I often wonder what it would be like to be a ninja. It's been a secret dream of mine since childhood, along with the desire to be an astronaut, dinosaur, underpaid startup employee, and unheralded videogame blogger. But at the end of the day, ninja is the one dream that persisted. If gaming has taught me anything, it's that ninjas are pretty much space marines with swords who every now and then rely on the cloak of shadow to replenish health before running back into broad daylight, slicing everything up like a food processor. Having done plenty of study on my future profession, I'm wise enough to know ninja blend into crowds like normal folk, using simple subterfuge to complete their tasks. While Mark of the Ninja isn't quite on that level of subtlely, it's one of the best representations of my shadow brethren since Tenchu. But is it any good?
Mark of the Ninja begins with a flashback; a young ninja haunted by his prior actions of assassinating a guard squad standing watch over an unnamed item we can only assume was stolen by this warm-blooded shadow. The protagonist has been tattooed with an ancient ink that allows the bearer super-human reflexes, a trait befitting a ninja, however in return their sanity is slowly depleted, and the tattooed must kill himself before that point in order to retain their honor. Upon awaking from his ink induced nightmares, his wingwoman - and de facto narrator of the story - informs the young ninja of the assault on their once hidden temple. The clan swears vengeance on their enemies and the stage is set for a tale of silence, assassination, and deceit.
As previously mentioned, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most ninja-feeling games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. It's more along the lines of stealth-adventure than action-adventure, which is what today's ninja-based offerings tend to be. Right from the outset, the focus is placed on stealth rather than murder, as you are completely unarmed when the game begins, only coming to your offensive options after proving you can fly under the radar. By default, Mark of the Ninja makes it easy to see how your actions affect the ecosystem around you, depicting noise by emitting a glowing circle from its point of origin, a radius where the offending action can be heard. This applies to everything from dashing across the map, to a botched assassination attempt, to smashing a light, which provides a problem in itself. Light is no friend of a ninja, very much the opposite in fact, yet oft times you will find guards huddled under their comforting glow. Smart guys, but not for long. Shattering a light furthers your guise of shadow and catches the attention of any guard in listening range, but should you be too close the the light, you may end up being spotted.
When spotted, guards are alerted and intense music plays, both sound and song are unsurprisingly similar to Metal Gear Solid, a clear nod of respect to the tactical stealth action king. Once alerted, you have around 10 seconds to stay out of sight until the guards return to normal patrol and stop searching for the figure about yea-high, clad in darkness matched only by his own soul. And yes, hiding is the best option. While you are able to use your sword for assassinations, when revealed your execution button becomes an empty hand melee, good only for stunning the lightest armored patrols. Flurry enough and you'll down the enemy, which opens the door for a perpendicular skewer, non-erotically speaking. However most times, once the door to perform this kill has opened, so has many others, revealing ornery guards whose sole intention is your death. It's avoid, kill, or be killed. Your options tend to be limited however in the best possible way.
There are plenty of ways to assassinate a target, many of which must be unlocked by playing the game effectively. Guards can be permanently relieved of duty from most every vantage of cover. Standing behind, hanging overhead, jumping down on, grabbing from behind a door, rising upward from an exposed vent; each of these kills are beautifully portrayed, with lovely haiku inspired names to accompany. Doesn't Emperor's Abyss sound much better than rising upward from an exposed vent? Yep. After triggering an assassination by pressing X at the correct time, time will slow and you'll be prompted to enter another command, which depends on your method of execution. Successful commands kill quickly, cleanly, silently, with form befitting a true ninja. The world becomes dark and the focus crops in on the ninja and his target, the act almost like a loving embrace. The end, not so much. Fear crosses your mark's face for an instant, and in that instant it is over. The execution becomes far more clumsy should you botch the command. The target restrains just long enough to yelp an area alerting holler before his final, awkward end. A proper kill is more fulfilling to watch, and contributes to your own survival.
Survival is a beast with many heads, one that feeds on more than simply the blood of fallen foes. Bonuses are awarded for completing a mission non-violently, and if level design is a hint, Klei encourages this. The world map is broken into several stages, all of which have both vertical and horizontal expanses, none of which become too painful to navigate. I seemed to always find multiple ways to and from any single destination, sometimes much after needing a secondary entry point. The patient and sharp-sighted should find an assortment of ways past enemies without having to flash steel. As you progress, this becomes even easier when you begin to unlock non-lethal tools to go along with your deathly implements. Distracting fire crackers, blinding flares, even smoke bombs that conceal and obstruct vision and trip laser alike. You must learn how to use these tools effectively if you plan on remaining unseen by the unworthy.
I tried the peaceful infiltration a few times but always ended up becoming stuck somehow, and needed to kill to advance. Though you can switch between tools on the fly with the directional pad, you're limited in what you can bring. A set for distraction and a set for incapacitation, along with two static skills that remain in your inventory. As you complete different challenges along the line - there are many: three primary challenges and one secondary challenge room in each stage - you'll unlock additional suits, a Klei staple. These suits look great, but they do more than pander to your sense of ninjutsu. Each has its own bonus which can effectively alter the game by introducing new play styles. For instance, one suit allows you to sprint in complete silence at the expense of using your sword, while another allows you to assassinate instantly (no command) in exchange for your ability to carry an attack tool. 5 total suits means a quintet of ways to alter your style, resulting in a fresh feel each time you choose to switch things up.
After the letdown that was Shank 2, Klei has returned to form in monstrous manner with Mark of the Ninja. Though the story is a bit of a scratch, the big lead up to the conclusion is both haunting and harrowing, with a decision that results in one of two outcomes at your end. The stealth genre has been more and more of a disappointment in recent history as ninjas have gone the way of warriors instead of shadows, but Mark of the Ninja has resuscitated the masters of stealth in a way that makes this former student nod in silent, overjoyed approval.
The Score: 9 outta 10 Blasters!
Mark of the Ninja is available now on Xbox LIVE Arcade (non-referral link) and will be available on Steam on October 16.