There’s no shortage of games starring ninjas, but more often than not they feature NINOs--ninjas in name only. Where’s the stalking, the secret kills, the disappearing in a cloud of smoke? Mark of the Ninja, a new XBLA exclusive from Klei (the folks best known for Shank), is one of those rare, true ninja games that totally gets it. Despite opting for a relatively simple 2D presentation--actually, because of it--Mark of the Ninja boasts serious stealth gameplay chops.
Mark of the Ninja’s tactical depth comes from its simulation of sight and sound. A dynamic fog-of-war blurs out anything not in your immediate line of sight, and every audible action sends out dynamic circles that represent their loudness. Being a ninja, walking is silent; running, however, throws out massive shockwaves with every footfall. Your foes are heavily reliant on their senses, so sneaking revolves around manipulating their perceptions to lure them to their doom (or at least away from your intended path). The interplay of your actions and the AI’s reactions creates dynamic, cascading cause-and-effect scenarios that, deftly played, afford constant opportunities to feel like a ninja maverick.
It’s refreshing how fast it all moves, too. Some stealth games end up slow and plodding, but Mark of the Ninja’s side-scrolling presentation lets you zip around with all the quickness of a pure action game. Sometimes your opening to act undetected will be mere fractions of a second, but if your reflexes and execution are up to the task then the game will give you a fair shot at getting away with whatever crazy sneaking maneuver you’ve concocted. The difficulty is always fair, but the ceiling for mastery is sky-high.
The level design is superb throughout, with huge maps composed of intricately interconnected rooms that offer up no end of interesting tactical situations. Even in the hardest areas, a dynamic checkpoint system keeps frustration to a minimum, letting you test out unusual approaches with minimal risk. Perfectionists can abuse the “restart checkpoint” option until you get a sequence just how you want.
Mark of the Ninja’s levels naturally lend themselves to multiple play styles. Completionists will have fun chasing all the (surprisingly interesting) bonus objectives and engaging in much stealthy genocide against the doomed foes. This approach results in lots of points, meaning good weapon and gear unlocks. However, a less-exhaustive, no-kills scenario is also viable. Beat the game and a “new game plus” adds even more interesting foibles.
Flaws? Hiding bodies is a bit of a drag, but the act is worth so many points that it adds unavoidable tedium to attempted high-score runs. More seriously, the controls are heavily reliant on context-sensitive environmental cues, so certain dense bits of map design can make your ninja act differently than you intend. Not a constant problem, but it did lead to some key failures. Also, quick-time-event stealth-kill controls came off as uninspired. Pausing two seconds every kill to comprehend and perform the correct sequence adds little fun. (Of note, there is an unlockable that dispatches with the QTEs, making kills automatic.)
A lot of modern games sacrifice depth and playability in pursuit of other goals, but Mark of the Ninja enjoys an abundance of both. Fast yet measured, breezy yet deep, and above all highly replayable, it's a game that stands as a refreshing example of stealth action done right.