I’m a pretty bad ninja. It’s like I have an air-raid siren stuck to my forehead. People just know when I am around. People I don’t like. So when I heard Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja had been released on Xbox Live Arcade I let out a cautious sigh of relief. I hoped that this 2D side-scroller would help me overcome my serious lack of 3D real-world ninja skills.
I left my last job on bad terms. I gave notice a month before I expected to leave, but ended up quitting three weeks early. I decided to leave nothing more than a simple note and my locker key on my manager’s desk. “That’ll show him” I said to myself as I walked out of the office, head held high. At the time I didn’t know that I would be working in the exact same building and on the exact same floor for the next three years and thus, would be constantly running into former coworkers and employers. As a result, I spend a large proportion of my day sneaking around the corridors, listening out for Scorned Employer’s scratchy voice and generally sticking to the shadows, treading as lightly as I can. I still can’t avoid them.
It’d probably help if real-life had the same sort of gameplay cues that Mark of the Ninja uses to teach the player the art of being a silent assassin. Each level of the game presents the player with a series of rooms that contain any number of guards, dogs, lasers and lights. Spurred on by very little plot (and I mean very little to the point I am not sure what the purpose of my journey was [though the cutscenes are wonderfully styled]), you are tasked with progressing through each room until you reach The Goal. This may be rescuing a downed ninja comrade or blowing up an entire building. You have a familiar arsenal of ninja weaponry (darts, smoke bombs etc.) and wear a mean black cloak that sees you disappear from enemies views in the dark of night.
To aid you in becoming that AAA assassin (AAAA) of your dreams and reaching The Goal, Mark of the Ninja incorporates a unique system for displaying sound, one of the most crucial elements in a stealth game. If something emits a noise, whether the caw of a bird, the sound of a body being thrown to the ground or the glass of lights shattering after being hit with a dart, a blue circle pulses from the sound outward. Think of it like a single concentric circle of water that expands outward after throwing a rock into a stream. Enemies that stand within the expanding pulse zone are able to hear that sound, while those outside it are oblivious. Running causes large ripples while something like breaking lights causes a smaller ripple. Understanding how these soundwave pulses work is the key to becoming the ultimate ninja.
As I said earlier, each level of the game revolves around progressing through a number of rooms that contain all sorts of enemies and traps. In Mark of the Ninja, air vents are a ninja’s best friend. Most rooms contain a number of air vents that serve as entrances to the room. For instance, a particular room may contain an air vent in the floor, on the left wall and two on the roof. The room could have two lights that need to be either destroyed or avoided, two guards that need to be killed, distracted or avoided and a laser that sets the alarms off if it comes into contact with you. Each of these rooms are designed so that the player can decide how they wish to progress. If you wish, you can completely avoid confrontation or you could stick to the shadows and take out the guards one by one, hiding their bodies in the air vent on the floor so the other doesn’t notice. It’s startling how many different ways a specific room may play out and it is a testament to the fantastic level design by the Klei Entertainment guys.
Of course, a real ninja is never seen or heard and for the most part, doesn’t just kill for the sake of killing. Killing enemies adds unnecessary risk. The game rewards those players who avoid confrontation, but does not punish those that break the neck of every burly guard they come across. Breaking necks is kind of fun. To perform assassinations, you must approach guards without being seen before pressing X. Each time you assassinate a guard, you must also press X and a direction which affects the way you kill the guard. Incorrect button input results in imperfect kills and a large soundwave rippling out from the guards gurgling, bloodied mouth. Furthermore, it nets you less points.
You see, Mark of the Ninja also uses a points system to rank your ninja prowess. Better kills or avoidance altogether earns you more points which can be used on upgrading your ninja powers and weapons. Points are usually only lost when you are detected and a guard raises the alarm. This often resulted in me restarting checkpoints because the game makes you feel like you have to be a real ninja. There are no parlour tricks or silly games. The game wants you to stick to every shadow, peek through every vent undetected and smash every light. It wants you to wrap yourself up in the dark. In fact, there are specific challenges on each level that say as much. These challenges add a level of difficulty to the game, especially if they require you to perform certain duties that increase your risk of being seen.
That said, I never found the game too difficult, though the later levels of the game feature rooms that have a lot going on. Whereas early on you have a couple of guards to dispatch, the latter rooms feature so many elements that planning a route of attack takes a while longer. Clearing each level is relatively simple, but the staying power comes from “Golding” and level – scoring enough points to earn all three seals, collecting all three scrolls and performing all three of the levels challenges. The real fun of Mark of the Ninja is found in this aspect of the game and it also provides a level of replayability. Perhaps my desire to always achieve Gold contributed to the ease at which I progressed, as it made upgrades easy to purchase early on.
Xbox Live Arcade has seen a lot of quality titles over the past couple of months. There is, of course, the fantastic Dust: An Elysian Tail that we featured here on Dusty not long ago but overall, the quality of the Winter of Arcade titles has provided hours of fun. Mark of the Ninja is an impressive addition to the line-up and one that seems to have flown under the radar a little (I really didn’t want to use a ninja pun here guys). Its gameplay is unique and addictive and its concept is always a winner. Everyone loves ninjas and stealth, right? Most of all, it has helped me avoid those awkward situations at work. I now stick to the air vents, turn off all the lights before I skulk the corridors and quickly incapacitate my enemies when seen. For those reasons alone, Mark of the Ninja is deserving of high praise.
- Reviewed On
- Xbox 360