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Mark Of The Ninja Review
Mark of the Ninja is a game that's likely to fly right under a lot of people's radar. Like the titular ninja, this game has somehow managed to avoid detection and slip onto XBLA in an odd Friday release slot. It's a shame that Mark of the Ninja is such an unknown quantity to so many people right now, because delving into this modern-day tale of honor and revenge will prove one of the most rewarding experiences of the year for those skilled enough to spot it.
Developed by Klei Entertainment, Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth-platformer that rewrites the book (scroll?) on sneaking mechanics. Without the burden of a third dimension to worry about, you'll be free to focus on pure tactics. This makes the stealth-based gameplay immediately that much more skill-based, and less reliant on dumb luck and invisible sight lines.
In fact, if Mark of the Ninja does one thing right above all others, it's the transparency with which it executes its mechanics. There are no vague "light" or "shadow" meters here, no sound bars or alert phases, either. Everything you need to know is projected directly onto the environment around you. When you're sneaking, you are either in the light or in the darkness, a concept that is communicated by a subtle yet effective color palette change. When creeping up on enemies, navigating the environment, and setting traps, the noise you're making is portrayed onscreen as a ring that shows exactly how far the sounds are reaching. And when hiding from guards, they're either on your tail or oblivious; making sounds will attract their attention to a certain spot, but they won't radio for help until they have a visual.
Because all of the mechanics that are usually buried under the hood are made so immediately accessible, it becomes the natural next step to use them to manipulate and bewilder enemies. It is in the act of terrorizing and confusing enemy guards that Mark of the Ninja becomes a true joy to play. You will always go into missions with an arsenal of unlimited throwing knives. These can be used to shatter lights, destroy electronics, and draw guards' attention to you. Your arsenal will quickly expand to include smoke bombs, spike traps, noise makers, and more. Used in concert, these items can wreak true havok among the enemy ranks. Killing a guard with a trap or stringing his corpse up from a light post (an expensive ability that you must unlock in the game's store, but it's so worth it) will cause his companions to panic. In a panicked state, guards will shoot each other and generally make themselves much easier targets.
A number of nifty environmental kills makes the action that much more flexible and fun. Although you will have to delve into the in-game store to unlock the majority of them, once you have these kills there's no going back. Pulling enemies through doors, dragging them into air vents, tossing them into dumpsters, and stringing them up from light posts are just a few of the highlights. It's annoying that you can't perform these kills from the get-go, but a nifty New Game Plus option allows you to bring all of your hard-earned abilities back to the early levels to find new ways to get through them.
Messing with the guards is tons of fun, but it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without the complex rewards system layered over the action. Pretty much everything you do in Mark of the Ninja earns you points. Killing a guard silently is an instant 400 points added to your score. It's tougher than you'd think to pull this off; the success of each stealth kill is determined by a quick-time button press that's different each time. Fail this prompt, and you'll still kill the guard, but he will die a noisy and messy death. This "Peasant's Death" will only earn you 200 points.
Things really start getting crazy once you begin to layer items and diversionary tactics on top of the action. Using a noise-maker or throwing knife to distract a guard will earn you 200 points. Hiding behind a piece of scenery undetected as the guards pass by will throw another 200 on there. Hiding bodies in air vents, dumpsters, or alcoves will net you a hot 250. Killing a guard with a tool, like your spike traps, will earn you even more. If another guard sees this and panics, add another 300 points to your score, and if that panicked guard happens to kill one of his own, you'll get a sweet 600 point bonus. If you go through the trouble of stalking and distracting most guards before eventually killing and hiding them, you're potentially looking at huge score bonuses. Of course, your score will decrease drastically if you set off an alarm or allow enemies to stumble upon a corpse, so you'll have to play carefully.
A bigger score will reward you with more tokens to spend in the game's store, which houses many item upgrades and passive buffs in addition to the aforementioned execution moves. You can also earn tokens by nabbing collectables, the likes of which are liberally scattered about the levels. Artifacts will boost your score as you nab them, while Scrolls will recount the game's backstory... in haiku form. It's pretty great stuff, made even moreso because the developers actually manage to tell a coherent story while sticking to the 5-7-5 format.
Challenge rooms are also hidden throughout each of the game's levels. Find one of these rooms, and suddenly the sneaky gameplay will be flipped on its head. These rooms have a distincly puzzle-platforming focus, unlike the more stealth-oriented content of the main game, giving them an almost Limbo-esque vibe helped along by the shadowy presentation. As the challenge of the core game ramps up, so too will that of the challenge rooms. The final few in particular are simply devious.
These challenges, along with many tense late-game scenarios, just wouldn't be feasible if it weren't for the game's pixel-precise controls. You know you've stumbled upon a special game when the mere act of walking feels satisfying. There's something about the animations, combined with the high fidelity of control, that just screams precision. It's very rare to find yourself staring at a Game Over screen in Mark of the Ninja and wondering where it all went wrong. Occasional slip-ups do happen here and there; there were a few times when I'd drop down on an enemy and hit the execution button (which doubles as the attack button) only to launch an attack and raise an alert instead. But by and large, when you lose at Mark of the Ninja, you know it was because you just weren't paying enough attention.
Presentationally speaking, Mark of the Ninja is one of the more impressive games on Xbox's growing marketplace. I mentioned earlier just how great the sneaking animation is; that goes for the rest of the game's numerous animations as well. Each kill feels like it was lovingly rendered by true fans of silky-smooth violence, and each of the game's many animated cutscenes looks like it could have been ripped from a particularly violent Saturday morning cartoon.
Mark of the Ninja's 2D stealth mechanics feel truly fresh and innovative, and the complex scoring system layered on top of them encourages creativity and patience while naturally enabling replay. The beautiful artwork is just icing on the poisoned cake. For the stealth genre, this one is a game-changer.