A breath of fresh air!
Mark of the Ninja is a downloadable title from Klei Entertainment, the developer behind such games as Shank, Shank 2, n+ and so on. A complete list of the company's games can be found here!
It's an Xbox 360 exclusive title too, so you can only get it from XBLA at the moment for 1200 points, and it's worth every single one of those points.
Mark of the Ninja is an action/stealth/platformer in the vein of Shadow Complex or Flashback. It takes us back to the old days of games like Saboteur (not the Saboteur mind you) and builds on the company's excellent track record with Shank. Mark of the Ninja is a vastly different game and takes all the lessons learned from Shank 1 and 2, n+ and then some. It's a beautiful love-letter to old school gaming with modern controls and design.
Mark of the Ninja weaves an action-packed story of betrayal, ninja action, violence and subterfuge all wrapped up in the mythos of a mystical ink, an ink that bestows great and terrible power on anyone tattooed with it. There is a cost though, the ink drives you mad according to lore and you must take your own life. Enter the ninja, marked with the supernatural ink and driven towards revenge after a vicious attack on his clan. It's great stuff and it's told with a beautiful animated style that really shines and is leaps ahead of that used in Shank 2.
Right off the bat, Mark of the Ninja has solid gameplay with tight controls and smooth level design. You can play your ninja how you want, you can earn Seals by doing special tasks in each level, earn more Seals by getting a good score and finding all the secret scrolls. Up to 9 Seals can be earned per level and you can buy various skills/equipment/tools upgrades between levels, as well as from special upgrade flags found on most levels.
There are various costumes to unlock to help you hone the play-style or Path you want to take as the ninja. Each one has several pros, but often comes with a con. For example, the Path of Silence lets you run silently, equip two distraction items - but you cannot use a sword, which means no kills at all. You must play like a shadow and flit carefully from place to place to avoid being spotted. It transforms the way the game plays instantly.
It is possible to complete a level without being spotted or killing a single guard. It's not easy to do, but the feeling of satisfaction coupled with the very responsive, tight and sensibly designed control system makes it entirely possible to achieve after you've spent a few hours with the game. You can replay levels to get a better score or just try out new tactics/equipment. Basically, it's setup perfectly to make you want to play the game and not be frustrated by it.
There are generous checkpoints throughout the vast levels and lots of secrets to discover.
The ninja is highly controllable and can move around the levels with cat-like grace: jumping, hiding, running, dodging and clambering without too much trouble. He begins with very little in the way of skills/powers/abilities but as the game progresses and you unlock more - he becomes a badass in every way.
Once you get a few of the stealth kills from hiding spots and grates, you can really transform the way you approach the levels. If you want to hang from a grapple point with your grapple hook, lower yourself down and strangle the bad guy with your chain, you can do. Leaving him strung up like a macabre puppet for his buddies to find. This will usually terrify them and they might start shooting wildly, killing their comrades in the process.
Stealth kills (unless you have the Path of the Hunter) are triggered by a quick-time event button press combo. They're all pretty easy to perform so you won't miss out at all.
Dragging guards into hiding spots will net you a nice little hidden body bonus though, so if you're aiming for a solid high score, you will want to think carefully about how you hide your enemies, how you use your ninja techniques and how you want to play.
There are numerous guards, guard types, dogs, puzzles and platformer elements to take into account over the big levels. Unless you're wearing a particular costume, you can take advantage of focus time, by holding the left trigger. This lets you aim at objects in the world, such as lights or power boxes, with your throwing darts and break them.
A broken light can distract a guard; a damaged power box can shut off a trap.
The game pays attention to light and sound in an excellent way, it marks footsteps when you can't see an enemy but you're close enough to sense them. It gives you an idea of where they once were if you break line of sight and tracks your own footfalls if you move too quickly. Guards will hear you, they will come looking and they are very good at ferreting you out if you make a mistake.
The way that Mark of the Ninja uses light is simple, if things are muted or black and white, you're hidden, if you can see yourself in full colour - you're visible.
Guards also have line of sight, cones of vision and react based on luminosity levels in the area. If you're lit up by a searchlight, expect most of them to spot you unless you can hide or get out the way. You can use this trick of course to lure in guards, because they will come and investigate suspicious activity. So you can pop into view, then out again to get their attention - beware though, they're not dumb in that regard and they might decide to call an alarm.
The ninja has a variety of tools to unlock, such as smoke bombs, great to block lasers and escape guards. The spike mine (very painful for the enemy) and flash bombs. There are some more tools but we'll leave those for you to discover.
We don't want to go too deep into the actual gameplay. Just take it from us that the game is really smooth in terms of control and gameplay systems, there's a lot of fun to be had levelling the ninja up and using those skills to freak the guards out, Batman Arkham Asylum/City style.
Don't worry though - if things get too hard you can always change the difficulty level, though we left it on default because we're ninja like that. There's also a New Game+ mode too, so there's even more reason to play through again!
Mark of the Ninja is a good looking game. The 2d backgrounds are really well drawn and the characters all have that Shank-style Klei feel to them. The whole thing has a great palette and the use of light/shadow really helps bring the ninja stealth atmosphere to the fore. Then you have the actual lighting effects, with one level set in a massive awesome thunder-storm that rolls on in the background with fast thumping rain.
Alongside the gorgeous 2d graphics, there are the tactile and fluid animations that deliver a smooth gaming experience. The stealth kills are well animated and the whole thing flows beautifully as you move around the various levels. The various guard types all have different visual personalities and many of them can be seen dozing, smoking, patrolling or just talking to each other. The ninja moves around the levels smoothly, traversing walls, climbing, running, jumping and flipping from point to point without a skipped frame. It all looks fantastic.
Objects have weight; bodies can be dragged, thrown and used to scare the hell out of the other guards.
The AI for the enemies varies in Mark of the Ninja, based on their type. Elite guards are harder to scare than grunts; some guards have shields and need to be approached from behind. All guards will become suspicious if you break lights in their visual or auditory range and they will patrol earnestly for a while. If they spot you during this heightened awareness time, they may well call in an alarm or go in for the kill. The only way to escape from that point is to hide, break line of sight, or beat them to a pulp until you can deliver a peasant's death to the downed bad guy. Then there are dogs, dogs with noses that can smell you even before they see you. These little buggers will bark like mad calling any guard in the nearby vicinity based on their hearing range.
All in all the AI for Mark of the Ninja delivers a fun and satisfying experience, especially when the guard's nerve breaks and they become terrified - shooting wildly - scrambling around, perhaps even stumbling to their death off a ledge if they're truly scared.
The audio suite for Mark of the Ninja really complements the various levels and the game. There are some great spot effects, the stealth kill gurgles and the sound of soft footfalls as the ninja sneaks around are some of the highlights. The storm effects are brilliant and there's not a single audio glitch whatsoever.
The soundtrack to Mark of the Ninja is superb with some great set pieces and a really fantastic tune to kick the whole game off. We want a stand alone OST of this game's music stat!
Mark of the Ninja is really well written too, which is a great thing to see for a downloadable game like this. The story is engaging, the dialogue is basically perfect for the game's atmosphere and it has some superb moments in terms of storytelling - especially when the origin of the mark is revealed during a cut-scene early on. We were reminded of Samurai Jack, and in a good way.
There is some great VA here in Mark of the Ninja. The dialogue delivery is spot on for the characters and there are some truly solid moments that stand out. All in all a fantastic job for a game like this, truly setting the bar for downloadable titles alongside the likes of Shadow Complex.
Yes or No?
Skipped to the end at all? Yeah, well here we tell you, YES, get the game. 1200 points is about right for a game like this and it's got a lot of replay value in how you approach the various levels to try and get the best score, new toys, find secrets or just mess with the guard's heads on the Path of Nightmares. Mark of the Ninja is an ass-kicking good time on XBLA and it's worth the price of admission.
We can't wait to see if there's DLC or even a sequel, Mark of the Ninja 2? Yes please!