By nature, I’m a very impatient person when it comes to video games. Because of this, stealth games have never really clicked with me – I always wind up charging directly into combat (and getting killed) because I don’t want to wait. Mark of the Ninja is the first stealth game I can remember that I’ve actually wanted to play in a stealthy way. It’s a very open stealth game, and leaves the player with a lot of freedom to choose how they want to play the game. Add to that its sharp, smart design and you’ve got one of the best games I’ve played this year.
Mark of the Ninja is a 2D action game, casting you as a ninja who has some scores to settle. How you play the game is up to you – you can use your ninja skills to distract guards, sneak past security beams and complete missions without leaving any trace of your presence, or, if mercy isn’t your style, you can use those same skills to slaughter your enemies and leave a path of dead bodies in your wake. It’s impressive that the game manages to make either of these approaches (or any combination of the two) viable and fun to play.
Stealth hinges on knowing where your enemies are while staying hidden from them, and Mark of the Ninja gives you lots of tools to accomplish this. Your appearance changes when you are in the light, making it easy to tell when you are vulnerable to being spotted. In addition to seeing your enemies directly, you can follow their movements by watching the beams from their flashlights and other visual cues. You can’t see anything that’s not in your character’s line of sight, though, which provides an essential balance. In order to spot a guard, you’ll have to be able to see him, which means potentially exposing yourself.
Ninjas are not limited to sight alone, and your ears can tell you a lot about what’s going on around you. As guards walk within range you see a visual representation of their footsteps, giving you an idea of where they are. That goes both ways – when walking you make no noise, but running will create sound that will alert guards to your presence. When using items you can see a circle representing the area in which the noise made by that item can be heard. That can also be used to your advantage – throwing a dart to break a light or sound a gong can cause a guard to investigate, momentarily distracting him.
A large determinant of success is being in the right place, and there are lots of ways to get there. You are able to climb walls, grapple platforms and crawl through wall and floor vents in order to get around. While on the ground, you can hide behind objects, blending in and making yourself invisible. The controls are precise, and every movement has a purpose. For example, when on a wall you can drop to a lower section of the wall, climb around a corner or hang from a ledge – it’s not about just being on the wall, it’s about being exactly where you want to be on the wall.
When you’re in position to stealth kill an enemy, he is outlined in red. Once you have initiated the kill, you need to press the left stick in the correct direction to pull off a silent kill, otherwise your victim will have time to make noise, potentially alerting others. In addition to your sword, there are environmental elements of which you can take advantage. Guards can be lured into exposed electrical wires or traps, and a falling chandelier, while noisy, makes an effective weapon.
Dead bodies will raise suspicion, so you can hide them to avoid detection. You can also use them to your advantage; dropping a body into a group of guards will cause them to panic and start shooting wildly, often killing each other in the process. Regardless of how you choose to attack, stealth is a must. While you are very powerful when unseen, killing even a single guard who has spotted you is tough. It’s the one thing about the gameplay that feels off – that a powerful ninja armed with a sword suddenly seems so weak when seen.
At the end of each level you’re scored on your performance. In addition to the main objective you have three optional objectives, and three scrolls that can be collected, and numerous artifacts to find. The extra objectives and collectables, in addition to the score bonus you get based on your number of kills, give the game plenty of replay value. Some of the levels feature challenge rooms, which provide an extra challenge but only offer a scroll as a reward, which is disappointing. It would be nice if the extra effort earned something more.
In addition to your sword you carry distraction and offensive items, and points you earn can be used to purchase upgrades. You can gain new physical abilities, like stealth killing enemies from above or below, or using your grapple to hang them from a platform and scare other guards. You can also purchase new distraction weapons like smoke bombs and noise makers, and offensive weapons like caltrops and spike mines. As you progress in the game you unlock different costumes that really let you change up how you play, and help earn some of the optional objectives in certain levels. For example, the Path of Silence costume allows you to run silently and carry two distraction items, but does not allow you to carry a sword, making it perfect for areas where an extra dose of stealth is required.
Visually, Mark of the Ninja looks awesome. Each enemy kill features a zoomed-in animation that’s very cool, and the cutscene animations are great and fit the visual style perfectly. All of the visual cues, from your change in appearance when visible to the footsteps of guards are really well done, and add to the gameplay. Even the animation when you reach a level checkpoint has style, and in general it’s just a great looking game.
Sound is very important in the game, and it’s very well done. Guard voices and footsteps echo down hallways, and birds in a rooftop nest caw loudly when disturbed. The kill animations are accompanied by gruesome death sounds that really make them pop. The voice of Ora, the female ninja who guides you on your quest is well done, and nicely matches the tone of the game.
Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic game. There are almost always multiple ways to reach an objective, and once you’re there you have loads of choice in how to handle a situation. Whether you’re silently avoiding guards or killing every single one, the gameplay is fun and rewarding, which is really impressive. The game is longer than I expected, and the different objectives and costumes add a ton of replay value, since you can play the same area in completely different ways. It’s a very well designed, excellently executed game that everyone should check out.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.