The wonder of Klei Entertainment's Mark of the Ninja is that in the course of its story campaign, this 2D stealth action game both deconstructs the stealth genre down to its most basic parts while gradually building up to something thrillingly complex while also avoiding the many pitfalls that can make the genre so inaccessible. By creating a world where sound and light are tangible resources, Klei has given gamers the tools to feel like the ultimate ninja warrior.
When a modern day ninja clan is attacked by the mercenaries of the Hessian Corporation, it's up to you as clan's Champion to bear the the sacred tattoos that will grant you the ability to blend in the shadows and avenge your people before the toxicity of your new ink forces you to kill yourself. Klei is back in revenge territory with their latest and the story is really more of a serviceable backdrop to the action than anything else.
Where the game excels is in giving your ninja a host of deadly tools of observation, misdirection, and murder. Since the core concept of the game is avoiding detection, every sound you and your enemies make is visualized through soundwaves emanating from their source, providing you a clear idea of who might be able to hear your ninja at any given time. So if your ninja runs, it creates an observable sound and you can see how far the noise travels. Or maybe you want to break a light in order to draw the attention of a nearby guard--what Klei has done here is taken the guesswork out of figuring out what enemies are reacting to.
This, and the ability to clearly see enemies' lines of sight at all times, has the effect of giving the stealth puzzle of each level concrete rules, opening up in later levels with even more challenging maps. As the game progresses, your ninja will be traveling miles of vents and ducts, discovering the limitations of your own line of sight, with sections of and whole levels blacked out from your view unless you're daring enough to peek out of a handy grate.
But it's not all hiding in the shadows--Mark of the Ninja has plenty of offensive abilities for your silent killer to pick up throughout the game, from new stealth attacks to additional equipment with which to distract or even terrorize the enemy. Your basic tools are darts for taking out lights and fuse boxes or getting the attention of roving guards on high alert along with your trusty sword. Sneak up on behind an unaware enemy in the darkness and press X, accompanied by a flick of a direction on the left thumbstick and X again to keep the kill quiet. Then either drag the body to a hiding place or leave for other enemies to find to distract them.
Oh, and if you're seen or if a guard radios in that they've found a corpse, you'll have to hide until the enemies' alert status (shown above the tops of their heads) goes back down.
And if you'd prefer the more indirect approach to your kills, in later levels you'll be able to equip deadly spike mines or paranoia-inducing darts, making the enemies a threat to one another. Keep your alert low, execute some stealthy assassinations, and complete a map's bonus objectives, and you'll earn points to unlock new abilities and equipment.
Curiously, the abilities menu includes some head-on hand-to-hand attacks, but in my time with the game, there wasn't a single time it was advantageous to do anything but be indirect or stealthy in the way I took out my targets. And for those who like to give themselves a challenge, in later levels you can unlock masks which will give your ninja buffs like perfect stealth kills while, for instance, not replenishing your equipment at checkpoints.
Visually, Mark of the Ninja has the same sort of hand-drawn style used in Shank and Shank 2, albeit with scaled back exaggeration in the character designs (those games were more going for a grindhouse homage, but you won't be seeing any bottom-heavy ladies or killer pygmies in their latest effort). Still, it's an M-rated game, so like its predecessors, it's chock full of gory and inventive kills. The game's visuals serve the excellent level design well, making clear, for instance, what is and isn't a scalable surface or what the nearby lighting will do for your efforts to remain concealed.
The stealth genre can be hugely unapproachable, but what Klei has done here is something like a miracle--they've taken the key pillars of this type of game and made them transparent while keeping them challenging and fun.
Mark of the Ninja is available for download now on Xbox LIVE Arcade.
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