No game provides the exhilarating thrill of being a silent stalker of the night like Mark of the Ninja. Other games have tried and they have failed. Klei Entertainment has managed to deliver a package that allows players to slip through the shadows, reaping souls as if you were Death himself.
Hyperbole aside, the true advantage that Mark of the Ninja has is the simplicity of a side-scrolling environment. Most of the design choices aren’t exactly new here. The key is to stick to the shadows. You can use objects in the environment to distract your enemies. You sneak up on them to perform silent kills. If you don’t hide bodies then you risk being discovered. The player must hide for a limited amount of time before an alarm is canceled and things are calm once more.
Even a lot of the visual design cues and hints can be found in other games. There isn’t a single element of Mark of the Ninja that hasn’t already been used in a game like Chronicles of Riddick, Splinter Cell: Conviction or even Batman: Arkham Asylum, to use a few recent examples.
The difference is in how information is provided to the player. One of the key elements of a stealth game is that the player may be fragile but they possess a valuable wealth of information. When the player is hidden their character loses colors and highlights key features, indicating they are now cloaked in shadow whilst still making it easy for the player to see where they are. Step into the light and the character will revert to a more normal appearance full of vibrant color. It becomes obvious the player is visible. Noise made sends a blue wave out, showing just how far the sound travels. Interactive objects in the environment stand out, even if with a subtle white outline around the object’s shape.
In the current Triple-A market the closest comparison are the stealth sections in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. However, instead of having to enter Detective Mode to see a lot of information, the game is providing it for you.
This doesn’t mean the player is omniscient. What the player sees is limited to what the character can see. If you are climbing up a wall then you cannot see what is over the ledge. You cannot see into another room if all entryways into it are closed. The information provided is less about where your enemies are and what they are doing and more about what the repercussions of your actions are and what options are immediately available.
Of course, when you first start the game these options will be limited. A lot of the stealth kills are locked behind upgrades you can purchase with Marks of Honor. These Marks are earned in three ways. There are three levels of Marks that can be earned through score alone, and the player is guaranteed at least one per level. The player earns a Mark each time they find a scroll, of which there are three in each level. There are also optional challenge objectives, once again three, that can earn the player a Mark. Most of these challenges will be more difficult, and even seem near impossible, without unlocking abilities.
This grants quite a bit of replay value to the game. It’s already fun enough to just go through the environments with new abilities or to try different approaches, but going back to older levels with more abilities and completing these once-too-difficult side challenges brings the game to a whole new level of satisfaction.
I’ve typically never been a huge stealth fan. I’ve always appreciated it when it works and found it frustrating when it doesn’t (No shit Sherlock. Tell me something enlightening, Captain Obvious. - ed.). The real issue is being able to balance the fragility of the player’s character, that a slight misstep could easily kill them, while simultaneously allowing them to feel empowered.
Mark of the Ninja manages this incredibly well throughout the majority of the game. While your foes have powerful guns and, eventually, dogs or other defenses, the game remains enjoyable.
That is, until they begin to introduce foes that are immune to certain player abilities.
If I had to criticize Mark of the Ninja for anything it would be enemies that are immune to being killed in a standard stealthy fashion. No pulling them in through a door or a vent, no dangling from a perch and stringing them up by their neck. Not even a simple stab to the back. The player is, for the most part, forced to use tools capable of knocking these foes out, if those even work. The major issue is that these tools are in short supply. You have a limited selection and inventory is kept low. What happens if you packed noise makers instead of smoke bombs? Well, perhaps you can lay a razor trap assuming you have any left (or bothered to pack them as well).
The worst are the foes near the very end that are immune to nearly anything the player can throw. The first set of big burly guys merely require you to disable them, which at the very least can be done by punching the daylights out of them until they’re stunned. However, this is the least effective way to fight as well as the most risky. The final enemy type will never become stunned, however. They are more aware of the player and cannot be killed unless using a handful of traps.
This keeps the final few levels a lot more irritating. While it would be fine if the game merely wanted to force you into hiding rather than killing, it removes that feeling of empowerment. The player is not only fragile but damn near unarmed. This is effective in horror games, but that is not what Mark of the Ninja is about. A resourceful player should still be able to effectively defeat any enemy.
Or perhaps that’s just my own preference and frustration. While I didn’t find those moments as fun, they were still enjoyable. There’s something to be said about removing all of a player’s abilities. Yet it feels like it should be handled a lot more delicately than it was towards the end.
That said, the final moments of this game are greatly rewarding. It seems choice is the name of the game in 2012, and the one given at the end of Mark of the Ninja is one of the more difficult I’ve had to face in a game.
Mark of the Ninja is one of the most satisfying games I’ve played this generation, let alone this year. It can be engrossing and encourage long play hours or fill that fifteen minute stitch of time you need to kill for the day. It is satisfying and begs to be played again and again.