I tried to be clever about my review of Mark of the Ninja. I have to admit that I felt obligated. After all, this is a site that prides itself on creative, thoughtful games writing. And the game itself is worthy of something more than a boilerplate game review, of which I’ll admit I’ve written many. And I must also admit that I was stumped on this quest. I considered a review in the style of the game’s scrolls of wisdom. I attempted a horror story that inserts myself into the game, placing myself into the role of one of the game’s many slain guards. Nothing worked.
I think that may be because Mark of the Ninja, for all of the ways it impressed me, is a fairly straightforward game. It is a stealth game that widely sidesteps many of the problems of the genre by stripping away the third dimension. In the opening hours I felt I had the game pegged squarely.
“I get it,” I thought. “It’s Shadow Complex meets Splinter Cell with Shank’s graphics.”
I have been writing about games for nearly 10 years now, and sometimes I feel like I’ve seen it all, like I’m such an old veteran I can identify all a game has to offer after the only the opening moments. Often I’m right. This time I was wrong.
Side-scrolling nature aside, Mark of the Ninja, it turns out, shares little in common with Shadow Complex. That’s merely an assumption I made after observing how each room in the game seemed to have multiple routes through. I assumed these would lead to areas that would be accessible later. But, it turns out these paths are the key to Mark of the Ninja’s core, which takes a cue from the motto of Assassin’s Creed: “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In most cases, there are multiple solutions to any situation in Mark of the Ninja. Yes, you can fight an enemy, but you’re better off using a sneak attack from above, below or behind. Or you can sneak through the shadows, either those that exist or those you create by taking out lights. Or you can find an alternate path. Or you can set a trap. Or you can terrify guards into taking one another out. Or there may be yet another option. Or, or, or.
It took me a level or two to find this groove. The opening stage walks you through the game’s various mechanics, instructing you how to take out lights, how to assassinate a guard from behind, how to use distraction items. So loaded is your skill set that each button is mapped with multiple uses – the same button is used to jump, transition surfaces and enter and exit floor grates. This occasionally caused me problems when I jumped rather than mantled, but in true ninja style, recovery from errors is quick. New skills and items are continually doled out over the course of the game, as are new styles based on how you play. Brutally take out every guard you see and you’ll unlock a path that allows for instant kills and additional attack items at the expense of any distraction items. Use many items and you’ll unlock a path that favors these distractions. The truest ninjas of all will be rewarded with a style that favors stealth so completely that it removes your sword all together. The toughest path to be sure, but also the most rewarding.
A friend of mine has remarked on several occasions that she likes the Splinter Cell games because they make her feel smart when she discovers the ideal solution, although she’s perfectly aware that her most clever idea was already thought of by the game’s design team. Mark of the Ninja frequently made me feel the same way, and in its best moments made me feel like multiple solutions were equally valid. There’s almost always a way around a guard or a trap, but there’s almost always away through that same guard. In later stages some of the puzzles feel more exacting and seem to lose that freedom of experimentation. Once you choose a way through a situation, it almost always behooves you to die and try again rather than muscle your way through. Checkpoints are frequent and death is swift and, aside from a lower score at the end of a level, there’s little penalty for failure.
In many ways, Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game for those who don’t like stealth games. At the same time, it’s a stealth game for those who love the genre. You get out of it what you put in. Play as brutally as you like or as slyly, and either way you’ll complete your adventure, and enjoy some gorgeous visuals and a solid, yet forgettable story along the way. The plot didn’t grab me until me until its final moments, but the final moments of the game are worth the journey alone.
Of course, it is the gameplay that is the true star. Playing Mark of the Ninja can be alternately exhilarating and exhausting. Waiting for a guard to turn his back so you can jump over him at just the right moment without catching a motion detector’s eye can cause your breath to catch in your chest. Lining up a perfect series of stealth kills in second can get your blood pumping as fast as it flies on the screen. The thoughtfulness put into the core design, the flexibility of the game’s mechanics, the fluidity of the graphics – it all amounts to one of the most refreshing experiences to hit Xbox Live Arcade in ages.
I’m sorry I could not come up with a more clever way to sing its praises. Mark of the Ninja has many tricks up my sleeve. I guess I’ve just got this one.
Mark of the Ninja is a headline title in its genre.
About the Author:
Jeremy Zoss has written for Game Informer, Wizard Magazine, Village Voice Media and more. He has several published works of fiction, but his dogs are not impressed with any of that.
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