Lately video games are all about options. Conversation options allow for flexible story interaction. Gameplay mechanics are more flexible to allow for different play styles allowing players to “tank” or play more tactically. Mark of the Ninja scraps these concepts and teaches the player, quite strictly, that there is one way to play. With a protagonist that is quite fragile, planning, thinking, and distraction became my tools and weapons. I found sanctuary in the shadows, and from the shadows, I rained chaos and destruction upon my enemies.
Mark of the Ninja may be a strict game, punishing players for being detected, but it does offer quite a bit of variety. There is no set way to complete each mission. Every scenario presents problems that present multiple solutions. Bodies can sometimes be hidden so killing is not always the best approach as guards will report fallen comrades. Dead bodies though can also be used as psychological warfare as a strung up corpse will terrify the guards that stumble upon it. With that said, the ultimate goal is avoiding detection, and a lower body count often means fewer guard encounters.
Killing is a challenge in and of itself. One does not just run up to a guard and kill it in Mark of the Ninja. There are circumstances to be taken into account. I stalked my prey, scouting out the landscape, waiting for the perfect opportunity. Once in position to go in for the kill, hitting the X button will initiate the stealth kill in which accurate inputs need to be made to pull off a perfect silent kill. Imperfect kills would alert guards to my presence and so I was judicious in how I dealt out death. As I progressed through the game, I was able to acquire more skills to dispatch my foes in more creative and impressive ways. Soon, I was able to strike from cover, from above and below, from air vents, etc.
With the acquisition of skills also comes the acquisition of tools. Different tools can be purchased and utilized to set up traps and create distractions. Certain tools can also be upgraded to make them more effective and create new strategies. For instance the noise-maker, when upgraded, is given a custom fuse that allowed me to detonate it at the perfect opportunity. As I progressed I unlocked more tools, skills and kits. Each had its own strengths and weaknesses. There is a great variety of skills and items to help tailor your ninja to how you want to play. You can invest in more stealth kill techniques to dispatch your enemies from various positions or in distraction tools if you’re more of a pacifist.
Completion of the campaign unlocks “New Game +” and this is where the true ninja or kunoichi (female ninja) tests their metal. The view of the landscape is changed drastically and all enemies are far deadlier. The emphasis on stealth is greatly enhanced and the actual view of surroundings is fundamentally changed. You see, Mark of the Ninja is a very dark game. When I say dark, I mean it’s, well… black. A game based on lingering in shadows should be dark to begin with and the team at Klei have really done a superb job of making it work visually. The only time color is evident is when it is illuminated by light otherwise, it’s black. In New Game + the field of vision is drastically limited to what your character can actually see, so things behind the character become a fuzzy, shadowy representation of the world. Imagine it as your mind’s eye remembering the details of the surroundings. In order to refresh, it requires actually looking. It makes the game significantly more challenging and more realistic. Also, the sound spheres, which give context to sounds, are removed and that makes the game signifigantly more difficult if you can’t remember how loud certain actions are.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, what I’m trying to say is that Mark of the Ninja is astounding. It stands as a pillar of hope for the stealth genre. It is a shining beacon that the genre is not only alive and well but that it can be done in an engaging and entertaining way. It is one of the best downloadable games I’ve ever played and one of the best games of the year (indie or otherwise). If you have an Xbox, you owe it to yourself, as a gamer, to get this game. It’s that good.
In fact, let me help you get it: Mark of the Ninja