I have always been a big fan of what the guys at Klei produce. The Shank series harks back to the glory days of 2D action games with a mix of gorgeous visual fidelity thrown in. With Mark of the Ninja, they keep their trademark visual style, but have changed up the gameplay substantially. Instead of focusing on straight-ahead action, the game instead turns its attention to stealth. Now, normally I am not a fan of trial-and-error mechanics. I find them tedious, but Mark of the Ninja made it interesting enough to keep me playing with minimal frustration. When I died, I knew why, and that makes all the difference sometimes.
You take on the role of a Ninja whose clan is on the verge of extinction. You are bestowed tattoos that somehow give you special abilities, but also cause you to basically lose your sanity. This mission will almost certainly end with your death, and yet you still press on. The premise is solid and well presented, but it never got its hooks into me. The cut scenes are similar to Shank, with a stylized look complete with exaggerated features and a barrage of colors. They look fantastic, and the voice acting is well done. It just never seems to find its rhythm to draw you into the world.
Thankfully, the narrative takes a backseat to the gameplay. Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game that focuses on stealth and cunning over head-on action. Every level rates you on things such as stealth kills, remaining undetected and hiding bodies. Alerting enemies or raising the alarm hurts your overall score for that level, and there are seals you can earn by performing specific tasks during the level. This gives you incentive to go back through the levels to earn better scores and dominate the leaderboards.
Unlike Shank, you’ll spend a lot of your time in MotN sitting in the shadows, waiting to strike, if you strike at all. The game definitely rewards stealth. You can complete the entire game without killing a single soldier if you so choose, which is definitely a challenge. There is also an upgrade system that comes into play within the first few levels in the game. You can unlock abilities such as being able to stealth kill enemies while hanging and hiding in the shadows. These make the game easier as you go along. By the end of the game you are powerful enough to literally run head first into most situations if you so choose, but the stealth is much more fun and rewarding.
What separates Mark of the Ninja from most other stealth games is that Klei has gone a long way in rewarding players for using stealth, as opposed to punishing them for failing. Being detected isn’t an instant game over, but it certainly impacts your score. I found myself restarting checkpoints after being discovered, not so much because I died, but because I lost points for it. It does a wonderful job of keeping you vying for higher scores and earning upgrade points. Never did I feel frustrated as I do with most stealth games, and that in and of itself is a massive achievement.
The actual gameplay is also smooth. You have a grappling hook you can use to attach to certain ledges, and attacks and executions are handled with the X button. Once you initiate an execution you have to tap a direction plus the X button; do it wrong and the guard gets out a scream that can alert others. The platforming is also solid. Moving from one ledge to the next is intuitive and never becomes a hindrance when trying to remain hidden. This is key for a game that relies so much on stealth. You also have a nice selection of items you can use to aid you along the way.
You start off with darts that can take out lights or power conduits. Eventually you gain access to both distraction and attack items. These range from noise makers to smoke bombs, and all have their own benefits. Smoke bombs can allow you to move through lasers undetected while things such as caltrops can take down patrolling guards. These items can also be upgraded as you earn more points. The sheer amount of items and tactics at your disposal by the end of the game is truly impressive.
There is plenty to keep you coming back for more. As I mentioned earlier you are scored on each level for various factors such as killing enemies or being detected. There are also scrolls you can collect and the seals, which are basically level-specific challenges. In addition, the game really drove me to better my performance. I found myself wanting to go back and best my previous runs, not for leaderboards or Achievements, but just because it was fun to see if I could.
The visuals are vibrant and fluid. The characters retain that same exaggerated look found in Shank, but with a slightly darker tone. The animations look fantastic, and the environments are stellar. I particularly loved the storm level, and there is one section where you need to start a massive fire, which is presented extremely well. The game just looks fantastic in crisp HD. The sounds are also well done with solid sound effects and a dynamic soundtrack. I mentioned the voice work earlier, and even without drawing you into the story, it still is performed admirably.
I can’t recommend this game enough. I have loved the direction Klei has taken with their games so far. Shank was a little too much for me, even though it was such a great game. Mark of the Ninja seems to evidence refinement and growth for the studio. It has been a long time since I enjoyed a stealth game this much. The balance between risk and reward is perfectly balanced, and if you enjoy the genre, this is a must own. In fact here is a link, go buy it now, well at least download the demo and see for yourself.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.