Review – Mark of the Ninja

This is the first of many reviews to come, aimed not at potential buyers just as a game is about to be release (you have IGN & Gamespot for that), but more for those unsure whether to pick them up after they’ve been released for a bit already. Most reviewers play only a few hours of a game before writing the reviews, I will only post reviews on games I’ve finished, top to bottom.

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So, let’s talk about Mark of the Ninja, a game by Klei Entertainment, makers of Shank: The Danny Trejo story (not really the tittle), just instead of your standard fare 2D beat-em-up you have a 2D stealth-em-up, and I have to say, it’s the best stealth oriented game I’ve played in a while, and I’m a huge fan of those. Of course, the game isn’t without its quirks.

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This is you

You star as an unnamed tattooed ninja, finishing up a nice inking session just as the Ninja clan’s base of operations is hit by a mercenary group and everyone is either killed or captured. A female ninja, Ora, shows up in your room and tells you to get a move on and escape, but not before getting your standard gear and going through the playthrough tutorial, of which there’s one for each new weapon and skill, and for once, as it’s ingrained in the gameplay and you can just ignore it, it doesn’t feel like your typical tutorial, where you’re forced to go through it, and I don’t mind it one bit.

From there, and without spoiling much, you go on your journey of revenge, sneaking and killing your way into a bunch of bastions, bases and even a freaking bandit town. And of course, as you’d have guessed it by now, the tattoos aren’t there just for show, they’re part of the story, and not only that, they give you a gameplay abilities, such as a Farsight ability to see not only people and where they’re going, but also, for some reason, you can even see wiring and where power lines meet. Must come in handy on the day job as an electrician I suppose.

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These are the only tattoos where cleanup is done using boiling water

The game is completely in 2D, no 3D even for backgrounds, and while the game is a stealth one, and you’re probably going to be drowning everything in near total darkness; the stages are beautifully drawn, even the dark ones seem very stylized and light and dark play with and off each other wonderfully. Klei really did a wonderful job creating these places and made an extra effort to avoid repetitiveness. That is not to say they are unique, there is a theme on each level and rooms stick to that, just as they would in your real world architecture, but you never get the feeling the game is just a collection of rooms attached together to form a map, a la Diablo or Torchlight, instead it all feels as a whole. Of course, Diablo & Torchlight feature randomized maps, something MotN lacks, and while I think it doesn’t need it, it would’ve certainly increased the already strong replayability factor.

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Lights & shadows take center stage in the art style

Gameplay is simple. You run, climb, grapple and kill; but the mechanics involved in the stealth and infiltration and assassination, push those simple abilities and make them all the more complex. It’s a game that rewards patience and planning, and punishes you for going gun, or dart, blazing. Sound and sight are, as usual in your stealth game genre, part of the gameplay, and they add another layer to the simple basic abilities. All around you, every movement or sound generates a sound wave you can see, and running creates quite a big one, even if you’ve upgraded into lighter footpads. While you’d think sound is bad, it’s really not, as you can use it to lure guards to a very stylized and satisfying kill. The same goes for light and shadows. In the dark, your character is just an outline with a face. When exposed to the light, the character’s suit is filled with colors, an interesting and visually striking way to let you know when you’re in the dark or exposed. Unlike sound where a run in the right place can gather attention, showing yourself is a far more risky move and will probably get you shot. Killing is done by walking behind the target and clicking the right mouse button and sliding the mouse in the direction you’re told by and failing to do so results in an imperfect kill that creates a lot of noise. Successfully doing it rewards you with a short kill animation, and the makers did a bang-up job of not letting those animations take precedence over gameplay, you’ll never run into situations common in games with kill animations, where the world keeps going while you are locked in the animation. In Mark of the Ninja, you’ll never be caught by a guard just because you were in the middle of a killing, you’ll get caught because you planned your killing poorly.

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All kills feature cool animations like this one, but unlike most kill animations, they don’t interrupt the gameplay in a significant way

You can climb up walls, crawl on certain ceilings and hide behind objects littered in the environment and even in doorways all to avoid being spotted, and the game rewards you with points every time you do so and I must tell you, it’s really satisfying to see those numbers float with the caption “Undetected”.

Your special ninja tools add another layer to the gameplay, and more complexity. You start off with just a basic Bamboo Dart, which you can use to mess with security systems and break lamps, but not kill, if you throw them at people, you’ll only get their attention and sometimes that’s the point. From then you get smoke bombs that not only block sight but also lasers. You get flashbangs, firecrackers and even a box, in a very nice Metal Gear Solid homage. Then you have your offensive items like spike traps, caltrops, poison darts and even flesh eating scarabs. I personally opted for the smoke bomb & spike trap combination. With the default ninja path aka suit, more unlocked both as the game progresses and by completing certain challenges, you can only equip one of each, one distraction and one offensive.

You can use your tools by selecting them and simply clicking the right mouse button, but that is rarely the best way to do so. Instead, you have yet another ability: “Focus”. “Focus” stops time, and lets you choose your targets carefully, using all tools at the same time when you leave focus. You first learn to use it to bamboo dart multiple targets at once, but as you get more tools, it becomes an integral part of your multitasking arsenal.

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Focus will come in handy here, and this isn’t as hard as it seems!

Enemies fare from guards, to bandits to even a few ninja. Most carry flashlights and some advanced ones have night vision goggles, making the stealth/kill that much difficult. As I previously said, you can use sound to call their attention, or bamboo darts, or leave a trap at their feet, or use their comrades’ bodies to draw attention, sometimes even terrifying them and making them run away and shoot whatever’s in front of them, including other guards.

Now that I’ve praised it, it’s time to rip it apart, and sadly there’s not much, it’s only personal gripes.

First of all is the upgrade system. At some point in the game and later in between missions, you can buy upgrades, the points to do so you get from completing optional objectives in each mission, collecting sacred scrolls, of which there are 3 in each level, and by getting a sufficiently high score. Getting and using upgrades is fairly easy and for the most part satisfying, but considering the sometimes heavy emphasis on stealth, including two distinct bonuses for never being discovered and not killing anyone, there are relatively few stealth oriented upgrades. Aside from improving distraction tools to be more efficient or even deadly, there is only one purely stealth oriented upgrade: Soft Foot Padding, reducing your running sound, but by a negligible amount. The rest are assassination skills, and offensive tools, and of course, the MGS box.

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90% of them a ways to kill people

The game follows a dogma of stealth games I have grown to hate with all my heart. It’s the fact that once discovered, your character becomes effectively defenseless and useless. Your sword only works for stealth kills, but once you’re discovered, the pointy end just doesn’t seem to work, forcing you into hand to hand combat against heavily armed opponents, which most likely will get you killed, especially considering just how little it takes to kill you. Tools and weapons will probably only be used on those occasions to allow a quick escape to the safety of darkness, to wait for guards to go back to their default attitudes.

If you are discovered by a guard, a flashing red “!” speech bubble appears over them and they will hunt you down mercilessly. That is, until the alarm timer goes down to 0 and guards assume you’ve left and go back to their routines. I would have preferred the level to stay in a heightened security level after your discovery.

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Don’t worry, get out of sight and soon enough they’ll go back to their donuts

Aside from those issues, the game is amazing and you will play it probably over and over again. The controls are solid and the game rarely, if ever, fails to respond to your commands. It’s been said the game is amazing “for an indie game”, but the level of quality in this game surpasses that of most AAA games, so I’ll amend that statement with “The game is amazing, period! Most AAA companies should learn from this level of quality”

You can buy this game now on steam and it will be worth its price, every single penny of it.

Replayability is great, with not only secondary missions to complete and scrolls to find, some of them featuring their own challenge maps, but also an entire New Game +, with higher difficulty including all sound rings gone from the game.

If there is a game for which I’ll gladly pay for any DLC, even if it’s only challenge maps, it’s this one, and I’m hoping with all my heart it gets a sequel or an expansion, not only to fix what little there is to fix, but to expand on this beautifully executed concept.

I can safely say this is the definite Ninja Game, if not the definite Stealth Game.

I’ll leave you with the launch trailer, and I’ll be back with more reviews later on!

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