If you were a ninja, what kind of ninja would you be? Would you live in the shadows, using misdirection and stealth to sneak past your enemies undetected? Or would you sarve a path through the night, sneaking up on enemies in order to slaughter them? Whatever your preference, the downloadable stealth title Mark of the Ninja lets you approach the game how you want, in a refreshing change of pace.
As you may expect, this game places you in the role of a ninja, seeking revenge for an attack on his dojo. A special tattoo imbues him with enhanced ninja powers, but will slowly drive him into madness as well. The game's story is told though animated cartoon cutscenes, with a style that resembles a children's cartoon, but with a more grim setting to go with it. The story, however, is not as compelling as the excellent gameplay.
Mark of the Ninja is a game based entirely upon sounds and shadows. If you want to successfully stealth your way through the game's levels, you'll need to be very careful about staying out of the light and keeping quiet around guards. In an interesting move, the game provides you with a lot of information about your immediate surroundings; a guard's field of vision is made quite clear, as is any region lit up by searchlights, and the world brightens up if you enter the light to indicate how enemies can see you. Sounds are also made very clear to you; whenever you or an enemy make noise, the sound is represented as an expanding circle on the screen. If a noise you make expands to reach an enemy's ears, they are alerted and will start hunting for you. This information is limited to your immediate surroundings, though; if there are any areas or rooms out of your line of sight, they will be blurred and hidden from view, and only occasional footsteps or other sounds will be made clear to you, in a more true-to-life mechanic.
Despite all the information you're given about your surroundings, the one thing the game won't tell you is how to beat any of its challenges. Where some other stealth games might lead you right to your intended sneaky path, Mark of the Ninja throws you in headfirst and tells you to have at it, and doesn't care how you get to the end. You're often provided with multiple paths to your destination, with some of them obvious and other ones harder to spot. On top of that, the game lets you choose a pacifist or murderous route to take through the levels; while there is a sizeable "no killing" score bonus at the end, impressive stealth kills are also rewarded. The only thing you really can't do is race through a level setting off all the alarms; you have a very small amount of health, and five quick bullets will end your escapades if you're discovered. Whatever way you play the game, it will be the ninja way.
Adding to your freedom are a number of items that will help you in your missions. Darts are a faithful ally, letting you destroy lights, distract guards, disable traps and more, and can be required for some missions. Other items include noise makers, to distract guards, spike mines, which turns careless guards into Swiss cheese, and smoke bombs, which block laser paths and let you make a quick getaway in a tight spot. There are a couple of instances where you are forced to use one or the other, but through most of the game, they let you come up with a number of different strategies on the fly. Many of those strategies might be failing ones, but the punishment for death is not too severe: you just start again from a nearby checkpoint, ready to try a different method. When you do make it past a group of guards, the victory is much more satisfying knowing that you had to come up with a plan yourself, rather than discover the game's predetermined path.
The game isn't perfect, however, and some problems arise from time to time. For example, there are multiple different actions assigned to the B button, from hiding to moving bodies to hitting switches; if you're near a body and a switch at the same time, you're not guaranteed to perform the action you intended. Guards will occasionally bug out and not patrol properly, making certain sections impassable. On one occasion, the game's freedom in itself ruined my progress; due to a wonky checkpoint system, I found my character reloading at a checkpoint early in the level, but without any of the items I would have needed to proceed, as I had used them already in going forward, then back.
Mark of the Ninja's presentation is very polished. All of the game's graphics have the appearance of hand-drawn cartoons, though it might be Flash-animated in the end. This looks excellent in cutscenes, of course, but also gives the gameplay itself a pleasing visual style. Enemies are distinct, standing out from the background and popping out on the screen. The game's music is rather minimal, letting you focus on the sounds of the environment, but the voice-acting in the game is well done, if not full of standout performances. Guards will mutter to themselves or talk to each other in a conversational way, letting their thoughts be known and letting you know if a guard is on alert or giving up the chase.
The game offers plenty of replay value, as well. There are twelve main levels to explore, and while a master could blaze through each one in under ten minutes, a new player could spend thirty minutes or more trying to puzzle their way through. On top of that, you are scored on your performance at the end of each level, with more points being awarded for better ninja skills. You can try for personal bests, or you can compare your scores to those on the leaderboards, and try to become the best ninja on Xbox Live. Any downloadable game that offers ten or more hours of gameplay is a winner, in my book.
What distinguishes Mark of the Ninja from other downloadable games is the freedom it gives the player, letting everyone play in the ninja style they choose. The multiple strategies and paths, as well as the blatant lack of hand-holding, make every successful mission feel like a major accomplishment, a feeling that more games need to cultivate. If you're looking for a challenge, an excellent stealth game, or both, Mark of the Ninja is absolutely worth your time and money.
Final Game Guys grade: A-
(Microsoft provided a copy of this game for review.)
- by Jim Avery for news10.net's Game Guys