Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja, Klei Entertainment’s 2D sidescrolling revision of the divisive stealth genre, is espionage under a different banner. Much like the studio’s previous Shank games, it boasts a striking cartoony art style adorned by moments of schlocky violence; but the game’s greatest strengths come out in an adept and versatile list of moves and abilities combined with meticulous and rewarding level design.
At its core, Mark of the Ninja assumes the type of predatory action seen from the likes of the recent Batman: Arkham games but keeps the perspective locked to a 2D plain. Assuming the role of a fleet-footed ninja amidst a rather bland cartoon story and world, Klei provides a wide berth in which to carry out your given tasks and kills. As you progress through the game, you acquire and upgrade a range of skills for use in tandem with selected abilities, all of which are decidedly ninja-like. Throwing down caltrops to trap a moving target and taking them out whilst hanging upside down from a vent in the ceiling, for example, is a perfectly repeatable way to get the job done. If you prefer to sheathe your sword and be pacifistic however then there are other less lethal abilities and skills to suit that style of play; and you’re rewarded with a greater score and more upgrade options later down the road for doing so. You are able to spec out your desired play style with relative freedom, as the game lets you adjust your loadout to your best liking without forcing into one specific play-style by default.
Key to this all is the game’s utterly precise movement – scaling buildings, scurrying atop ceilings and maneuvering in tight spaces like ventilation ducts work wondrously well and very rarely falter or place you in an unwanted situation. Above all else, this is the glue which holds Mark of the Ninja together. It doesn’t take too long to become acclimated to its methodical rhythms, and the nimbleness of your character when darting around from room to room goes a long way to making that learning curve enjoyable and easy.
As you go on, the game also does a great job in keeping the difficulty on-par with your increased performance – the last few levels are truly challenging and force you to truly think differently from previous encounters. Trial and error will certainly crop up from time to time, but the quick reload upon death or error combined with some generous checkpointing makes the game’s more frustrating moments considerably easier to bare. A host of visual indicators ranging from an enemy’s sight range to the range of sound made from breaking a light are useful barometers to gauge your next move. So you can adjust your tactics accordingly, you are also able to change up your load-out before a mission begins, as well as at designated stations gated at certain points in a level.
Although your objectives tend to funnel you in a somewhat linear path, levels are generally open-ended and rarely restrict you from exploring every nook and cranny in search of alternate routes or hidden secrets (the likes of which include decent level-specific challenge rooms). At the same time though, the game’s subtle emphasis on score (which is tallied up based on a number of criteria at the end of a level) can sometimes dominate an otherwise natural inclination to glide through a section with as little hesitation or slow-down as possible. Hiding slain bodies in concealed spots, for instance, grants you a score bonus which would be lost if you simply left the area and kept on moving, leading to stacks of bodies lodged inside small hideaways from corner to corner. These kind of diversions are by no means fatal to the experience at large, but the compulsion to rack up a higher score without simply resorting to non-lethal methods sometimes often leads to distractions which obstruct the game’s otherwise brisk pacing.
Between a new game plus mode, the collectible scrolls scattered throughout and a set of power-specific ninja outfits to unlock, there’s a decent amount of content to keep you occupied after the eight or so hours your first playthrough will probably end up taking. If nothing else, Mark of the Ninja is well acquainted with experimentation, so going through the main game a second time with the bulk of its systems already exploited from your first playthrough can be curiously fun in its own right. It is a shame, however, that there is no form of co-operative multiplayer mode to potentially provide the icing on the cake — the format seems completely ripe for it, but any such component is sadly absent.
It’s a testament to Mark of the Ninja from a design standpoint that even the most ardent skeptic of the stealth genre can find something to shout about here. It is slick, responsive and vastly rewarding — in other words, something worth shedding light on.
(D+PAD reviewed Mark of the Ninja on the Xbox 360; game provide by Klei Entertainment)
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