When given the option between stealth and combat in a game, I typically go for combat. It’s not that stealth isn’t intriguing, I just lack the patience to wait for the right moment when I know I can fight my way out of a situation. The freedom of combat often feels like a thematic opposite to the constricting, often linear style of stealth that most games present when they shove stealth segments into their games.
Mark of the Ninja goes to show what the stealth genre can present when the sneaking is the core focus of the game, rather than an accessory strapped on to a game for the purposes of saying a title has “subtlety”. The cel-shaded 2D Platformer, developed by Klei Entertainment, stars a chosen member of a Ninja clan, marked with a special tattoo that grants him exceptional powers, but also descends him into madness. Our hero must utilize his new strength to save his clan from a group of mercenaries. Ultimately, he must eliminate all of the threats facing his people, including himself.
The game presents multiple options to lead the player to the end of stages. Navigation often allows for scaling walls, crawling across ceilings, grappling across cityscapes, or crawling through vents to lead you to your goals. Dealing with enemies is as much the player’s choice as navigation is. Your shadowy assassin can make quick, silent work of enemies, featuring beautifully animated kills that provide a visceral reward for good gameplay.
While killing is always an option, the method in which you kill, or the choice to kill at all are as much the player’s prerogative as the navigation. Your ninja can use traps or special kills to scare surrounding guards into a panic, shooting friendlies in a panicked burst of fire. If taking a life is not your thing, you can focus on stealth-for-stealth’s-sake and attempt to get through the stage completely undetected. The game rewards you extra points if you opt to go the peaceful route, which you can then use to switch your costume, allowing weapon or item specializations to enhance your preferred playstyle. Whether your motto is “go unseen” or “many must fall”, Mark gives many means to a universal end.
Fortunately, your protagonist has many tools to aid him in the stealth department. Just a few of said options, you can use darts to take out surrounding lights, noise makers to focus a guard’s attention to the direction of your choice, or smoke bombs to confuse opponents or to obfuscate laser sensors. Avoiding detection is as much a matter of manipulation as it is slipping through the shadows.
The best part of the gameplay is how deliberate everything feels. Any action that can create a sound is marked by an encapsulating pulse, showing you exactly where the sound will be heard. If you get a guard’s attention, there’s never a moment where you don’t immediately know why. This gives Mark of the Ninja a surgical preciseness to its gameplay that leaves no question as to whose fault it is when things go awry.
The sound bubbles are as much a tactical tool as they are a visual representation of danger. If you have a way to sneak through a building, you can use the sound of a crashing light or your own gait to distract enemies and cause them to investigate where the sound came from. When you are aurally detected, the game will show you where you were heard from. Use your own body as a distraction tool, luring mercenaries near vents or under grapple points, sealing their own fates as you strike from the shadows.
If I could complain about anything in this game, it’s that you can succumb to a sort of mental exhaustion when playing the large, sprawling levels. The fluid gameplay is still backed by principles of patience and thoughtful consideration; some of the stages go on for so long, you feel like you expended the thought and steady hand of a bomb defusal unit by the end of them. All things considered, “there’s so much to play” when the gameplay is this enjoyable is a weak complaint.
Mark of the Ninja was an exceptional experience, fun enough to enjoy the whole time, but open enough to encourage me to go back and try every path. It’s as enjoyable to speed-run this game completely undetected as it is to meticulously eliminate every enemy on the way. It has even inspired me to give the stealth segments in other games more of my time. A crash course in stealth is what I needed, maybe now I’ll have enough patience to finish the stealth challenges in Arkham City. The 15 dollar price tag is a steal for this Xbox Live title, you’d be cheating yourself out of a fulfilling experience if you didn’t pick this up.