Over the past few years the stealth genre has (thankfully) evolved. While many purists may flinch at the thought of actually engaging the enemy rather than artfully dodging or weaving their way past them, there’s something to be said about improvisation and combat on the fly.
Titles such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored manage to walk the line and give you the best of both worlds sating both the stealthy and action inclined alike. Klei Entertainment’s cloak and katana thriller Mark of the Ninja is cut from the same cloth affording you the opportunity to play as a ghost in the darkness or an avenging shadow of death. The choice is yours.
This gem of an arcade developer is best known for its south of the border, blood and bullets franchise Shank (reviews found here and here) and a striking 2D animation style. While Shank remained a balls to the wall action extravaganza filled with challenging boss battles and cannon fodder by the thousand, Mark of the Ninja is a far more subtle entry. Here you employ subterfuge and distraction techniques to disorientate, terrorise, intimidate and even eliminate your clan’s enemies.
You play a nameless master ninja who has been tattooed with ink from a unique desert flower imbuing the wearer with powerful abilities at a price. As the ink pierces the skin and enters the bloodstream those bearing its mark slowly descend into madness over time. Additional tattoos enact an even heavier price with the Hisou clan’s leader Azai demanding you commit seppuku (suicide) before you lose your mind. You’re battling against both the clock and your very sanity to protect your clan.
A mysterious female ninja named Ora awakens you after you’ve received your first tattoo or “mark”, and announces the clan is in turmoil. A militarised organisation led by the seemingly untouchable Karajan has kidnapped Azai and so your quest begins to recover your leader and make Karajan pay before your tenuous hold on your sanity disappears.
To this end you’ll have countless options to weave your way through each level. You can use sneak to avoid detection, use distraction techniques or attack items or take a more direct approach and gut anything in your way like a fish. The smorgasbord of choice is impressive and will have you replaying each level time and time again finding new methods to complete each one as well as tackling the optional objectives laid out.
Mark of the Ninja is, at its core, a 2D platformer. The twist is its focus on line of sight and inventive use of sound. All guards have a cone of vision, which can be increased with the use of items such as searchlights, flashlights or Night Vision Goggles. You’ll need to avoid their vision to remain undetected, but also be as quiet as a church mouse. All sound impacts on your surroundings leaving an expanding circular sound wave from the point of origin.
As a trained stealth operator you can creep about without a trace but jumping, landing and running leaves you open to discovery. This may sound like a hindrance but you can use this to your advantage. The level design is quite inventive with many pathways to uncover as well as vents to hide in, walls to cling to, lamp posts or hanging lamps to grapple to or even doorways and statues to conceal yourself within. Strategy becomes the key as you decide how you want to play it, lethal or non lethal or a hybrid of the two.
You have darts always at the ready to douse lights, target enemies not so much to incapacitate but more to alert or distract or to hit lamps or gongs. You’ve got Distraction Items such as noisemakers to turn attention elsewhere, smoke bombs to block sight, lasers and even knock out guards and even a Metal Gear Solid styled cardboard box to sneak around in.
Then there are the particularly nasty Attack Items. You’ve got spike mines, hallucinogenic darts, caltrops and even a swarm of scarabs to devour any pesky guards in your way. You can also upgrade your abilities to strengthen your armour, lessen sound while running and learn some particularly gruesome execution techniques. My favourite was dangling upside-down with my grappling hook, snatching, filleting and grabbing some poor sod and then hoisting the body to my perch in one fell swoop.
You unlock these item and abilities by finding hidden scrolls, completing challenge rooms or tasks or racking up points at the end of each level. This is done by either remaining undetected and non-lethal garnering a substantial points boost or by artfully massacring everything in sight and hiding the bodies afterwards.
I’ve heard my play style described as ”evil” by a mate watching my second playthrough as he likened it to a cat taunting a terrified mouse. I would use darts to destroy all light sources, quietly kill a solitary guard and string his body up on display on a nearby lamppost and wait for others to stumble upon it. I’d then cut the body free and watch it drop and terrorise those investigating. This undoubtedly led to fear induced friendly fire. Alternatively, I’d give them a nudge along with a powerful hallucinogenic causing them to turn their weapons on themselves and splatter the wall in a hint of grey matter. Hmmm. Maybe my mate had me pegged right.
The gameplay is a solid mix of combat (or avoidance) and puzzle platforming. It is definitely taking a leaf out of Shadow Complex’s book level design wise and in no way is that a bad thing. The simple take on finishing moves as directional one hit button combos keeps you on your toes. As you progress you’ll unlock more elaborate takedowns as your repertoire increases exponentially allowing quick kills from behind closed doors, through grates and even death from above.
You’ll want to go back and play again and again, locating those missing scrolls, teasing your prey with your new fangled gadgetry and death-dealing abilities as you work towards those elusive high scores. Non-lethal and undetected play is particularly difficult and will keep you going for hour upon hours. Good luck with that and let me know how it pans out.
Visually, as always, Klei Entertainment brings the goods with its trademark animated style beautifully rendered. The zoomed in kill animations are stunningly brutal, the use of light and shadow is artfully realised and the nuances to the backgrounds are an absolute delight with bursts of colour in a charmingly understated yet impactful way. The minimalist styling of the final level is breathtaking and I find myself revisiting it over and over again to simply drink it in one more time.
I’ve purposely glossed over the story as while it’s far from revolutionary or earth shattering in detail, it is fun to watch it unfold. Once completed Mark of the Ninja offers a New Game Plus mode with a shorter field of vision and no sound indicators that really amps up the difficulty and is a whole new challenge in its own right.
For an arcade downloadable title Mark of the Ninja brings substantial value for money. A single playthrough will keep you entertained for over a half dozen hours and that’s just the tip of the sword. Multiple revisits are equally as satisfying opening up completely different gameplay options and a surprising amount of depth. This is easily one of the best arcade releases of the season and more than proves that Klei Entertainment is far more than a one trick pony. Do yourself a favour and get it now.