Developers: Klei Entertainment
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
If you own an Xbox 360, if you're a fan of stealth games, if you've been craving a ninja game that encourages you to play like a shadowy assassin - silent and deadly, go and buy Mark of the Ninja now.
Shank an its sequel were good solid fun, but Klei have outdone themselves here. Eschewing the blood-splattered titles from the likes of SEGA and Team Ninja, Klei have honed in on one very simple aspect of the ninja credo: stay out of sight. So it is that Mark of the Ninja takes the form of a 2D side-scrolling platform-puzzler rather than a button-mashing action-packed slaughterfest.
And it's all the better for it.
It's a game that's easy to identify as a stablemate of Shank, though mainly for aesthetic reasons. The cel-shaded, cartoon looks and the gory splashes off crimson that were to be found in Klei's earlier action title are mirrored here, albeit with a different colour scheme. The monochromatic palette so brilliantly worked in the likes of Limbo - and, to be fair, Deadlight too, at least in parts - makes a return, as light and shadow feature heavily in the game's mechanisms as one might expect; but there are some beautifully rendered urban backdrops and lantern-spotted pagodas for our titular ninja to acrobatically skip in front of as his story unfolds. Not that you'll notice them, of course, being too intently focused on navigating your way through the latest frame to admire the scenery.
It's a game that needs only the barest minimum of a narrative, in fact all that we really need to know is in the title. You play as a ninja. But where can you hide in a 2D world, and how do you convey the heightened senses and considerations of a stealthy assassin to a player in a game that comes in such a form? Well, Klei give the player absolutely everything that they need to know through the game's very aesthetics. Each step will present a visual echo bubble. Should the edge of that ring hit a soldier, they'll hear you. If you step into the cone of vision possessed by a guard or a dog, you're going to be detected. If you move into the light, you're allowing yourself to be seen. Even in the shadows should you alert someone to your presence, you can be uncovered, at which point the only recourse is to blend in with a blackened shadowy fern or retreat into a dark doorway or alcove at the push of a button. The controls are so intuitive, the rules that govern this game so easy to comprehend, that immersion is quick, and once you're hooked, that's it.
Make no mistake, Mark of the Ninja may present a swift learning curve, but this is a brutally efficient game that tests its players. The guards may have the collective memory of half a goldfish, but their sense are sharp. At its core, it presents a series of frames and rooms with a simple objective: get to the end without being detected. How you do that is entirely up to you. A brazen approach simply won't work, you'll find yourself gunned down with impunity within seconds. You're ninja, that's not how it works. You can slip through each of the game's dozen levels and kill every man, woman, and dog that you find. The game presents you with a mini QTE for each assassination: a flick of the stick and a press of the button, simple stuff. Get it right and you're rewarded with a clean kill; get it wrong and your victim with scream and thrash and possibly attract some unwanted attention.
Pacifism, on the hand, is never overtly encouraged, but there are some hefty points rewards for keeping your hands as clean as possible, with the game presenting you with a score at the end of each chapter. You'll replay levels again for timed runs, for the joys of exploration to see if there's anything you missed, and simply because there's never a "best" approach, though that won't stop you looking for one. By the later stages of the game, you'll have a mini arsenal of objects that can be used to manipulate your surroundings and adversaries within your field of vision, but you'll still be looking for that perfect route, and the game allows for any number of them.
There is a New Game + mode, naturally, but quite frankly it's a little easier than one might hope, particularly now that you have x-ray vision. There's little to fault elsewhere, though. The controls are spot on, the sound design is excellent, and Klei flip thunderstorms on their heads to allow players to pick up on the rolling thunder before the illuminating crackle of lightning ruins a spot of infiltration. It's a perfect synthesis of cracking level design, simple effective mechanics, and player freedom. You can't help but wonder what the point of the Summer of Arcade was in the first place.
It's rare to see true stealth embraced in such emphatic fashion these days, with publishers impressing on all parts of the industry that we gamers must be constantly stimulated and can't possibly appreciate games that require patience or, god forbid, thought. But this is a title that will thrill fans hungering for the glory days of Thief and the original Metal Gear Solid. It's a bold, brave game to have placed so many of its eggs in one stealthy, shadowy basket, but it's arguably the best XBLA of the year so far because of it.
- Fantastically smooth and responsive controls
- Excels at revitalising the stealth genre
- Aesthetic design is brilliant and practical
- Would have been perfect on the Vita
- May prove a little too easy at times for some
- There aren't more games like this
The Short Version: Mark of the Ninja is an utter triumph. Not content with just pulling off a 2D stealth game, Klei have struck the perfect balance between accessibility and depth, crafting a fantastically engrossing title that provides splendid satisfaction through gameplay. Pure shadowy bliss.