The ninja has had a powerful effect on our culture. They are the shadowy assassins, travelling from foreign lands to deal death. Mortal enemies of pirates, because the internet said so. Cybernetic organisms who used to be your best friend. They have magic powers and a code of honour stronger than steel. Ninja represent the highest level of skill and finesse attainable by man, literally and metaphorically.
A lot to live up to, especially for video games seeking to encapsulate the experience. A few have attempted a reproduction, most have simply taken the archetype and substituted it wherever a remarkable fighter was required. Mark of the Ninja, more than any other game I’ve played, captures the spirit of the legend. The game follows a ninja who has just been given The Mark – an intricate tattoo which grants special powers – on his quest to exact vengeance upon those who have wronged the clan. You must follow your guide through various locations around the world, dispatching guards and generally being super quiet, all so you can locate and eliminate the Nefarious Bad Guy. It’s a story that carries the player nicely into the universe, gives decent impetus for action and provides likeable, if not memorable, characters. And it knows to get out of the way where gameplay is concerned.
You may know Klei Entertainment as the creators of the Shank games, side-scrolling fracas of monumentally bloody proportions where the goal was to jam a machete through as many men as possible. While Mark of the Ninja is superficially similar in art style and 2D design, rest assured that it couldn’t be more different in execution. Pun very much intended.
Each segment of the game is a set of buildings and outdoor areas cast in silhouette, with guards and security systems impeding your progress towards a goal. You can run, jump, hang from trees, stalk, wall crawl and otherwise make like Spider-Man all over the environment. Combat is possible, but not recommended considering your tiny, human health bar. If you take on guards head first it forces you into a fight, and probably alerts every other guard in the area to your presence. But if you can sneak up to them unnoticed you’re free to take them out silently. A quick-time event of lesser magnitude controls how well you pull this off; a failure means your victim’s screams echo through the building, while a well-timed strike could kill a man’s best friend from three feet away.
Stealth games and 2D levels aren’t the most comfortable bedfellows, but Mark manages to pull it off better than I’ve seen. The ninja can enter ducts to hide and bypass areas, or drop onto unsuspecting victims, as well as clamber across hooked ceilings. Light and shadow play a vital part in your activities, with each level replete with light sources waiting to give you away. Players can track their current visibility by seeing if the character is lit up or a chalk-lined figure of darkness. You can also break lights with darts, which serves the dual purpose of blacking out an area and creating a useful (or terribly inconvenient) noise distraction.
Noise and light are the crowning achievements of the title, in fact. Each audible sound made by you, your enemies or inanimate objects is represented not just by the sound itself, but also by a bubble of influence that extends outwards. Even rats and stray birds create noise bubbles, and if an enemy falls within the bubble they will be alerted. This forces you to plan every move you make if you want to avoid detection, as a simple decision to run down an empty hallway might attract the attention of a few gun-toting baddies on a different floor. Line of sight is also key, and the system at play is ingenious. Wherever your ninja is standing, the player view of the world is obscured according to line-of-sight rules. You won’t know what’s up on that ledge until you go and take a peep, save for some almost imperceptible footstep noises. Similarly, you can’t confirm the contents of a room until you either subtly glance through a vent or door, or jump in and hope for the best.
Mark of the Ninja is so meticulously crafted and smooth to play that it almost feels complete at this point, with the ability to pass unnoticed through seemingly impassable rooms. But there is also a treasure chest of ninja gear to unlock and play with – gear that becomes increasingly necessary as the game progresses. Smoke bombs can obscure lasers, allowing you to run through (although you can also drag security-cleared guards through these, you sick bastard). Poisoned darts will inflict raw terror on the enemy, while your grappling hook will allow you to zip to high points and then dangle like a Dark Knight. Spike traps were a personal favourite for me, as you can throw one down, then lure a guard over the top to his perforated demise. The tools on offer are never a crutch to shoehorn in specific gameplay situations; they are a box of options.
Most tools can be upgraded as your character progresses, becoming more deadly or less visible as is necessary. You can also learn new moves for combat, murder and movement, ensuring that you are a certified badass by close of business. I skipped most of the combat moves, as I was attempting (and sometimes failing) to play it quiet and deadly, but there’s plenty of room for different styles. Different outfits are also available, once you fulfill certain conditions, and each has a few pros and cons for different approaches. Once you complete the story, New Game Plus is unlocked, which lets you keep all your gear and go from the beginning with tougher enemies and less visual prompts.
And you’ll want to play it again. I want to play it again right now. Not only is the gameplay smooth, perfectly crafted and a credit to the stealth genre, everything else is just wonderful. Klei’s animation work is as superb as expected, giving a real Saturday morning feel – if I wanted my children traumatised by the horrors of the world. The world is defined well enough that even in scenes that were almost completely black I was fully aware of what was going on around me and enjoying myself. Even the story manages to take some interesting turns before it closes out. Buy it, play it, love it. Or I will be hiding in your closet with a hot knife.