It's a semi-well-known fact that real ninjas did their best work in the shadows and - unless their express objective was "be hacked into ninjiblets by a vastly superior opponent" - rarely emerged into open combat. Clearly, however, someone forgot to tell videogames about this, resulting in a new breed of ninja that's basically just a regular ol' mass murderer in silly feet pajamas. To put things in perspective, Rambo (circa the first film, of course) was more of a ninja than our modern crop of videogame Rambo ninjas. Strange times we live in, right? Happily, Klei Entertainment's decided to sheath its shank and go for a nice evening skulk about the town. But does it succeed in crafting a multi-faceted, occasionally murderous game of hide-and-go-seek? Here's wot I think.
I really wish Mark of the Ninja had a "save anywhere" feature. Don't get me wrong: occasional frustrating exceptions aside, its checkpoints are serviceable - if not particularly amazing. And honestly, if I was able to whip out a piece of parchment and make a gorgeous kanji note of my progress whenever I wanted, I'd probably just end up stopping to do it every three steps. Mark of the Ninja, though, is one of those games that makes me want to mercilessly poke and prod at its outer limits - to try every possible option and item combination - before deciding on one "real" way to proceed. Sure, at its heart, Mark of the Ninja is absolutely a stealth game - cut from the same chloroform-soaked cloth as Thief and its masterfully tip-toeing brethren. But sneaking means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and Mark of the Ninja's focus on rewarding clever, deliberate thought with options may be its most impressive feat of all.
The special sauce here is made up of one part fantastically meticulous level design and multiple parts of, well, other games. Despite the 2D viewpoint, vision cones, light vs dark mechanics, and even Batman: Arkham Asylum-style enemy terror tactics are in the mix. In fact, the lack of a third dimension actually enhances these tried-and-true mechanics a lot of ways, as it allows you to take in more of your surroundings and ultimately view each area as something of a puzzle. Everything, then, is represented in a highly visual fashion - even sound, which emanates circles of varying sizes to represent whether or not enemies can hear you. The end result is that nothing's left to chance. Even the briefest of glances will tell how far enemies can see, what they'll be able to hear, whether they're on alert or not (and, if so, where they think you are), and whether they're on the hunt or fleeing for dear life after they knocked down one of your sets of trap-based death dominoes.
It's insanely empowering - which makes for an interesting contrast with the fact that Mark the ninja (note: not actually his name, but it should be) is basically worthless when he doesn't have the drop on his foes. He doesn't really have a fight or flight instinct, per se. His is more along the lines of "run for your life or stop living." Then again, bringing a traditional Japanese sword to a non-traditional jerkanese gunfight tends to have that effect on people. So the key is to simply avoid being sighted directly. And that's where some absolutely outstanding level design enters the picture.
At any given moment, odds are good that you'll be able to make a dash for the straight-and-narrow (hopefully darting between plants, doors, and whatnot as you do), tunnel under via the occasional ventilation system, climb up and over, or even soar through the air with a wonderfully satisfying grappling hook. Meanwhile, secrets are scattered all around for those who are willing to go the extra mile - including enemy free challenge levels that use the environment to tie your brain into a delicious array of pretzels.
That said, Mark of the Ninja did kill my serene stealth groove on the rare occasions when its level design broke down. In these instances, I felt like I was being funneled toward a single predetermined solution, often resulting in bouts of trial-and-error punctuated by oily explosions of cursing. This became especially egregious during my second playthrough, which was an (eventually successful) attempt at being totally non-lethal. See, Mark of the Ninja doesn't actually have a non-lethal counterpart for good old-fashioned sneak-up-and-eviscerate tactics, so options on that front are quite limited to begin with. Drop in a couple incredibly well-positioned enemies and a few insta-death lasers, and you've got a recipe for rage.
Even so, I can understand why Klei opted to omit non-lethal takedowns from Mark's arsenal. I mean, I love the "offensive stealth" in games like Arkham Asylum/City (and even modern Splinter Cell, to some extent) as much as anybody, but lethal and non-lethal may as well be the same thing in those games. The closest parallel for Mark of the Ninja, actually, might be Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Sure, lethal was louder and obviously more permanent, but I was still ultimately going through the same motions. Deliver the blow, hide the body, etc. In Mark of the Ninja, meanwhile, I generally found the bloodier path to also be the easier, more efficient one, but ghosting my way past overwhelming odds was so much more gratifying. I felt like a bull in a China shop who'd managed to daintily slip in without so much as wobbling a single impractically lofty plates tower. It was as though I'd never even been there at all.
And yet, while that aspect of Mark of the Ninja is philosophically sound, the end result still leaves something to be desired. Put simply, the game feels like it's skewed in favor of slicing and dicing. Lethal skills and items that are actually useful outnumber their lethal counterparts and generally produce more impressive results. Even during my non-lethal playthrough, I found it extremely difficult to resist knocking down a colossal chandelier and watching it clatter onto two enemies in a sparkly storm of instant death. I mean, it was right there. So easy. So natural. Same with underground poison vents. And don't even get me started on the options that open up when you add spike traps, the ability to dangle terror-inducing corpses from the ceiling, and other spike traps to the mix. That's my Ninth Symphony, guys.
Now, that's not to say pure stealth isn't viable. With the aid of gas bombs, guard-distracting firecrackers, and a good deal more patience than most modern games expect of us, it's a largely incredible experience. Moreover, Mark of the Ninja rarely penalized me for mixing and matching. While there's a big point reward for making it through a level without a single kill, there are also multiple bonus objectives - some lethal, some not - that easily equal it. So I never really felt pigeonholed except when I was placing a restriction (for instance, full non-lethal) on myself.
In some ways, then, it really just comes down to personal taste. Do you derive more satisfaction from big displays of cunningly planned force, or do you prefer the stomach-lurching rush of just barely dodging a flashlight beam that would've signaled the beginning of your incredibly abrupt end? Mark of the Ninja can offer you both - at the same time, even, if that's how you choose to play. Sure, a few systems feel like they exist almost solely for the benefit of lethality, but - for the most part - that doesn't diminish what the non-lethal route brings to the table.
There are, however, a few little things that warrant nitpicking. I encountered some annoying AI bugs (for instance, having the alarm sounded on me when I'd definitely sneaked past a bunch of guards and into an entirely different room), and the "sticky" controls for jumping, going through doors/vent entrances, and the like occasionally misinterpreted my input and sent me careening into enemy territory with all the subtlety of a clown bursting out of a birthday cake. Also, some of the menus still felt pretty console-y. Even though I had full mouse control, I was forced to move through each individual step of the equipment menu every time - always followed closely by "Are you sure you want to do that?" prompts that I imagined to sound like a pack of overly concerned grandmothers.
By and large, though, Mark of the Ninja's a remarkable little game. It brings together elements of stealth classics, modern standouts, and a few of its own brilliant tricks to form one of the finest sneak-a-thons I've played in ages. Sure, it's a bit inconsistent in places - both in terms of level design and central mechanics - but the good positively sumo slams the bad. Bravo, Mark. Mrs OfTheNinja will surely be proud.
Mark of the Ninja is now available on Steam.