Mark of the Ninja Review
Klei Entertainment’s latest game gives the stealth genre a much-needed wake-up call.
The most satisfying stealth action in years.
Mark of the Ninja is almost one hundred percent stealth, but to say that betrays the depth and variety of the gameplay. True you'll be sneaking your way through each and every level, but how exactly that plays out is up to you. If you're anything like us, you'll play as the ultimate killer, mercilessly exterminating every guard that stands in your way, unseen except for the bodies strewn about. The guards' chatter reflects your choices, they'll become appropriately afraid on the radio, and you can terrorize them even further by dropping bodies on their heads, or even stringing up their dead friends on the ceiling. Some guards will become so panicked that they start to shoot each other. We spent a lot of time with sinister grins on our faces.
Of course this is really the easiest way to play. If you'd prefer to take the moral high ground, and you've got the finesse, it's possible to get through the entire game without killing a single guard. You'll achieve a score just as high for going this route, and the game responds to your style by awarding "seals" for certain accomplishments. Each seal is aligned with a certain play style, and can be used to purchase character upgrades later on.
Using seals you acquired in the field, as well as those awarded for passing score thresholds, you'll earn enough to points to unlock upgrades. The interface is unintuitive at first, but nearly every new skill is worth your points. They'll give you the ability to attack in new ways, or use different distraction techniques and weapons. Complete enough challenges, and you'll unlock new costumes that have more drastic effects on combat, such as silencing your footsteps but removing your sword.
Unlike so many games, the best part of unlocking new abilities is that they don't complicate the control interface. On the continuum of character improvements, Mark of the Ninja lies in the perfect medium between classic RPGs, which simply boost your numbers, and action games, which add more button combinations. In Mark of the Ninja, you simply become immediately and intuitively more effective in combat.
Every once in awhile, during your many creeps and crawls through a random service duct, you'll enter challenge rooms which, in the context of the storyline, seem to take place in the protagonist's mind. These challenges require no stealth, but you'll need a mastery of the game's mechanics to navigate around laser beams, spikes, and other traps.
Puzzle design isn't particularly imaginative, and while these segments provide a change of pace, we were having so much fun with the main game that we didn't need it. By the fifth or sixth puzzle room, we were getting pretty sick of them.
Controls may be the best part of the game. We're not sure why, but for some reason the entire stealth genre seems to have taken on complex control schemes as an essential characteristic. Metal Gear and Splinter Cell both have very unintuitive controls, and we think this is part of what's led to a decline in the genre. It's hard to even bring to mind other stealth franchises beside these two.
Mark of the Ninja is different. Player movement is extremely smooth and precise, and best of all, few actions require more than a single button press. This drops the learning curve down to only a few seconds, allowing the player to get in the game and start doing awesome stuff immediately, and this process repeats every time a new ability is unlocked.
When you need to perform a complicated action—like shattering a light, throwing a smoke bomb, and using your grappling hook; all simultaneously and in mid-air—simply pull the left trigger and time will stop, giving you a moment to think and to "mark" (get it?) certain actions that will resolve once you release the trigger.
We can't praise the controls highly enough.
When you're finished sneaking or slicing your way through the main campaign, you'll definitely want to check out New Game+, which allows you to retain all your unlocked abilities, but gameplay becomes harder in ways that we won't spoil. There's also the incentive of playing each mission for "no alerts" or to achieve a top score and unlock all the seals. And all these are ignoring the simple pleasure of playing the game over again using a completely different play style, which is of course always your option. Ultimately Mark of the Ninja has much better replayability than the average XBLA game, and that's good, because with think $15 is a little expensive for this title.
Pacing & Flow
Pacing is largely consistent, which is fine since the gameplay is consistently fun. The only breaks in the action come from cutscenes, which we don't mind, and puzzle rooms, which we do. Puzzle segments just aren't as fun as the rest of the game, and we eventually came to dread them.
Enemy pathing is based on preprogrammed routes in most situations, although the guards will start making their own decisions if you're detected or engage in direct combat. These instances will hopefully be rare for your playthrough, so this feature is sort of a non-issue.
At least once we encountered a glitch where a guard's head would rapidly oscillate back and forth, which makes stealth almost impossible. Other than that, we detected no technical barriers.
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