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.
  • Awesome review. Games like this certainly open the case for free will vs determinism. I look forward to playing it if I can get my hands on a Mac copy. Or if it comes to PS3, which might be asking too much.
     
    Why do you say that stealth games went out of style in the late 00s? I feel like it’s a lot of what I play. Skyrim, Deus Ex 3, Splinter Cell Conviction, and the Batman Arkham series comes to mind. Even though, I have yet to start Arkham City. Even Metal Gear seems to be making a resurgence (though, I feel obligated to say how much I now hate that series).
     

    •  @Mjoshua I mean games focused on it as the main mechanic. The new Batman series, Deus Ex, Skyrim, etc., have it as a possible option and pretty fleshed out, but not as the only route to success. Splinter Cell makes it the only way to reach your objectives (barring what looks like the new one). The genre as a thing in itself has almost ceased to exist, probably just due to the evolution of video game trends.

      •  @Zachery Oliver Do you mean games like Thief? What are some other examples of games that have died out? 
         
        I can’t truly speak for Batman, and maybe Skyrim wasn’t principally built on stealth but Deus Ex 3 definitely was. Come to think of it, I’d be interested to see how many people can play that as an “assault type.” It was just too hard and not at all rewarding playing that way. Definitely built on stealth. Again, this could still be my own bias shining through.

        •  @Mjoshua Thief is definitely one. Splinter Cell, Hitman (which, come to think of it, has a new sequel coming out). Dishonored looks as if it’s also reviving the type, as it’s basically the same directors of Thief from Looking Glass Studios (RIP). Now that I think about it, sounds like my initial estimation was off course, although they’re definitely not “in” game-wise (MOAR COD PLEASE).
           
          I have Deux Ex 3, though I’ve been meaning to get around to it (and the original, which I hear is still the best one – who knows whether that’s true). I imagine I would go guns blazing, but I’d probably weigh my options depending on what’s most effective.

        •  @Zachery Oliver
           Totally didn’t even realize Hitman was included. The dark themes and lame art direction just kept me uninterested. And I played the demo to Kane and Lynch and just assumed all those terrible ganglord jerkoff games were the same dumb 3rd person shooter. But it’s good to know. Don’t know why they keep making those games. But it’s still all good to know.As for DX3, I’d be very interested to see how you fare trying it as an action game. Even with ballistic augs, it only takes a few rounds and with everybody carrying assault guns, it’s a shame nobody seems to carry any ammo. The only reason I collected guns at all was for boss fights. Just used tranqs and nonlethal takedowns 95% of the time. But I totally favor DX1 over 3 for sure. Only because it’s much more sandboxey and the endings down ruin the concept that your choices though the game matter. Well, also because the DX1 is generally my favorite game ever…

        • @Zachery Oliver Just came across this pitch video. You’ve played the game and know much more than me. So I’m curious about what parts in this were kept and were dropped: http://killscreendaily.com/headlines/watch-kleis-video-pitch-mark-ninja/What does this look like to you?

        • @Mjoshua There’s a lot of things in that video that I WISH were in the final game (running on ceilings, for example, is much better than climbing). The final game also has a much more cartoony look overall. Of course, that was just an animated video, so it’s bound to look better in some respects.

        • @Zachery Oliver Yeah. It kinda makes me think about what it would take to build a video like that. It would certainly include a lot of asset generation that would be used in the final build…

  • I just responded to your gamechurch article on this game as I just finished it over lunch today. Already started a new game plus. I’m revering this at least as high as I did Hotline Miami. I simply want to 100% this baby. And yeah. You’re right to nitpick some of the controls. They’re phenomenal, but there’s those few hitches that set things back. For a 2D PC game, it controls really well. By halfway through the game, I was controlling everything with maximum efficiency. And yeah. The choices are just great. As for the nonlethal stealth options, while they’re largely nonexistent, the game does reward you for not killing. It was one of the first achievements for me to nab, of course. As was the one with no alert, and no kills (Ghost). And while I preferred to not kill early on, it became apparent that the high score is pretty heavily related to kills. It’s possible to get a high score nonlethally, but it’s mosly by getting a lot of “undetecteds.”
     
    I probably won’t get to actually 100% the game because of time constraints (namely playing over lunch). But it won’t be for lack of desire.  
     
    Also, [spoiiler] who did you take out at the end?

    • @Mjoshua I really think this one’s a neat little game. I also like that the scoring system’s very clear and precise (I mean, I’m sure I can figure out what each one is worth if I really wanted to look for it).
       
      I may as well spoil it: I had kinda figured out at one point that Ora was getting a little too power hungry and crazy, and that she was probably an illusion of my mind. So yes, I killed myself. I did think about it for a second, but I felt like they made it fairly obvious if you were paying attention to what she’s saying.

      • @Zachery Oliver Yeah. I’m a sucker. Didn’t really see it coming. I was surprised when I tried the ending where you go over to Ora and it’s actually sepuku. I was glad he didn’t “kill her.”I don’t think Bastion has any kind of score system. But it’s got plenty of “proving grounds” to test skill. They could be a little more balanced, but I felt like they were all pretty fair.

        • @Mjoshua Don’t you have to play the whole game again to get the ending choice for a second time? So I am guessing that’s what you did!

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