Keep it stealthy, stupid
You won’t find any guesswork in Mark of the Ninja. Klei Entertainment’s 2D stealth game manages to circumvent the unpredictability present in many of its 3D counterparts. Instead, it takes a different approach. It gives you the tools to take control of the situation, and approach it as you see fit.
Mark of the Ninja succeeds because it emphasizes clarity. Everything a stealth game would need to communicate is done so intuitively. For example, anything audible, such as loud footsteps, the scream of a wounded guard, or the sound of your darts shattering a lightbulb, is represented by a blue circle. Guards within the circle’s radius can hear the noise, and will notice the disruption.
This disruption is represented by a yellow circle around what the nearby guard suspects to be its source. A suspicious guard will display a question mark icon over his head, with a timer that represents how much longer until he gives up his search.
Mark of the Ninja is all about using this visual language to manipulate guards. Perhaps you’ll use a noisemaker to draw a guard away from a light. With the guard out of earshot, you can break the lightbulb and use the cover of darkness to stealth kill him once he returns to his post. As the scenarios become more complex, and the game piles on new obstacles and enemy types, you’ll make use of an ever-growing arsenal of skills and items to progress.
At the same time, the game continually gets more and more open, and offers you more freedom as to how to tackle each scenario. By the end of the campaign, you’ll have amassed a wide variety of abilities, as well as six costumes that tailor to your playstyle. For example, one costume allows you to trade in your weapon – rendering you unable to kill enemies – for silent footsteps and an additional distraction item. Another costume, however, makes you more effective in combat, but makes items harder to use.
Each of Mark of the Ninja’s twelve levels comes with a set of collectibles to find, score benchmarks to reach and challenges to complete. Performing these tasks earns you currency, which you can use to purchase new abilities and items. This creates a lot of replayability, not only because you’ll want to retry levels to complete more tasks, but because you can play New Game+, in which everything you’ve unlocked carries over. New Game+ also adds an extra level of challenge by taking away some of the assists, and making guards tougher. However, it would have been nice if these modifications were available from the start in the form of a harder difficulty mode.
Mark of the Ninja also looks great. The cutscenes resemble something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the various kill animations are always a gruesome pleasure to watch. Like Shank before it, Mark of the Ninja doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to violence, which is surprisingly entertaining when juxtaposed with its cartoony aesthetic.
Voice acting, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. The dialogue sounds forced, and the legions of guards you’ll encounter appear to only be voiced by about three people.
But that doesn’t stop Mark of the Ninja from being one of the best downloadable titles this year, and one of the best stealth games in years. It’s approach to stealth is intuitive, clever, and incredibly satisfying. Add in some fantastic animation and a hefty campaign with tons of replay value, and you’ve got something that is definitely worth your time.
Tested on Xbox 360
Review copy supplied