One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.
For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.
Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.
Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.
Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”
Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.
As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.