Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth game that it feels like everyone has been writing or talking about lately. And rightly so. My friend JPH fell in love with it, and Holly Green of Destructoid called it “the most ninja game ever made”, something I wholeheartedly agree with. It is also the best stealth game to come out in many years, perhaps the best ever.
Let me back up a little here, and eventually get to justifying my statement. Made by Klei Entertainment, the people behind the Shank games, and published by Microsoft; Mark of the Ninja is not just a game with some stealth in it. It is a true stealth game, where stealth is the at the core of the experience. It was first released as an XBLM exclusive, but has now come out on Steam as well.
Disclaimer: I got so caught up in the game I forgot to take any screenshots on my first playthrough, so all of them were captured later when I have all the best gear. So minor spoilers there, maybe.
In Mark of the Ninja you are a ninja named Mark. Well, not really, he’s not exactly named at all that I noticed. I just thought of him as “The Champion”, since that’s apparently what his role was. He has gotten some special tattoos that they call Marks, that grant powers beyond even other ninjas. The downside is that eventually they will drive him insane and he will need to kill himself before the hallucinations take over and make him kill everyone he knows. Yeah. Tough fate.
As you start the first level, you will go through what is basically the tutorial. You can climb on walls. You can hang from grates in the ceiling. You can enter grates to move through the ventilation system. You can peek through doors (even if they don’t have keyholes). You can walk silently, or you can run noisily. Every sound made travels, and if guards/enemies hear a sound, they will go to investigate.
It all feels remarkably tight and slick, and works excellent with keyboard and mouse controls. You not only have to be in range, but you also need to point the mouse cursor at/towards objects you want to interact with in certain situations. Once you get the hang of it you will be slipping through the levels like a pro, and it feels sooo good doing it.
Then there is the importance of lights. All enemies have a vision cone in front of them, and in the dark they can only see so far. If something is lit up however, they can see it from pretty far away. This becomes extra important to keep track of in the levels where lightning-strikes illuminate everything for a brief moment.
And then you have the tools: Your sword, the grappling hook, the wooden darts and several others that you can find or unlock with points you earn doing the levels, and a lot of them can be upgraded too. There are tools of distraction, and tools of murder. You can even unlock new assassination techniques. And a cardboard box to hide in.
It all feels satisfying to use. The kill animations are superbly executed. Even the ones where you botch it up are nice to look at. And the titles you get attached to your score for the kill are inventive and occasionally amusing. It all feels very right, and it makes you feel like a ninja.
With the right kind of kill, or depending on what you do with the body afterwards you can even terrify other enemies and turn them into nervous wrecks that fire on their allies or just any shadow they think they see move. They might even be too scared to remember to raise the alarm, which is its own sort of delicious.
The most gratifying thing for me though: To just sneak through the levels and not touch the guards. I’d just sit in a vent, on a telephone pole or other hiding spot and watch the guards. See their patrols, identify light sources, check for things that could make noise. And then spring into action: Setting off a gong or taking out a light to distract a guard, slip in behind them, get to the vent or the door and silently move through. Apart from a few broken lights, the odd sound and maybe a fleeting glimpse; it’d be like I’d never been there at all.
When they start to mix in new enemies like the dogs who can sniff you out, even in hiding places, and the guards who fire flares at sources of noise or where they caught a glimpse of movement; it makes you feel all the more of a badass for slipping by without raising a single alarm. There is no non-lethal way to take down someone, so you either kill them, or sneak past. There is a certain satisfaction in saying “I could have easily killed that guy, but I chose not to”.
This game is genius in how it basically lets you set your own difficulty without having a difficulty setting per se. The difficulty is entirely dependent on what sort of goals you set for yourself. Do you want avoid raising alarms? Do you want to not kill anyone except your targets? Do you want to try to achieve the optional objectives to earn extra upgrade points? Do you want to get that scroll that requires you to traverse an extra challenging room? Or do you simply want to make it through the level and don’t care whether you’re seen or not? I will admit there were several times I thought to myself “This would be so much easier if I just kill that guy”.
This is all topped off by a marvelous art style that lends a lot of character to the world. And the way things look quite different in and out of the light is excellent. The animations flow smoothly and helps everything feel all the more alive, and the cartoons you get as cutscenes are always a treat. In case you worry: You can skip all of them should you want to. The screenshots don’t really do it justice, but they’re all I have to show you.
The sound design is not bad either. I can’t really call the music memorable, but it works when it comes to setting the scene. The sound effects are very good and I can’t say I ever got the feeling that anything didn’t sound as it should. Even the voice-acting is pretty good, although the security chief of the corporation you face is hilariously bad in his accent. If that’s the actual accent of the voice-actor, then I apologise, but it sounds rather silly.
All of this leads up to an ending that actually reminded me a bit of Spec Ops: The Line. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but I will say I was rather impressed.
Now before I round this off I do want to mention a few minor niggles.
There is an upgrade you can get for the smoke grenades that gives them the ability to daze enemies for a short while. This works perfectly fine when used on a single guard with no one else around. But if you daze two guards at once with one, even if they’re the only ones around, they will sound an alarm once they come to. It was not an insurmountable problem or anything, but it was annoying when trying to do a no-alarm run in a few levels.
And then there’s the outfitting/upgrading menu that pops up at the start of each level and whenever you find and interact with a shop. It’s a bit clunky, and tedious to navigate through. It feels like there should have been an option to just Esc out of it and keep your previous setup if that’s what you wanted. Instead you have to click Done on the upgrade screen, then Yes I’m Sure, then pick your suit, your first tool and your second tool, and then click Yes I’m Sure again.
My biggest objection though is the Indirect Kill mechanic. Certain levels are littered with traps, and you have to be careful to navigate through them. And maybe use them to your advantage if you’re not that fussed about murder. But there was one level where it was impossible to get No-Kill because the natural patrol route of a few guards meant they would eventually walk into a trap and kill themselves with it. No matter what I tried, no matter what route I took, it always happened. Whether they glimpsed me or not. And that gave me the credit as an Indirect Kill and ruined my No-Kill score. After over half a dozen attempts I just gave up and completed the level with two indirect kills on my record. I had no hand in setting the trap, so it was not my fault they died, and as such I don’t feel it’s fair ruining my score over it.
None of these are big complaints though, and I had an excellent time with the game. It is the first time I’ve really felt like a ninja, and not just like I was an action hero that happened to be a ninja (looking at you, Ninja Gaiden). I considered leaving the nitpicks out of this post, but ultimately I’m too petty for that.
The bottom line is: If you like ninjas, stealth games, or maybe even both (!) then Mark of the Ninja is definitely something you should check out. It will make you feel like a badass, I can pretty much guarantee that. Steam link!