If you were frustrated by the forced action sequences of Metal Gear Solid 4, or confused by Ryu's decidedly non-ninja-like behavior in Ninja Gaiden, here's the game you've been waiting for.
This review is based on approximately 10 hours of gameplay, including a complete campaign playthrough.
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 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.
For a game that never really sets out to tell an amazing story, Mark of the Ninja at least does a serviceable job keeping the player invested in ongoing events. You are a ninja trainee, though you're hardly inexperienced, more like a senior in ninja high school. After an evil corporation attacks your dojo, it's up to you to track down the men responsible, and shove your blade into places they'd rather you didn't. To accomplish this, you've been given the titular "mark," a tattoo that makes you extra powerful, but also drives you insane and will force you to commit suicide at some point. Sorry.
We'd guess that roughly half of the spoken dialogue is tutorial in some way, so these lines are fairly basic and explanatory by nature. The remaining script goes to a cast of cliched ninja-folk or soldier-type bad guys. Writing should therefore be considered a bit generic, but thankfully it's not lousy enough to detract from the greater experience. Not by a mile.
The whole "mark" aspect of the storyline is a little bit cool, but frankly the narrative takes a backseat to gameplay. That's fine in a game of this type, our only wish is that some of the great ideas found close to the ending sequence were fleshed out a bit. That sequence is also the only place you'll find player choice, and we wish this had been expanded a bit too.
Cutscenes use cartoon animation just like most of Klei's work, however many of the scenes are short or simply feature two or three characters speaking to one another. We felt the development team's animation talent was underused for this game, and would've like to see some extra ninja badassery to reward our cleared levels. It should also be noted that the more serious narrative (compared to Shank at least) clashes with the "Saturday morning" visuals, and we can't help but think a darker style would've been more evocative for this darker game.
The ninja live in shadow, so it may be no surprise that much of your screen will be black while playing Mark of the Ninja. Klei has successfully mapped a series of environments that support fun and varied encounters, but visual appeal seems to be a secondary consideration.
Other than the cartoony character models, art design and environment details are relegated to the background. In the foreground, which contains the surfaces, objects, and NPCs you'll be interacting with, design is fairly drab. Each environment looks basically the same, and they all run together in our memory, with only one or two standing out. Buildings have also been designed with very little attention to the way buildings look in the real world. The level maps are meant to serve the gameplay alone, not the visuals, and we frequently puzzled over the illogically vast networks of service ducts and convenient ninja-tunnels that seem to populate every locale in the game.
Although the foregrounds run together, backgrounds are colorful paintings that aren't so busy they detract from the action. Animation of characters, both the protagonist and the goons, is really the finest element of the graphics package. We only wish a few more animations were included. You can only disembowel a guy so many times before it gets old, you know?
Japanese drums and full orchestration combine to result in an appropriate, competent, but ultimately forgettable soundtrack. Yet simply the inclusion of an orchestrated soundtrack is a big bonus for an XBLA title, it's the mark of a high quality product, and makes the gameplay feel a little bit more epic.
The best part is the way high-energy moments are matched up with swells in the music. There's a sequence near the end of the campaign that's essentially a "survive the onslaught" scenario, and the soundtrack crescendo that goes with it really deepens the excitement.
Hopefully you won't be making many of these, remember, you're a silent assassin. But when sound effects do occur, they're usually pretty generic walking, slicing, or choking noises. Nothing stands out here except the excellent "whoosh" of the grappling hook, which makes an already-fun mechanic even cooler.
Speaking of sounds, this seems as good a place as any to write about the onscreen sound indicator, which is a brilliant and self-explanatory assist. Every time you run, grapple, or really do anything for that matter, a circle of varying size will surround your character based on how much noise he's making. With this tool, it's possible to actually see exactly how far your noise will carry, and whether you can expect to be detected.
Not since the Thief series has a stealth game been so immediately and consistently gratifying. For some reason, the rest of this genre seems to be stuck in a rut of overcomplexity. To illustrate, let's consider a similar scenario—say, taking out a guard—in both Metal Gear Solid and Mark of the Ninja.
In any MGS game, downing a guard begins by deciding how to do it. Will you choke him out from behind? Maybe you'll shoot him in the neck with a tranquilizer. In fact, sure, let's go with that. So to shoot this poor sap, you must first aim with L1. Then you might want to swap to first-person view with the triangle button. At this point you can aim with the right stick, and pull the trigger with R1. Either that, or you could swap shoulders with R3, zoom in by pressing up on the directional pad, or use your secondary fire with R2.
In Mark of the Ninja, you sneak up behind him and sword that fool in two seconds.
We could do the same thing for player movement. The Splinter Cell series requires complex inputs that allow Sam to do all sorts of crazy things, most of which involve hiding. In Mark, you'll be jumping and flying through the air with your grappling hook, performing complex equipment combos in midair without struggle, pulling off devastating executions from every angle, or simply bypassing entire squads without even raising suspicion.
While other stealth titles have trouble avoiding the gray area of "I hope they don't see me," Mark gives you total battlefield awareness. Light and dark, enemy vision and hearing range, safe zones and secret passages, these are all made clear to the player, ridding them of confusion.
This self-evidence, this fairness, and this simplicity, is what makes Mark of the Ninja a study in player empowerment. You are an unstoppable badass from the moment you pick up the controller, and the feeling never ends until the game does. Even then, you'll find yourself going back to try out New Game+, justifying that steep $15 price tag. This game earns our full recommendation, and belongs in every gamer's Xbox Live Arcade library.
Meet the tester
Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.
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