If you’ve heard of Klei Entertainment, you might recall an Xbox Live Arcade title called Shank released in 2010. Shank was a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up with shooting and grenade tossing elements. Klei also released a sequel to their fast paced action title earlier this year. With Mark of the Ninja, their newest creation, they’ve slowed things down quite a bit, trading run-and-gunning and hack-and-slashing for a stealthy game of cat and mouse. Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side-scroller that encapsulates the true essence of being a ninja.
You are a ninja bearing no name but marked with countless tattoos. These tattoos aren’t just any body art, though. They are made with sumi, a magical ink derived from a flower that bestows the bearer special ninja abilities. You are awakened and immediately given the task to help the Hisomu clan from being slaughtered by an elite military group. You must also find the reason for this senseless killing and extract your revenge. With each new challenge, you not only don a new tattoo, but you learn more about the Hisomu clan you’re defending. Will you be able to save them and uphold your honor? That is the ultimate test of the ninja.
To put it bluntly, Mark of the Ninja is dark. The vast majority of the game puts you in screens that are more than 50 percent filled with black. You’re usually given just enough to see the outlines of walls you can climb on and the silhouettes of enemies roaming the corridors. This is how it should be, as ninjas work best in the dark. Your greatest enemy is the light, not only because it highlights you to your enemies, but because its lack of light conceals them. A Fog of War, if you will, comes into play, only letting you see so much around you. You’ll have to proceed with a generous amount of caution, because if there’s anything that video games have taught us, ninjas are frail.
If you’re caught, you only have a fraction of a second to pummel a guard to stun him and finish him off and even then, hand-to-hand combat usually doesn’t go too well. The only thing deadlier to you than a gun is a gun with a flashlight at the end. You’ll more often than not choose to flee, and this is where the game’s stealth mechanics come in. If you break their line of sight, a pulsating yellow circle will lure them to check out your last known location. The enemies might be very nearsighted due to short cones of vision, but their sense of hearing is keen, so you need to be extremely careful with the amount of noise you make. Blue circles will emit from your footfalls whenever you run, and if a guard is in the diameter, he will move to inspect. Shooting your chain on grappling points, shooting out lights with your darts and breaking other objects do the same as well. You can use distractions to your advantage, though, to lure them in for stealth kills.
This is where Mark of the Ninja becomes extremely fun. You can stealth kill in a variety of fashions, which involve getting close to your enemy, pressing X and then pressing X again in conjunction with a directional input. If you fail the onscreen prompt, you botch the stealth kill and the victim screams in agony alerting any of his nearby buddies. There’s the basic sneak up from behind and stab them in the back attack, and more opportunities become available with upgrades throughout the game. You can peer through a ventilation grate and yank them to their doom when they get close enough, or you can hang from the ceiling and drop down on them from above. You can even take a page from Batman’s playbook, dangling yourself from a perch point right over an unsuspecting baddie and then stringing them up by their necks. There are also a number of hiding spots that you can get behind and once you unlock the ability to do so, you can even stealth kill from those hiding spots. Of course, bodies will cause alarm to be raised so you can either hide them, or a more fun alternative is to throw the corpse in front of a guard and watch as they freak out and accidentally shoot their own men!
Any ninja will tell you that you don’t leave home without your American Express. You also don’t leave home without your ninja tools. Your basic tools are the bamboo darts, which are used to take out lights and distract enemies by throwing them near their proximity. As you earn coins by netting high scores and clearing objectives, you can unlock and upgrade more tools, such as Terror Darts, which cause your enemies to freak out; caltrops, which disable enemies long enough for them to be stealth killed; smoke bombs, which can be upgrade to become toxic; flesh eating beetles that dispose of bodies; and even a cardboard box that you can creep around in and upgrade to let you execute stealth kills from. To top it all off, there are different costumes that you can earn that give the ninja different styles. There’s one that’s focused on attacking at the cost of agility, while another one lets you move silently, except you can’t equip your sword. All these tools and styles give you a great deal of gameplay options, meaning there’s always more than one way to tackle an obstacle.
The same can be said about the level design. Although progression is mostly left to right, there’s a lot of vertical movement as well. There a number of ways to get from point A to point B, and you can choose to encounter a hallway full of enemies, or you can use a ventilation duct and slip right under them. Sometimes you’ll be focusing on wanting to incapacitate every enemy, but there’s no way to approach a guard from the front without getting detected. You can take the long away around and go up over the building and back in from the rear, poke out of a grate, yank the guard in and plunge your blade into his chest. There are also gongs hidden in each level that transport you to challenge rooms. These start off easy but increase in difficulty with each level introducing newer traps and obstacles into the fray. It’s clever level design like this that you don’t see in many 2D action games anymore.
Mark of the Ninja also has a points system that you can compare on Xbox Live leaderboards. You earn points from stealth kills, distracting guards, slipping pass enemies undetected, indirectly killing guards with traps, finding scrolls and artifacts and more. You’re graded at the end of each level, and you can earn more coins for your upgrades by completing side objectives, such as hiding a number of bodies or slipping past an area completely undetected. It’s also completely possible to play Mark of the Ninja without killing a single guard, should you choose the pacifist way, and you’re given a 5000 point bonus for clearing a level without bloodshed.
The game’s not without its faults, however. There is a major lack of enemy variation, and you fight the same guards in the last level as you did in the first. The later levels introduce the Stalker Ninjas, which are impossible to sneak up behind and if you want to kill them, you’ll need to knock them out first, which can be extremely hard to do thanks to the game’s spotty hit detection. You may die a few times right after passing a checkpoint only to be respawned in the midst of danger, costing you points and/or your life so if you’re score chasing, you’ll have to start the entire level all over again. A rare glitch also occurred where dying right after upgrading abilities rendered those new abilities completely unusable.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the game is dark. Don’t play Mark of the Ninja if you have an aversion to black, because it is everywhere. The Fog of War effect which limits your visibility based on the angle of light further drives home the game’s shadowy art direction. The graphics that you can see are very well done, with a hand painted cartoon-like quality. There is a fair amount of blood that founts from enemies, but it is never overdone and does not stain enemy bodies. It’s only gory when it needs to be, which makes sense as it would otherwise alter the tone of the aesthetics. The animations are all very smooth, and once again of cartoon-like quality, which also includes the animations used to drive the story between chapters. If you’re familiar with the graphical style of the Shank games, you’ll see their influences here.
The sound design in Mark of the Ninja is excellent. The footfalls as the ninja runs sound just like a killer on a very tight schedule. The chain grappling and bamboo darts being thrown into the ground have that perfect pitch metallic clang. Wisps and whooshes are the only faint traces of a ninja who used to be right there. Sword impalements are wet without being overly violent. There’s also Asian instrumentation that chimes in whenever you pick up an artifact or cross an important check point. The music is well composed, and is perfectly fitting for a ninja game. It pays attention to the mood and adjusts accordingly. The only drawback in the audio is the voice acting. Not only is your character nameless, it’s also voiceless, which doesn’t offer you much opportunity to care for him or his story. His female ninja counterpart is voiced well, and so are a few other characters, but there’s an elite guard villain who has such a ridiculous Australian accent that it becomes distracting, making you wonder what he’s doing in a ninja game.
At 1200 MS points ($15), Mark of the Ninja is well priced. Your first playthrough will take you several hours, and if you choose to play in complete stealth meaning without killing anyone, it could possibly take you longer. The game also features a New Game+, which lets you keep all your current upgrades and equipment, but makes it harder by removing visual aids and restricting visibility behind you. Its story may not be very fleshed out, and you may tire of killing the same guard over and over again, but Klei Entertainment has managed to nail the feel of a real ninja quite well, which is a very addictive feeling. Mark of the Ninja is the perfect change of pace when you’re tired of playing the same old 2D side-scrolling action games.
Excellent mechanics make stealth killing fun and addicting | Dark graphical style paints the tone of a ninja perfectly | Multiple paths make for creative level design
Not enough enemy variation | Story isn't very good | Rare glitches ruin gameplay
Born and raised in Denver, CO in 1979, I've been playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller. I was weened on Atari, then Nintendo and Sega, and currently own just about every console and handheld made. I'm an avid hip hop fan and I love to read books. Favorite authors include Dean Koontz, Stephen Hunter, and Christopher Moore. I'm also an avid movie watcher and I try to collect as many Blu-Rays as I can.
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If you've heard of Klei Entertainment, you might recall an Xbox Live Arcade title called Shank released in 2010. Shank was a 2D side-scrolling beat 'em up with shooting and grenade tossing elements. Klei also released a sequel to their fast paced action title earlier this year. With Mark of the Ninja, their newest creation, they've slowed things do