Ninja have been the stars of video games for many years. Titles such as Ninja Gaiden, Bushido Blade, and Shinobi have all allowed us to step into the shoes of the fearsome assassins and kick some serious ass using swords, shurikens, and awesome ninja magic. However, apart from the Tenchu series, most titles portray ninja as action heroes – running through battlefields, taking on enemies face-to-face, and using a wide variety of deadly weapons.
Mark of the Ninja is the latest game in the genre, and brings things back to their roots. The character you control uses stealth, silence, and deception to bring down his foes – striking fear into their hearts and eliminating them before they know what’s coming. This is the mark of true ninja greatness, and one that Klei Entertainment have managed to deliver so perfectly.
Okay, let’s start with the basics – Mark of the Ninja arrives this week on Xbox Live Arcade, and is made by the same studio that brought us the Shank series. It’s a 2D stealth-action title that follows a young ninja who’s been tattooed with the titular mark. This ink gives him amazing abilities, but comes at a cost – his sanity. Now he’s on the trail of his target, in hopes that he can complete his mission before the tattoos take his mind.
At the start of the game, you have a female companion to guide and instruct you, and you’ll see her throughout as you proceed on your mission. Anyone who’s played a stealth game before will understand the concept – stay out of enemies’ lines of sight, stick to the shadows, and sneak up on foes to eliminate them silently. Oh, but Mark contains so much more than just this.
The biggest thing you have to be aware of is sound – everything makes a sound, and the way it travels can draw the attention of those around you. Sound waves emanate from your feet when you run, from lights you break, and from various gadgets you employ. Being aware of who’s in the line of these sound waves is key, and can be used to your advantage. It’s easy to alert everyone around to your presence, but you quickly learn how to attract single soldiers away from their posts, before eliminating them with a gruesome stealth attack.
Light is your second focus, with enemies easily spotting you when you aren’t concealed in shadows. The way light and darkness are portrayed is wonderful – characters are fully coloured when lit, changing to black and white outlines when masked in the shadows. Of course, as with any stealth game you can bust the lights, but watch out for those who may hear your vandalism, unless you want them to of course.
This brings me to another fantastic visual trick that Klei have added to their game – the clever use of line of sight. Playing a 2D game usually gives the player a view of the entire surroundings, including areas that the main character wouldn’t be able to see. This is avoided in Mark by darkening areas that the ninja protagonist isn’t in – around corners, on top of platforms, above vents, and through closed doors. As soon as you pop your head around the corner or push up against the obstacle things become visible, and this gives the game a feeling like no other I’ve played before.
All this sounds fine, but I haven’t gotten to the best part yet – the aspect that sucked me in and kept me up until 3am a few times this week – the scoring system. You see, many things you do earn you points – taking out enemies, hiding their bodies, distracting them, freaking them out, and many others that you discover as you play. For some, these points won’t make a difference to the way they approach the levels, but for me, they changed everything. If you want to make it on the leaderboards, clever thought must be put into everything you do.
I found that it wasn’t long before a simple room of guards became a complex puzzle of strategy and timing. Instead of simply luring each one away and killing them, I’d work out how to maximize the points available in each area. It usually involved clever use of gadgets, distractions, hiding spots, sound, light, and the hope that my plan worked out as intended. I admit I’m definitely a sucker for puzzle platformers, but this isn’t a puzzle game in the traditional sense of the word, as there is no strict solution to each area. By focusing on the aspect of score, I essentially made the puzzles myself.
While I may have become obsessed with maximizing the points available on each level, the brilliance of Mark of the Ninja is that there are so many other aspects to concentrate on that some will have a completely different experience. Brad (Masonic Gamer’s Editor-in-Chief), for example, has been focusing on speed, trying to get through each of the long levels as quickly as possible, and the game allows for different techniques such as this through the use of upgrades, gadgets, and costumes.
You can upgrade your character and unlock new items by spending ‘seals’ you earn throughout the levels. As well as gaining seals by scoring highly and finding hidden scrolls, each level has 3 challenges for you to complete. You may have to freak out one guard so he shoots another in his panic, get through a certain area without being spotted, kill a guard with a specific gadget, or any number of other things that not only encourage you to play in different ways, but help teach you skills and let you know what’s possible.
Once you hit the upgrade screen you begin to realize how many different ways you can play the game. Some will focus on the stealth items and moves, some on the deadly weapons and freak-out techniques, and other will enjoy the balls-to-the-wall action supplies. That’s right, even though Mark of the Ninja is billed as a stealth title, you can approach each level with the intention of taking enemies head-on and fighting your way through – the game allows for all types, and this is part of its appeal.
It’s hard to put across in words how much fun I’ve been having with this game, so I’ll try to paint a picture for you: Imagine a boy sat on the floor of his living room, wide-eyed, and in awe of the amazing video game on the TV in front of him. He’s not jaded, comparing the game to every other one he’s played throughout his life – he has total appreciation for the fantastic experience he’s being sucked into right now. During the days, when he’s out of the house, he keeps thinking about the game, planning strategies, and counting down the minutes until he gets home again; by night he wants nothing else than to play for hours on end. Yes, this boy was me as a child. He was also me this very week.
I could probably write another thousand words about Mark of the Ninja, but nothing you read could really convey how awesome it is. I knew it was one to watch, but none of the screenshots, previews, or videos I consumed could fully prepare me for the wonder of the final product. Everything about it is fantastic – the visual style, the controls, the minimal-yet-engrossing story, the scoring system, the upgrades and gadgets, the fact that it caters to many different play styles, and so much more. If there’s one bad thing I can say about it, it’s that you may not want to stop playing once you start, and that’s hardly a criticism.
Therefore, this was an easy game to score. In the time I’ve been writing for this site, I haven’t played anything that I felt deserved a perfect 10/10, but that has now changed. Mark of the Ninja is not just my favorite downloadable game of the year (and I’ve played quite a few) but my favorite game of the year, period. Granted, the holiday season hasn’t arrived yet, but I’d be shocked if any other title brings me the fun, excitement, joy, and sheer childlike pleasure I’ve experienced this past week. Mark of the Ninja snuck up on me, and before I knew what was happening, the rest of my world just faded away.
Direct Link To Download Mark Of The Ninja
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