Stealth titles are not, nor have they ever really been, the kind of games that gripped my interest in any meaningful way. I have dabbled, and have tasted of their fruits, but I have never found myself enthralled. I dislike being forced into a particular play style by having a weakened player character, and I tend to enjoy the action and thrill of direct confrontation over the slower, more meticulous satisfaction of careful stealth. I’m fully capable of it, it’s just not what I look for as an element of enjoyment in a game. Of course, with a game about ninjas, you can go one of two routes: Metal Gear’s oppressive stealth mechanics, or Ninja Gaiden’s abundant action. Mark of the Ninja, Klei Entertainment’s newest title, eschews Ryu Hyabusa’s over-the-top ninja action in favor of Metal Gear’s focus on planning and stealth, and gods help me, I actually found myself enjoying it.
Part of my aversion to stealth mechanics, aside from the pacing and severely weakened player character, is the seeming ineffability of what consequences my actions will have without rigorous experimentation and replay. I don’t want to play a certain section of a game ten times to understand the unique circumstances of the area’s stealth mechanics; that’s interminably boring. I want to be able to know how the game works, and have a serious chance at succeeding without monotonous repetition. Mark of the Ninja is absolutely perfect when it comes to visualizing some of the key elements of a stealth game: sight and sound. Your character will either be lit or unlit, depending on your visibility to enemies. You are able to see solid cones of visibility in the form of lighting coming from enemies which can help you plan your path with more than just guesswork. Sounds create expanding circles, to a certain range. If your sound circle intersects with an enemy’s bubble of attention, then they will hear you. Between sight and sound, these circles and cones of attention provide you with a solid foundation for mapping your way across a level.[vimeo 48989753]
Aside from stellar stealth mechanics, Mark of the Ninja provides you with multiple ways to play. Again in a Metal Gear-esque sort of way, Mark of the Ninja can be played as violently or non-violently as you want. You can sneak-slaughter your way through the enemy hordes, or you can choose to remain completely in shadow, never being seen and never disrupting the game world around you. There are different point bonuses during gameplay and at the end of each level for either path, and there are different abilities, skills, and items that can be upgraded and purchased at upgrade stations along the way to help facilitate your playthrough style of choice. As you complete levels, you earn up to 9 seals per level, which can then be used to purchase the aforementioned upgrades. Better performance = more seals.
After Shank and Shank 2, I came to expect great things from Klei Entertainment’s art and animation departments. Mark of the Ninja does not disappoint in the slightest. Your moves are swift and catlike, befitting the silent and graceful ninja. Actions are fluid and natural, and the palette is appropriately dark and shadowy, as one would expect. It’s a feast for the eyes; what more needs to be said?
Mark of the Ninja has done what I would previously have vehemently sworn to be impossible: it has provided me with an absolutely enjoyable stealth experience that I can’t get enough of. The game has Klei’s distinct visual flair, and supports their well-earned reputation for wonderful animation and design with its fluidity and style. While some levels drag on longer than I feel they need to, and the plot is hardly the shining star of the title, Mark of the Ninja is an essential XBLA title that deserves a great deal of recognition and success. It is currently available on the XBLM for 1200MSP, and you would be doing yourself a disservice by passing it up.
[learn_more caption=”Review Results”][one_half]Pros:
- Transparent stealth mechanics
- Visually striking
- Smooth gameplay
- Multiple ways to play (violence/non-violence or through different loadouts)
- Good character leveling[/custom_list][/one_half]
- Some levels can feel overly long
- Plot takes a back seat
To see where this review score falls in our scoring range, please read our review scale guidelines.[/learn_more]