The stealth action genre has long been an echo chamber unto itself. While many games have integrated its core ideas, its pure form hasn’t evolved much since Metal Gear 2 on the MSX. It’s a genre that many critics have argued relies too heavily on trial-and-error, exists as puzzle games in action-game skin. Mark of the Ninja shrugs these distinctions off while living inside them. It’s a smart title that promotes a different kind of stealth: action not patience; the hunter, not the prey.
The Hisomu Clan is under siege. As has been the tradition for hundreds of years, one warrior will be tattooed with ink granting them great power and speed to eliminate their enemies. But it will slowly drive them mad. As that warrior, you will find those responsible and be the weapon to exact the clan’s revenge. You’ll have access to the remarkable suite of abilities that Klei Entertainment has granted you.
They started by designing a simple core move set that facilitates quick traversal including the ability to scale walls and ceilings, drop between floors and bolt between cover. By mapping those moves to an intuitive control scheme, the player is given a considerable amount of agility without having to think about it. What’s more, the moves work in tandem with each other so that you always feel like you can do exactly what you think you can when you think you can. These moves would have gone to waste if the environments hadn’t been constructed with alternate routes and entrances to most objectives so areas are multi-faceted and comprise real physical space. It’s in the way all these principles came together into a unified whole that is key to the design, the end result of which is tight and provides real options on how you want to tackle an area.
And when faced against an enemy that is fully capable of seeking you out and taking you down, you’ll need them. What separates Mark of the Ninja from other games of the genre isn’t necessarily in the enemies AI’s routines but in the nature of the ruleset that every party is subject to: stand in light and you can be seen, make noise and you can be heard. You rely on both to infiltrate a location just as much as the guards rely on it to keep you out. Crucial to this process is to give you full feedback on how your actions impact the world and so has been integrated directly into its visual language. When you stand in light, your character can be seen in full garb, in shadows he’s cast in black with light outlines. Since you can see the enemy’s cone of vision, it’s incredibly easy to plan out your next move. Audio cues are more complex, with every sound generating a field outward. If that field expands to an enemy, they turn in the direction of its source. Because you are given information on many of your moves before you do them, much of the guesswork involved in traditional stealth games is completely removed. To keep things interesting, different enemy types have different means to detect your presence. Though a single guard on its own offers no real problem, taking on groups that make up for individual deficiencies can prove to be incredibly challenging.
To take them on, Mark of the Ninja provides a large bag of tricks to use the shadows as a weapon, allowing you to quietly sneak past your foes or stalk them outright. While most will get a liberal use of the bamboo darts to destroy lights and grappling hooks to quickly zip between tether points, there are enough tools to allow anyone to play in their preferred style; from distraction items including noise makers and smoke bombs to attack items such as spike traps and carnivorous insects, each is practical without being redundant. That goes for the robust set of lethal techniques that allow you to dispatch enemy guards in almost any context and then hide them from detection. For those interested in a game of psychological warfare, bodies can be used strategically- they can be placed or thrown at enemies to terrorize, leaving them to bumble around in a panic or empty their guns out of fright, often into a group of allies, neutralizing them while you pass by unseen. It’s brilliant and satisfying.
So, too, is the games understanding of its own mechanics which allow it to have levels packed with content, much of which can be sought for or ignored as you see fit. Though there is always a primary objective, every level has separate side goals. For those who wish to explore, haiku scrolls are hidden in each level and tell a piece of a larger story. One scroll in each level is also found in challenge rooms, puzzle environments that test your dexterity and intelligence. There are also level-unique challenges that ask you to fulfill specific requirements such as terrorizing a guard into shooting another or get smelled by every dog. Lastly is the points system: every guard you kill and body you hide, every patrol you evade undetected awards points, all of which are tallied at the end of each mission. These feats award you with seals that buy additional techniques, item upgrades or new outfits that come with their own strengths and weaknesses. The entire system celebrates playing the game as you wish and in turn reinforces it as you get better equipped to handle yourself.
Much of Mark’s success can be directly attributed to its art style. Your moves are well animated and defined and are essential to the precise feel of the controls. The Individual characters are cleanly drawn and expressive even without the need for much dialogue. Locations are varied and so full of detail that they never feel overly repetitive. The aesthetic is similar to Klei’s previous Shank games, but with this material comes across as a little too similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s work on Samurai Jack. The audio is just as well produced and minimalist and enhances the gameplay without distracting from it.
Mark of the Ninja is an important entry for stealth games, not just for what it adds, but for what it removes. It manages to be simultaneously simple and direct, fast and accessible. It’s a rare kind of game- one that redefines the scope of an entire genre. One that should not be missed.
DEVELOPER: Klei Entertainment
PLATFORMS: Steam, Xbox Live Arcade