Playing like a mix of Tenchu, Bionic Commando, and the classic Ninja Gaiden games on NES, Mark of the Ninja looks like it’ll be a surefire hit with fans of feudal assassins. Though it comes from Klei Entertainment, the makers of the two Shank games, the style of action couldn’t be more different. Instead of chainsawing through thugs like a blowtorch through butter, you’re better off avoiding fights entirely, as a true ninja would.
That’s not to say that MotN lacks the over-the-top cartoony violence that Shank delivered – but in this game, we got our kicks via brutal stealth kills, each more flashy than the last. But trying to take on burly guards head-on is a mistake: they’ll kill the as-of-yet-unnamed ninja in two or three hits. Instead, you’ll want to use the surroundings to your advantage, as in any worthwhile stealth game, to divide and conquer a stage by picking off targets one at a time. You can even pick up dead bodies and lug them to a hiding spot in the dark shadows, Deus Ex style.
The visuals look quite similar to Shank, only much, much cooler. Just like “fog of war” in RTS games, any area of the screen that isn’t in your line of sight will be silhouetted against the gorgeous backdrops. That means that failing to look before you leap could get you surrounded by guards in seconds – and nobody wants that. Shank (y'know, the dude you play as in Shank?) always looked a little bit goofy to us, but MotN’s protagonist has a ninjitsu swagger to him that makes us wish he had his own comic. (It would mainly focus on killing fools in increasingly-awesome ways.)
You’ve got more than a sword and your wits to sneakily slay enemies. The ninja is covered in tattoos, each of which grant him a specific special ability – hookshots, shuriken, wall-climbing, and what have you. You’ll unlock more sick tats as you progress through the game, giving MotN a sort of Metroidvania vibe without the need to uncover every inch of the map. Stealth puzzles include distracting enemies with a shuriken-to-gong clang, luring them underneath a stone lamp before dropping it on their heads, and using grates in the floors and walls (which you can effortlessly cling to) to get yourself in position for a viscera-impaling one hit kill (activated by an inoffensive quick time event of pressing the correct direction and button).
The way each level is laid out is quite satisfying – you’ll never get bright neon arrows screaming at you to go somewhere. Instead, an unassuming tree branch might be just the platform you need to hookshot to in order to reach a perfect vantage point on a rooftop. There are plenty of awesome touches too: for instance, if a guard finds a body that’s been mutilated beyond recognition, he’ll actually become afraid and run around aimlessly, letting you sneak up and snap his neck like it’s your job. Which it pretty much is.
We saw the game on Xbox as a downloadable title, but we’re certain that, as with Shank, it’ll make its way to the PS3 and PC as well. This is definitely a ninja game to keep an eye on – in a time when ninjas are nearing as overuse on the same scale as zombies, bringing them back to their stealth-centric, frail-yet-deadly roots is the right way to go.