Tuesday, December 11, 2012

You Should Probably Play This: Mark of the Ninja

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column. In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention. It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better. This time: You can't spell awesome without ninja (it's hiding).
Woo.  Woo.  Woo.  Prepare yourself for gushing.  Bring an umbrella.

Mark of The Ninja is a stylish sidescrolling stealth platformer by Klei Studios, best known previously for the stylish sidescrolling beat-em-up platformers Shank and Shank 2, and stylish sidescrolling puzzle platformers Eets and N+.  They make stylish sidescrolling platformers, is what I'm getting at here.

You are...  Well actually you don't have a name and are a silent protagonist.  You're a ninja, in any case.  Your ninja clan is attacked by an evil businessman (and his private army) by the name of Karajan.  In order to take revenge, you take on special magical tattoos that give you almost supernatural powers, but will eventually drive you insane (it is tradition to kill yourself before that happens).
I pretend he's Irish and his name is Mark O'theninja.
Mark of The Ninja is a 2D sidescrolling stealth platformer.  It's a relatively small genre, the only modern game I can think of that fits in it is Stealth Bastard.  However, whereas Stealth Bastard is more of a puzzle platformer where stealth is your main way of solving the puzzles, Mark of The Ninja is a full-fledged stealth game.  In fact, in many ways, Mark of The Ninja plays like a love letter to the genre, bringing together the best elements of all the classics into a fresh whole.  Pulling together the light and sound-based stealth and the flexibility of Thief, the perches and the ability to terrorize guards and hang people from things from Arkham Asylum/City, that one cardboard box from Metal Gear, the, uh, ninjas from Tenchu.  Et cetera.  That's not to say it's derivative, more that it perfectly treads that line between nodding to past innovators and doing its own innovation.

Mark of the Ninja is a fundamentally linear game, it is a sidescroller after all, it's not like some of the levels in Thief 2 where you're just plopped down in a big open area and told to go do something.  Flow-wise it might be better compared to a 2D version of Splinter Cell: a mostly linear series of stealth encounters.  However, the game's a fair bit more flexible than Splinter Cell (or at least the first Splinter Cell, which is the only one I've played).  You've got options.  Options galore.  Say you need to get past two guards hanging out under some lamp posts.  Do you distract the two guards by shattering a lamp post and jump over them when their head is turned?  Do you stealth kill one guard and hang him from the lamp post, terrifying the other?  Do you shoot the guards with terror darts and let them shoot each other out of fear?  Do you toss a smoke bomb and slink past?  Do you stealth kill the both of them?  Do you simply take an alternate route?
Or you can pull a Phantom and drop chandeliers on 'em.
Your inventory of tools might not quite reach Thief-levels, but it's still sizable.  You've got four distraction tools and four attack tools, which are pretty much what they sound like: Distraction tools are stuff like noise makers and smoke bombs, attack tools are things like spike mines and terror darts.  You can generally only bring one of each into a level, so you're generally forced to adapt your limited loadout to the situations you encounter, requiring you to be a bit more resourceful than if you had an expanded inventory.  In addition, there's a handful of unlockable costumes that further alter your gameplay experience.  For example, the Path of Shadows causes you to make no sound when running and you can carry two distraction items (but no attack items), but you can't carry a sword so you can't kill.

In addition to finding different ways of dealing with situations, Mark of The Ninja often provides multiple routes as well.  It's quite smart about making use of the vertical space being a sidescroller provides it, allowing you to jump around, grappling hook around, and run up walls like you're half-Spiderman half-Batman.  Since you're infiltrating buildings a lot of the time, there are usually multiple floors and rooms with different situations, as well as copious amounts of vents and roofs.  If you find a situation you don't like, you can often find a way of circumventing of it (which of course has its own challenges).
Frankly, if I was a magic ninja I'd probably just annoy the guards by hanging around and giving them wedgies or turning their hats backwards or something.  Then they'd hear me giggling and shoot me.
If there's one thing Klei knows how to do, it's how to make gorgeous games.  Like Shank before it, Mark of the Ninja oozes style.  The cutscenes could've come from a syndicated cartoon (I should probably qualify that as a syndicated cartoon with good animation), and the in-game graphics look equally great; clean and recognizable, but maintaining a sleek style that's highly attractive. It also makes great use of visual cues to aid your stealth.  There's no visibility indicator, for instance, but anyone in shadow turns into a black-and-white silhouette, whereas people in light are in full color.  In addition, thanks to your enhanced senses, you are excellent at detecting sound.  Sound emitted from actions appears as radiating rings, allowing you to see exactly how much sound everything makes.  (For the more hardcore in the audience, this is one of the things removed to make the game harder in New Game + mode.)
Lasers.  The Ninja's ancestral enemy.
I was surprised by Mark of The Ninja's story.  For the most part it's simply an engaging ninja revenge story, but there are a few twists that really add a lot more to it.  I won't say any more than that, as I don't want to spoil it.
Stealth: noun.  Running through an alarm laser and under a light while a guard is staring directly at you.
Mark of The Ninja is an utterly fantastic game, and one of the best I've played all year.  It's right up there with Thief 2 in the annals of great stealth games, even surpassing it in some ways.  It's an accessible game that's not quite as ploddingly paced as some classics, but still manages to scratch the itch of those looking for a really great flexible stealth game.  Get it.  Now.

Mark of The Ninja is available for $14.99 on Steam.  There's also an XBox version for the same price.

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