Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Mark of the Ninja for XBLA and PC

The most surprising thing about Mark of the Ninja is that there hasn’t been a game like this before. A side scrolling stealth ninja game seems like a no brainer now, but I’ve never played one before, and Mark of the Ninja makes a rather brilliant introduction to this new genre.

Mark of the Ninja follows an unnamed ninja, part of the Hisomu Clan in the modern day. Ninjas receive mystic tattoos with magical ink which give them strange powers, but after a while these tattoos sink their wearer into madness, at which point the Ninja must kill themselves. A ruthless corporation known as Hessian have attacked the Hisomu Dojo, seeking the secret of the tattoos, so our unnamed protagonist and fellow ninja Ora work together to bring down Hessian and it’s cruel leader, Colonel Karajan.

Mark of the Ninja is a wonderful looking game, highly stylised without being distracting. There’s an impressive sense of atmosphere to the environments. There are three main environments, each containing a handful of missions; these don’t feel particularly distinct from one another, and a bit more variety would have been nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game looks great.

The actual plot of Mark of the Ninja is utterly forgettable, which is a shame as the cut scenes are beautifully animated. The actual story has some potentially interesting elements, particularly the oncoming madness of the tattoos, but nothing is really well done with this. There are twists, but they’re highly predictable, with the plot becoming rather incoherent and hard to care about.

Mark of the Ninja is very much about the stealth aspect of ‘ninjaing’, unlike Ninja Gaiden which is about the fighting aspects. Our Ninja creeps through levels, fairly linear but still with multiple paths to the targets, assassinating foes either with simple stealth or with a range of optional gadgets. Keeping an eye on light sources is a must to stay hidden, with sounds made producing a little ring which shows whether nearby guards can hear you. A grappling hook helps for speedy traversal of the levels, but a lot of your time will be spent creeping through vents. It’s a lot of fun, and getting around unnoticed gives a real thrill. There are direct combat options, but they’re pretty useless, and if you’re spotted you’ll likely be dead in seconds.

There’s an upgrade system, with extra experience gained by dispatching your foes in clever ways and by maintaining a low profile, as well as completing little mini challenges in the levels. The upgrades contain new moves and items, and are generally very rewarding. The game is a good length, offering decent value for money. A new game plus rewarded upon completion will offer some more content for people who like a bigger challenge.

Mark of the Ninja is a huge amount of fun, satisfying and precise. Stealth gameplay is at its worst when the mechanics are imprecise and failure is the fault of dodgy AI and controls rather than lack of player skill. This was one of the primary flaws of Assassin’s Creed III, and thankfully Mark of the Ninja delivers one of the most engaging and enjoyable stealth experiences which I’ve ever played. I’m not really into stealth games; I could never get a grip on Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, but Mark of the Ninja has changed that. It’s a masterfully designed game, the work of people who think carefully about each moment and mechanic to make sure that it’s balanced and fair. There is a notable drop in quality in the last third of the game however, with the introduction of exploding traps adding an unfortunate element of trial and error to the gameplay, and breaking the previously flawless sense of flow Mark of the Ninja generates. It’s an annoyingly artificial way to ramp up the difficulty, and ensured that I enjoyed the last third of the game much less than the first two. Still, Mark of the Ninja is brilliant fun to play, and quite unlike anything else.

This is, like Outland, a game which is really made by the slickness of its animations. The brutal kill animations are cool, switching over to an oddly ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ style for the cutscenes. It really shouldn’t work, but it does! Mark of the Ninja is a great looking game, with decent voice acting for Ora, your regular companion, helping the package along. The villainous roles aren’t quite so well cast, with their ridiculous exaggerated accents sapping these figures of any menace they might have.

Mark of the Ninja is a must play for anyone who’s into stealth games, but also a worthy introduction to the genre for people like me. It’s such a basic idea, but still feels so unique and polished, offering good value for money too. Mark of the Ninja isn’t like anything else you’ll play any time soon, so give it a try if you like new things. ninja_w_bg

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