Mark of the Ninja [Review]
Ninja games aren’t anything new. We’ve had them since the early days; slicing, dicing, and throwing ninja stars at enemies. But what about ninja games that truly reflects what a ninja is: a silent assassin? With the exception of Tenchu, I’m hard pressed to give you an answer. That is, until now. The same people who brought you Shank and Shank 2 have left the slicing and dicing to Shank and brought us a new stealth ninja game: Mark of the Ninja.
Mark of the Ninja is one of the darkest (if not the darkest) games I have ever played. The dark environment lends itself to game play in several ways. As a ninja you will need to make use of the shadows; staying out of light wherever possible. Using shadows you will be able to sneak past enemies or put yourself into a position to strike them down. Enemy range of vision is limited when in the dark; there is an indicator in front of their faces to show you exactly how limited it is. If you step into the light and an enemy is looking in that direction, it doesn’t matter how far you are, they will see you.
The darkness doesn’t always play to your advantage, however; your vision is fairly limited as well. With the exception of the area that you are in, most of your screen will be shrouded in darkness. This forces players to move about the levels cautiously, since you don’t want to accidentally alert an unsuspected enemy. When you move next to doors you can push against them to sense what’s in the next room; likewise with vents—you peek out of them to get a limited view of what’s inside. Peeking through vents also gives you enough room to toss items through to knock out lights to give you more cover, or perhaps make an item fall as a distraction. You need to do this cautiously, though, since knocking out lights and breaking items makes noise that can draw unwanted attention.
Sound plays a big part in the game. When you break a light, hit an item, or do anything that makes noise, a sound indicator shows how far away that sound can be heard. It’s a great way to distract enemies and get them to turn their back of move to another area. It also can give you unwanted attention if you accidentally make a noise. Even disturbing birds or rats will cause them to make noise that may draw the attention of a guard.
When walking your footsteps are silent, but if you run they make a lot of noise; giving guards your location. You can also use the footsteps of the guards to indicate where they are. If you are close to a room, or perhaps somewhere that doesn’t have great visibility, you can use the sound indicator that shows up when the guards walk to determine where they are and how you should proceed.
You have a nice set of tools to work with, and you can typically select tools based on how you want to play the game. Your base tool set includes a grappling hook, short sword, and bamboo darts. The grappling hook can be used to quickly pull yourself to the tops of light fixtures, ceiling vents and other objects, or rappel from higher areas. The bamboo darts can break objects such as lights or hit enemies as a way to distract them or draw them into traps. You have a button that allows you to focus, which essentially stops time. While in focus you can select multiple targets to hit with darts or other tools, or choose your next location to grapple. Mastery of this skill allows you to be in and out of a location before your enemy even realized you were there.
Lastly, the short sword only has one function: killing. The ninja won’t even pull out the sword unless it’s going to be a kill; meaning if you accidentally alert an enemy you will have to fight him hand-to-hand and daze him before the ninja will use the sword. When you successfully sneak up on an enemy you will have to enter a button combo to complete the stealth kill. If you fail to complete the combo you will still kill the enemy, but he will make a lot of noise which can alert other guards. At first you can only kill from behind, but as you progress you will have the option to upgrade your abilities to be able to kill from above, vents, and even use the grappling hook to string up enemies.
Other weapons include items such as spike traps, caltrops, and even bugs that can eat enemies alive. Not everything in your arsenal is about killing, though. You get bonus points for not killing during levels, and a few tools to help you do that are smoke bombs, noise makers, flares, and a cardboard box (no stealth game is complete without one). As you can see the game allows you to be a stealth death machine or an efficient assassin that only kills its primary target.
There is an additional tool that falls between stealth tool and killing weapon. It’s a dart that makes enemies terrified; one of my favorite things to do. Terrified enemies nervously move back and forth throughout a corridor, shooting anything they see. This is great if you have a room full of guards and want to thin the herd. The terrified one will shoot the other enemies, and then you just need to take him out; that is, if you want to take him out of his misery. You can also terrify a few other ways. If you set a trap that kills an enemy and another one sees it, or maybe throw a dead body in front of an enemy, they will become terrified. My favorite way to terrify an enemy was to string up guards on a light post. When other guards came by they would be terrified. It filled me with joy.
There are multiple types of guards. The standard guards are usually cake to get rid of; however, there are guards you can only kill from the back, guards you can only kill once they have been dazed, and guards that can even see in the dark. Guard dogs can become a problem because they don’t even have to see you. Guard dogs have a certain radius that, if you enter it, they will detect you. This includes hiding spots. Once a dog detects you, they will continue to bark until it can attack you; drawing the other guards in. Even if you are on the ceiling, Cujo will just follow you around.
Each level has multiple seals and scrolls. Seals are bonus objectives such as not being detected while in a certain area, or completing a certain task without killing. Scrolls provide additional background story and are hidden in various locations around the map. Each level also has a challenge room you need to complete to get at least one scroll. The challenge rooms have no enemies, but will push your puzzle solving ability. Scrolls are definitely optional, but they provide a great insight into what’s really happening. I’d call them critical to the game.
You have a score that accumulates as you play. Killing guards, going undetected, not killing anyone all mission, and other actions give you points. There are three point milestones, and when you hit each one you get points that you can apply toward upgrades. You get upgrade points for every milestone, seal, and scroll you obtain; so each level will get you nine points max. You can use these points to upgrade your ninja skills to tools.
Players who complete the single player will be allowed to play “New Game Plus”. The mode removes sight and sound indicators, makes enemies more difficult, and limits your vision even more. Now you can’t even see behind you. It just makes you feel that much more awesome when you complete a level without an alert or killing a single person. Between the seals, scrolls, challenges like going kill-less, and even the multiple paths you can take, there is more than enough to keep players coming back. You can even unlock additional costumes that have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Mark of the Ninja is an excellent game which exceeded my expectations for Klei (which are high, by the way). Mark of the Ninja is truly everything a 2D stealth game could be, and then some. I would recommend it to anyone that loves stealth games, and I really hope they continue with the series.