The stealth genre has always had special place in my heart. There is something innately terrifying about being unable to take your foes head on and instead resort to outsmarting or sneaking past them instead, and mastering the ability to do so is more intellectually satisfying than combat could ever be. So when I saw Mark of the Ninja on sale during the Steam sales of late November, I was intrigued and decided to buy it.
At first I was curious how stealth mechanics would translate into a 2D platformer, but Mark of the Ninja not only has perfected these mechanics, it introduces enough twists to make it truly stand out as a shining example of its genre.
The first thing that anyone will notice about Mark of the Ninja is the beautifully smooth animation during both the cutscenes and gameplay, with the same colourful flair that Klei Entertainment (the makers of Shank) is famous for. There's an effective contrast of light and dark where objects in the dark appear silhouetted and the player can only see where their character would have line of sight (instead of being able to see everything on the entire screen at all times, which means moving about to assess the situation is important). Environments are normally indoors, but are varied enough to not only keep things interesting but provide new strategies for players to assess.
The story is told primarily through cut scenes whose visual style reminds me of high production value Saturday Morning cartoons. The story itself is rather simplistic: an organization has targeted the player's Ninja Clan for extermination and it's your job to put a stop to it. The player is enchanted with the toxic ink of a mysterious plant that will give him mystical powers but will eventually drive the bearer insane. I would have liked some more context behind the characters and their motivations, but so far this is the only area where the game falls short.
Mark of the Ninja requires a fair amount of finesse to play, and it's not something that just anyone will be able to pick up immediately. The gameplay is built entirely around stealth instead of direct confrontation. The Ninja can run up walls, use a grappling hook, and can stop time to use items on many objects at once.
Enemies can only be stealthily killed from behind, but personally I found the game more fulfilling when I went for the non-lethal route and tried to get past guards by distracting them. There were some cases where this proved extremely difficult without being detected, but I felt this just added to the experience rather than taking away from it. Getting past sections undetected, killing guards, and other stealthy actions will net the player points which can be used to unlock new abilities, items, and weapons, while being detected will decrease your points.
One aspect I have to praise is that the guards are surprisingly intelligent. Yes, they will go through normal patrol routes and be distracted easily, but when on the lookout for the player they will do unexpected things like look through vents, open doors, call for aid from other guards, and have the support of guard dogs which can sniff you out if you get too close.
Normally, the mechanics of distracting guards and sneaking past them successfully would be a matter of trial and error but Klei Entertainment made the brilliant decision of making noise visible to a player through sound-bubbles, which indicate the range of a sound, this way you can tell if performing an action will alert nearby guards.
Despite being a ninja, confrontations are hazardous to the player's survival. The player can only take a few hits and guards will pursue the player relentlessly as long as he is in their sights. This is compounded by the inability to kill enemies from the front, which may frustrate some players but helps drive home the necessity of stealth over combat.
In conclusion, aside from a learning curve with the controls and wide range of abilities at the player's disposal, Mark of the Ninja is fantastic. I give it a strong recommendation.