Mark of the Ninja
Guys, I think I’ve found my soulmate.
She’s beautiful, she’s thoughtful, she’s well-rounded, she’s smart, she’s lively, and she understands me. She’s so perfect for me.
Her name is Mark of the Ninja.
Mark of the Ninja is the latest game by Klei, a dev team previously known for Shank. Shank was a 2D beat-em-up that took influence from hack-and-slashers like God of War and Devil May Cry. It was all about stringing together combos of light, medium and heavy attacks to beat down varieties of enemies. I liked it quite a bit, mostly because of the visceral feel. The combat flowed remarkably well, and it carried a great sense of kinesthetic immersion; it made you feel like you were really brawling, even though all you were actually doing was pressing buttons and waggling a joystick. It’s one of the few games I can think of that made me feel feral when playing it.
Mark of the Ninja, on the other hand, is a stealth game where you play as a ninja and prowl in the shadows, sneaking past security and assassinating targets. The devs have said in interviews that their motivation early on was to make a ninja game that actually required you to act like an archetypal ninja, rather than almost all other ninja games that basically just consist of beating up armies of baddies.
And let me just say that they succeeded with flying colors. This isn’t just a stealth game; it might be the best stealth game I’ve ever played.
The game runs on a platforming engine, but there isn’t a whole lot of precision platforming involved. The gameplay is mostly about precision timing. I’ve said in the past that at its core a stealth game should feel like a puzzle game, and I stand by that thesis, because that’s exactly what this feels like. Each encounter with guards requires you to analyze the situation and choose your own method of overcoming it.
You have a number of tools at your disposal, and more become available throughout the game — you can shoot bamboo darts to break lights or distract guards, you can throw noisemaker arrows, you can drop spike traps on the floor, you can hurl smoke bombs, and so on. Pacifism is always an option, as is meticulously stabbing each and every guard until the only living creature within three miles is you.
Each level tends to have its own gimmicks that affect the gameplay without forcing you to relearn everything from the ground up. A few levels take place outdoors in a thunderstorm, so every time lightning strikes, the entire area is lit up and enemies can see you for just a moment. There’s one level that takes place in a sandstorm, so you can’t see past a certain distance. A few levels are littered with deadly traps. None of these are jarring like the vehicle sections in your typical shooter; you’re still playing the same game, but the changes force you to look at situations differently.
The levels are big and sprawling, and reward diligent and careful exploration. Each one has three optional challenges and three hidden scrolls; finding the scrolls and completing the challenges gives you points to unlock more tools you can swap out. None of the tools are particularly overpowered or game-breaking, but they add more variety and can help give you an edge in the later levels.
There’s a common tendency for otherwise good stealth games to force in out-of-place combat sequences, usually toward the endgame. (Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are all guilty of this.) It’s generally done to ramp up the tension. It’s the kiss of death for stealth games. At best it’s jarring, since we’ve spent the whole game learning to be sneaky and suddenly can’t use the skills we’ve acquired up to this point; at worst it’s dreadful, because the engine is designed for stealth and not combat.
Amazingly, Mark of the Ninja never does this. I kept expecting to run into a boss battle or a bunch of gun-less guards and have to punch them out, but that moment never came. And I’ll tell you why it never happened: because the folks at Klei are smart. They knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this game and how to achieve it. The game ramps up tension not by throwing you into a boxing match, but by introducing more threatening guards that are more difficult to sneak by or defeat, and by setting up more complex situations where you’ll have to use strategy in order to get by without being spotted.
Completing the game isn’t extremely difficult, but there’s a New Game + mode that introduces additional challenges. And you can always challenge yourself to, say, complete all the levels without killing anyone. Or without using any items. Or without breaking any lights. The list goes on.
This game has a wonderful checkpoint system. The checkpoints are plentiful and you’re rarely expected to repeat long encounters you’ve already completed. And crucially, if you screw up, you can instantly revert back to the last checkpoint without an unnecessary “You Are Dead!” screen or even a loading screen. It hits that wonderful Super Meat Boy sweet spot where each failed attempt leads straight to the next one, so the game can be challenging while rarely being frustrating.
Before I played Mark of the Ninja, I saw that the Destructoid review said this:
“I find Mark of the Ninja to be perfect. Let it stand as the benchmark by which all stealth games are now measured.”
My initial reaction was, “Oh, come on. That’s got to be hyperbole.” But now that I’ve finished it, I think Destructoid is onto something. I’m still a firm believer in the notion that No Game Is Perfect, but this game is the closest to perfect that I’ve seen in a long time.
Before I leave, I’d like to give a big thank-you to Varewulf for gifting me this game. And also a big thank-you to developer Klei for making it. You two gave me the opportunity to feel like a ninja, and I can’t thank you enough for that.