Mark of the Ninja for XBLA reminds us why it's cool to play ninja
You know how some games are almost as fun to watch as they are to play?
Mark of the Ninja is like that. Believe it or not, it's actually just as entertaining to watch someone else commit acts of sneaky terrorism as it is to instigate them yourself. Of course, that might have a lot to do with the art direction; Klei Entertainment's new 2D stealth-platformer looks and feels like a grown-up Samurai Jack. It's a slower and more deliberate Shank, an interactive anime made out of moody cityscapes, ventilation shafts and old-school ninja stereotypes (sorry contemporary anime fans, you won't find any loud-mouthed adolescent ramen-loving blondes here).
Difficult as it might be to envision a working marriage between a stealth game and a side-scrolling platformer, rest assured that Mark of the Ninja has gotten the idea down pat. In lieu of asking you to rely on your ears, in-game radar or other traditional 3D stealth game mechanics, Mark of the Ninja employs color and light to signal what's going on. Running characters generate expanding blue circles, circles that may precipitate a raised alarm should they cross paths with wary guards. Dogs emit a purple, pulsing 'scent radius' to tell you the range of their perception, while guards indicate surprise with yellow circles and aggression with a warning shade of red.
There is a feeling of fluidity that underpins everything in Mark of the Ninja. From the way the game communicates information about your environment to the slithery grace of your character to the smooth-as-silk controls, Mark of the Ninja just flows. Are there guards in your path? Flick a dart at an offending lightbulb and watch it shatter. Wait. Jump as guards move in to check the disturbance, fling a grappling hook across the screen and sail across their unsuspecting heads before you land, ever-so-quietly, behind another guard and punch your sword through his throat.
The best thing about Mark of the Ninja is that there is rarely a requisite way to accomplish anything. It is entirely your prerogative as to whether or not you want to be a homicidal menace, a fast-moving pacifist or anything in between. You can kill every guard in the game or choose to never shed a drop of blood; the game does not care. What it cares about is finesse. Trigger an alarm and Mark of the Ninja will gleefully deduct a few hundred points from your score, but sneak undetected past a patrol and watch the combos raise your total in a most satisfying manner. While it is certainly possible to bungle your way through the game, Mark of the Ninja would really rather you, you know, behave like a ninja, because that's what the game is all about. It's something that shows in more than just the scoring system. The moment you are discovered and the guards pin their flash lights on you, that's it. Unlike the superhuman protagonists in so many other games, Mark of the Nina's Akai does not take well to bullets. Get hit with a few clean shots and you'll be forced to restart from the last checkpoint. The message is clear: be swift, be silent and be a goddamned ninja.
Like any game worth its salt, Mark of the Ninja comes equipped with secondary objectives and an abundance of things to unlock. Depending on the level, you may be called upon to do anything from reaching a specific destination in less than a minute to terrorizing guards with the help of certain items within your arsenal. There are also hidden scrolls to find in every stage – they help flesh out the story of the Hisomu clan. As far as upgrades go (purchased with the currency you get from completing the aforementioned objectives), you can gain access to specialized costumes (one of them completely eliminates the sword from your repertoire), new ninja techniques, items of mass chaos and more.
The story is a point of contention for me. On one hand, the tale behind Mark of the Ninja feels a little … trite in comparison to its soaring, technical beauty. An individual out to save his clan in spite of great personal costs? Tradition versus modern technology? Compelling as the delivery might be, it's a tale we've heard countless times before. On the other hand, the plot does exactly what it is supposed to – it provides a reason for you to clamber across skyscrapers, string up hired muscle and luxuriate in the game's sublimity.
Mark of the Ninja may easily be one of the best things to happen to the Xbox Live Arcade. Dark and brilliantly orchestrated, it's an M-rated playground that does its utmost best to give you the freedom to tackle challenges however you wish without compromising the pace of the game. If you've ever wanted to be a ninja, this is as close as you're going to get (short of haranguing a real-life ninjutsu master for lessons).