It’s been a good while since I have come across a pure stealth game. No, not one of those hybrids that have stealth elements yet give you the power to openly wreak havoc for all to see like in Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed, and the recent Splinter Cell games. I’m speaking of the games that fully encourage or even force you to go entirely unnoticed similar to that of Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Thief. Once you get spotted, there is little chance of escape. I have been longing for such a game for a while now and, after watching a few videos, Mark of the Ninja appeared to deliver just that.
Just to bring everyone up to speed, Mark of the Ninja is a game developed by a team that I am particularly a fan of, Klei Entertainment. If you are unaware, they are the minds behind games like Eets and, to a lesser extent, the Xbox Live version of N+. Most notably, though, they created Shank 1 and 2 which are side-scrolling brawlers that, despite some of the negative things people have said, I personally found quite enjoyable. In this game, however, gameplay really couldn’t be more opposite as it requires stealth to a much greater extent than even the most revered “stealth” games that have been coming out as of late.
To start off, I’ll talk about the art style in general. Mark of the Ninja contains an aesthetic very similar to that of the Shank series which I found quite excellent to begin with. Everything is slightly exaggerated and the art style overall has somewhat of a Saturday morning cartoon look. That is in no way an insult, by the way, as I have heard many people compare this game visually to the somewhat old show on Cartoon Network known as Samurai Jack which I personally think is both a fair and complimentary comparison.
Now, unless you haven’t seen any footage whatsoever, you’ll probably know that Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side-scroller which is a very interesting choice, indeed, for this genre. Instead of hiding around corners like in a typical stealth game, you have the choice of either hiding vertically (like sitting on top of a lamppost, for instance) or by pressing a button to hide behind/inside objects like closets, dumpsters, and pots. You can also hide in air vents that, in addition, help you to traverse through specific areas unnoticed. Needless to say, there are a variety of items that you gain along the way to aid your sneaky tendencies as well. Examples include smoke bombs used to temporarily blind potential threats and even a box that you can hide in at any time Metal Gear Solid style. Despite not having a 3-dimensional world to explore, I personally found the number of options used to help you stay hidden to be quite competent. Heck, I daresay that this game possesses more than quite a bit of similar games today. At the very least, they’re certainly more varied as far I can tell.
Being a ninja, of course, doesn’t come without some sort of agility and your character very much excels in this area. As expected, you are able to climb nearly anything, jump fair heights, and dangle from poles with your chain. All of this feels extremely polished and the great animations certainly help with the experience. On top of all this, the controls feel very solid. This certainly helps with a lot of the platforming segments which I will touch on very soon. There is one problem I have with the general controls, though. The problem namely being the fact that the B button (bearing in mind that you’re using an Xbox 360 controller) is used for a lot of actions resulting in moments where I, to name an example, accidentally pick up a nearby body instead of hiding behind a statue. Occurrences such as this don’t happen frequently, but at the same time I’d be lying if I said that this issue was very much not the cause of my getting caught in several intense situations.
Now, despite being a stealth game, there are actually some areas in the game where general platforming is much more prominent. Lasers branching from the walls used to detect/kill intruders, for instance, are seen frequently resulting in moments where you have to carefully maneuver your way around them via climbing, jumping and the like. I have heard people complain about this, but I consider it to be quite a welcome addition. These segments made me feel much more ninja-like and flying around these obstacles with ease (thanks to the tight controls) felt incredibly great. It was moments like that where I knew that I was not only a highly skilled killer of the night, but also a seasoned acrobat of precision.
Alright, let me talk about something that I feel is a big pro about the gameplay. This specifically being the fact that it is very deliberate. Every time you make a noise, for instance, a large ring will surround you thereby showing precisely how much noise you are emitting. Additionally, the game’s mechanics will tell you how much noise you will make when you, for example, want to throw a bamboo dart a light. These on-screen notifications aren’t only limited to your ninja, however, as the game will also show you things such as an enemy’s field of view (which I feel I must add is too unrealistically short for my liking) and where they last saw you. In addition to what was mentioned, there is also an ability that lets you pause everything in time (including you) and choose what actions you want to do ahead of time like queuing up a combo where you throw a dart at a light and then immediately launch yourself to a lamppost with your grappling hook. When I first saw all of this, I was slightly scared that the game was somewhat “dumbed down” because of it. To my great pleasure, though, it is all a very welcome addition as it helps to remove all of that tedious second guessing you have to go through in other stealth games. Because of this, you are able to put much more focus on your general strategies as well as being able to do many quick, precise actions at once while still having have full control of your character which I greatly love. It all collectively gives you the feeling of being a highly skilled ninja yet remaining vulnerable because you still die after receiving only several shots of gunfire.
Before I finish with my concluding words, I’d like to talk about a couple of personal gripes I have. One of them being the difficulty. The game, in my opinion, is just a tad too easy when going about a more violent playthrough. Once you have most of your abilities unlocked, you can kill from nearly any position. Examples include on the ceiling, in a box, behind a door, and in ventilation shafts. While the variation of animations are all really quite a joy to watch, I felt that it made killing enemies a little too easy and resulted in some moments where I simply went through the motions. The fact that the NPCs can be rather unobservant doesn’t help this either as they don’t notice when you sloppily leave doors open and when their comrades have gone missing. This in particular detracted from what is an otherwise great stealth experience. Again, like I said in my Dishonored review, most stealth games today don’t have AI much more intelligent than this, but this stuff still really annoys me nonetheless. However, I can say that guards will, for the most part, take notice when you destroy a fuse box resulting in the power going out in a specific area of a building. They will even go to said fuse box to investigate which I honestly found rather surprising. Anyway, if you find your first playthrough to be a little too easy then you should be happy to know that the devs have added a new game plus mode which makes gun shots much more damaging and increases the fog of war even more which means that you can literally only see what your character can see in his immediate vicinity. Basically, objects behind your character are no longer visible!
Now here’s something that annoys me, but I’m assuming won’t bother others. After playing a decent amount of the campain, this game will eventually give you a power. A power called farsight that will, in fact, give you the ability to see through walls and see everyone around you. This is essentially the x-ray ability in the Arkham games and you know what? The addition of these abilities in stealth games drive me crazy. Why? Well, I personally find that they very much take a toll on any kind of tension and exploration. Getting nervous about the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon 4 fully armed enemies? Don’t worry, because you can use the all-seeing eye of God so that you don’t have to go through the trouble (when I say “trouble” I mean “utter joy”) of carefully scouting out every nook and cranny before carefully developing a plan of advancing. The reasoning for adding such a power in this game in particular baffles me because of the fog of war mechanic. I really don’t know the exact rational behind it, but this type of power is very prevalent in modern stealth games like Dishonored, Arkham Asylum/City, Splinter Cell Conviction, the new Hitman Absolution game and now this. I suppose the real reason for my dislike of such abilities is that I feel that it’s somewhat of a cop-out for adding some actually interesting gadgets used for spying. I love my sticky cams.
In the end, despite a few difficulty issues and yet another addition of a reoccurring see-everything ability, I found this game to be very fun. The animations and visuals are superb and the controls as well as the mechanics are spot on. For those who are interested in playtime, it took me about 9 hours to complete on my first playthrough and that’s not counting the new game plus mode. By the way, may I just say that I am having some great fun in my new game plus playthrough. Why? Because, to my surprise, going completely ghost gives a surprisingly satisfactory experience. Yes, as I said in my Dishonored review, I very often go about stealth games almost entirely pacifically, but I decided to switch things up this time by first going full homicidal maniac on the guards’ behinds yet still playing as stealthily as possible. Perhaps it’s my love for the platforming, but developing an intricate, well thought out plan of quickly flying by the presented enemies unnoticed and quickly executing said plan with efficiency and precision can be insanely gratifying at times. If a sequel is ever made (which I dearly hope), then personally I hope that it centers around this idea. This is very much a “buy” from me.