story is lackluster, the mechanics are amazingly well done. To be frank, they make me excited about stealth games. Let’s start with the basics. The game takes place on a 2D field and has a heavy dose of platforming. Levels have a clear direction, but sections are often gated to provide open ended areas to accomplish goals. This openness is vital to what makes the game great as it allows for multiple routes for players to use. Is there a guard directly on the other side of the locked door? Use a noisemaker to get him to open it and sneak in right behind him or use the vent below him. Is the catwalk too brightly lit? Climb under it and make your way across below the boots of unsuspecting minions or grapple from lamp post to lamp post above them. Or in either of these cases, just head straight on and kill them. Whatever style of play is chosen, Mark of the Ninja both encourages and supports it through the tools it offers you and the rewards you unlock.

The equipment the game provides opens up new options to players once acquired. Darts can be used to destroy lightbulbs and draw attention. Noisemakers serves as distraction tools. Mines can be strategically laid along a guard’s path to execute him. Smoke bombs hide your presence from both enemies and alarm systems and are a great emergency tool that allows for safe escapes. I could enumerate every tool and why each one is awesome in it’s own way, but the main thing you should know is that each one provides wonderful support to how you want to play. The game also adds a level of complexity by making you choose loadouts where items are categorized into distraction type and attack type and you can only have one of each. While I stated earlier that I don’t like restrictions on gameplay options, this one turns out to be reasonable as it adds a meaningful level of challenge and resource management.

Then there’s the upgrade system. Each level has nine emblems that can be earned in different ways. I’ve already mentioned the collecting of scrolls, and there are three of those on every level. The second is score based. Every time you manage to avoid detection, kill a guard in a particularly stylish way, hide a body or collect an artifact, you’re given points. Surpassing score benchmarks will net you an emblem and there are three of those benchmarks for each level as well. Lastly, there are three optional objectives for each level that correspond to a different style of play. Some ask you to be stealthy and avoid detection. Others ask you to kill every guard in an area. Aside from encouraging different approaches and rewarding you, the optional objectives allow you to choose how difficult you want to make a level for yourself. I often found myself making progress in an area, but then intentionally going back a checkpoint so I could get complete the objective and get the emblem tied to it. If I ever found myself frustrated at my ability to not get one, the only thing I had to do to move on was decide not to pursue it. While the idea of optional objectives is neither new nor revolutionary, its implementation in Mark of the Ninja is wonderfully done.

The pause screen highlights the 9 emblems available for each level.

But while the upgrade acquisition system is well made, what it nets you is not quite as exciting. Abilities like stronger armor and quieter running are useful purchases, but many of the ability upgrades are ones that I feel should already have been included. Attacking from a hiding spot, for instance, or dropping onto enemies from the ceiling seem like skills that one of the allegedly best ninjas should be capable from the beginning of the game. You can also improve tools to either have larger areas of effect, last longer and so on, but none of these options felt compelling. At the game’s end, I had most of my emblem points in the bank as I didn’t feel it was necessary to spend them.

A last interesting detail about the loadout system is the option to choose different techniques. By completing three optional objectives of the same type- stealth, assault, etc- you gain access to a technique type that changes how you play drastically. As someone who played the stealth game hard, I ended up with a technique that allowed me to carry two tools of the same type and have completely silent movement, but it came at the price of the sword. Each of the techniques change the game in equally dramatic ways and make replaying levels with access to different abilities a treat.

While I’ve praised the upgrade system and freedom of choice, I’ve yet to cover the main thrust of the game: stealth. This is because I was saving the best for last. Klei has managed to make me excited about a gameplay style I had effectively given up on. The main reason for this renewed enthusiasm is that the game conveys information about your character, opponents and the environment in clear and effective ways. Footsteps, tools, and the breaking of objects radiate a circle that indicates who will hear the event. The protagonist is clearly lit when standing in light and is an easily identifiable figure when sneaking in the dark. Using the freeze time ability that is available throughout the game with unlimited usage, I was able to always consider my options and then set up a series of choices that continued to let me stay stealthy. Most stealth games make me feel like I’ve snuck by on pure luck, like Mr. Magoo being asked to infiltrate a high-security compound. Mark of the Ninja manages to deliver information in so well that I always felt in control and had only myself to blame when I messed up. Nothing quite matches the feeling of having made my way through a level without having caused violence or notice; the feeling of an actual ninjutsu stealth master.

Mark of Ninja isn’t perfect. The story is lacking and the majority of the upgrade rewards are negligible. But by having such excellently designed UI that clearly informs me of the consequences to my actions while providing accessibility to abilities all in some excellently designed levels, Klei has turned my opinion on stealth by creating an experience that lets me experience stealth in a wonderfully visceral way. Caveats included, this was one of the best XBLA games I’ve ever played and easily amongst the top stealth games I’ve ever gone through. I commend them for it.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ True stealth gameplay options
+ Klei’s masterful animation
+ One of the best stealth UIs in gaming
+ Open level-design
+ Compelling upgrade system…
- …but not quite as compelling rewards
- Story is lackluster

10 (TEN) represents a game that you would unequivocally recommend to all gamers. This score is reserved for games you consider to be not only the best of their genre, but to be one of the best games of the year.  A 10 does not have to be absolutey perfect — we do NOT hold games up to an impossible standard because that simply is not fair.  Ebert and Roeper did not give 1 and 9/10ths thumbs up.

Mark of the Ninja was developed and published by Klei Entertainment. It as available on XBLA for 1200 MSP here. A copy of the game was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.