Review: Mark of the Ninja (**** stars)

TL;DR – Mark of the Ninja fixes the major problems of the stealth action genre while adding a few original ideas of its own to the mix. Owing a great deal to its 2D artstyle, it provides an intuitive and iterative take on stealth while eschewing its biggest problems. A few minor quibbles on the controls can’t prevent Mark of the Ninja from being an exemplary five hour experience that you can really savor, enjoy, and replay.

Stealth action games went out of style somewhere at the end of the late ’00s. At a time, they were entertaining games of predator and prey where one false move could spell your character’s death. It could also spell an annoying trip back to the beginning of a level. The tension and stress offers great risk and great reward – sometimes for exactly the wrong reasons. Whether from the tiresome linearity or inconsistent artificial intelligence that was dumb as a brick one second and omniscient the next, Splinter Cell and its ilk haven’t made a mark on the current generation. Stealth mechanics have fallen on hard times in the harsh light of the 2010s. Even Assassin’s Creed, which boasts “stealth in plain sight” mechanics, has these same problems and inconsistencies.

Much of these problems come from a lack of good information – what counts as detection? What doesn’t? It’s never clear what caused your demise in most stealth games. How much sound is “enough” sound? Does seeing me in the shadows mean he/she saw me, or not? Sure, bars and meters pop up on screen to help your out, but when a developer attempts to capture such a realistic experience, there’s bound to be immersion-breaking bugs. Either you need to improve the information given through a new artstyle and design that emphasizes the game mechanics rather than “realism”, or you need to fix the detection bugs.

Klei Entertainment opts for the former in Mark of the Ninja with a cartoony and violent animated style. What better way to revive a genre than with ninjas?

Mark of the Ninja recasts this gameplay style in a new light: the two dimensional plane. Rather than making enemy detection a hit-or-miss affair of guessing the developer’s subtle cues of silence or detection, how much sound you make is displayed visually. This provides instantaneous feedback, allowing the player to know whether enemies see him, where exactly they believe he is, and whether or not they’re still suspicious. Since stealth games all involve spatial awareness, patience, and planning, developers need to convey the dangers to the player accurately. Mark of the Ninja, in transplanting the setting to a different plane, makes the player’s situations exceedingly clear without clutter. It’s amazing how accurate you can be relative to other games in the genre – I know exactly when and where to move, and when to attack. It’s refreshing to have such a problem solved with such elegance.

It doesn’t hurt that Klei Entertainment gives the player so many tools and upgrades that actually find use. Darts, smoke bombs, grappling hook, swords – all the stereotyped ninja staples work to great effect. Some come directly out of left field – the poison darts that turn soldiers insane and the bugs that eat people come to mind. Although the game never demands a particular tool, they’re all available and ready for your use should you choose. When entering a room or situation, there’s an obvious solution, although I’ve found anything can work given the right determination and skill.

Much of the arsenal revolves around distraction, as your main weapon – the sword – can only be implemented during stealth kills. Melee combat isn’t a ninja’s strong suit, apparently, as they’ll attack Kevlar-vested security guards with a flurry of kicks to little effect. Thus, staying in the shadows is your best bet. The stealth kills, themselves, are surprisingly well-animated, gory, and disturbingly satisfying if done correctly. Each one involves a miniature quick-time event; input the wrong command, and a clean kill becomes a noisy attention-grabber. You don’t have to kill anyone if you don’t feel like it, and the game even provides a huge score bonus for refusing to take any lives (except for some obvious exceptions that should be clear from the game’s story).

What surprised me most is the emphasis on scoring. Score, bizarrely enough, is quite important in Mark of the Ninja. To be a ninja means you will NEVER be seen nor heard; that means complete and utter invisibility to your enemies and hiding your tracks. Performing well nets you ability upgrades which work similarly to any modern action RPG system. None of this is necessary, of course, but variety in stealth helps a great deal. The smoke bomb, for one, is always an essential tool in my book. It can block laser beams, and there are plenty of those strewn through the game as security measures; however, you’re free not to use any of the tools the game provides. You can make the experience as hard as you wish.

The levels sprawl across vast landscapes and don’t force the player down a particular route. There are objectives, marked with a convenient X, but how you get there is usually up to you. Secrets and upgrades abound in well-hidden nooks and crannies, encouraging exploration. Given the level size, it’s kind of the developers to implement zero time-restricted areas. That doesn’t mean they aren’t well-designed or offer any challenge. Enemies abound everywhere, from common foot soldiers to snipers to high-tech super ninjas with radar and heat sensors. Later sections involve elaborate puzzles that will test your reflexes and your mind. Challenge rooms scattered throughout allow further upgrades and involve a bevy of different puzzles that’ll test your brain. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with the enemy layout of one path, take another one!

If there’s one element that characterizes everything that makes Mark of the Ninja exemplary, it’s choice. Choice in tactics, choice in tackling particular situations, choice in what tools you use. Many games provide the illusion of choice in what you do, but Mark of the Ninja provides it without sacrificing any playability. Most importantly, the narrative forces the player to make important choices.

However, there are a few flaws to note. The controls, though functional, aren’t always as accurate as you’d like. The same button is used for picking up bodies and hiding behind objects; if they’re layered on top of each other (which will happen if you use a stealth kill from cover), then prepare for some headaches and unintentional actions. Additionally, ceiling crawling doesn’t always work correctly; there’s no way to transition smoothly from one ceiling to another of a different height by climbing in some circumstances, leading to falls beyond your control. It’s frustrating when these issues come up, especially if pinpoint timing equals the difference between staying alive and death.

The Mark of which the game is named comes from the choice of the protagonist. These special tattoos provide a member of the ninja with unbelievable power, but they come at a price: eventual madness. The only righteous end to those who receive the Mark is death, both to preserve the clan and the world itself from its uncontainable powers. Without spoiling the remarkable revelations that come towards the end of the game, you must piece together the plot’s essential details in order to understand the nature of your choice; this, as a gamer, surprised me. It is rare that a video game gives the benefit of the doubt to the player. Certainly, there are cut-scenes strewn about to demonstrate the excellent animation skills of the developers, but they don’t make the underlying themes as apparent as one would imagine. Instead, the visuals, game mechanics, and objectives (which are forced upon you) reveal the true nature of events. While you can’t choose whether or not to receive the Mark, what you choose to do with it rests in your choices throughout the game. The ending, artistically and spectacularly done, serves as both a recap of the narrative, a thematic exposition, and mysterious decision all in one. It’s truly remarkable how the game resolves itself with little effort.

It’s a game of free will versus determisim, at its base: can I choose whether to go on a good path or a bad path? When Romans 3 says:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written,

“There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Yet somehow, we still perceive that we have the ability to choose between what is wrong and what is right. That’s a confusing dilemma: a sinful, corrupted nature means a corrupted will, yet still having the ability to decide. It is only by God’s power that we can make these decisions, and only by His power that we can receive salvation. Could the ability to “will” be any different? Mark of the Ninja gives you all the choice in the world, but those choices don’t fundamentally change the end result – but that last decision is your to make: power or respect?  That’s an interesting choice for a game to present, even if (unlike Assassin’s Creed) it doesn’t have to spell it out.

For these and other reasons. Mark of the Ninja succeeds in its objective through a lack of pretension and simplistic presentation overlaying its depth.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.