Mark of the Ninja
October 5, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with stealth. Sneaking about in shadows for ages, cutting one throat per hour has never seemed like much fun and I’ve never been very good at it. I’m the guy who stays hidden just long enough to take a position of advantage before unleashing merry hell with whatever weapon the game deems to give me. While I recognise the Hitman and Splinter Cell series’ as respected behemoths, I’ve never really got on with them.
It’s odd, then, that my favourite XBLA game of the year so far is a stealth title. Not a game that involves stealth; a proper sneak-em-up where one false move can spell instant death and where killing while hidden is about the only way you can do it. Klei Entertainment, the visionary creators of Shank, have not only managed to craft one of the best stealth games ever made but craft it so well that even life-long avoiders like myself cannot stop playing it. Let me explain…
The plot of Mark of the Ninja (MOTN) seems about as thin as the paper it’s written on at first, it but twists and turns considerably over its ten-or-so hours. You play an unnamed ninja who, following a vicious and unprovoked attack on his clan, decides to take on the poisonous but supernaturally useful set of tattoos known as The Mark. While the tattoos will eventually kill him, in the mean time they grant him mad powers that will help him avenge the deaths of his many clansmen and put to rest the people responsible.
Just when you think it’s over the story takes an unexpected turn and brings with it a bunch of new gameplay mechanics and challenges. Coming to a tense and somewhat epic conclusion it’s much more than just a reason to move from location to location.
There are hidden scrolls throughout that provide interesting snippets of the clan’s history and add a sense of depth to the characters, but never much more than ‘here’s a bit of interesting history for you to listen to while you kill a few more guys’. That said, their addition as something more than just collectibles is appreciated.
Your character is silent, preferring to let his actions speak for him, which works from a narrative perspective and a gameplay one. The last thing you need is a chatty ninja who can’t help but whisper dire quips every time he kills; considering the body-count on offer that would be Biblically annoying.
The supporting cast includes stoic female ninja Ora, who acts as your guide and assistant throughout the game; and wise old Master Azai, who occassionally sees fit to remind you of the honour of the clan and all that jazz. These are welcome changes of tone and no character is exactly what they appear to be. However, the gameplay is where it’s at here and it doesn’t disappoint.
Mad ninja skillz!
The basic premise involves getting from A to B (often via C or D) without being seen. Everything is secondary to this; even killing. It’s a testament to MOTN’s dedication to the genre that you can actually earn bonus points for not killing anyone. Your journey through each stage is aided by probably the smoothest and most intuitive control system this side of Super Meat Boy.
Jumping, climbing, grappling, running, scaling walls and cutting throats are all done with slick precision, everything given room to breathe and work in conjunction. Each level is a maze of pipes, vents and corridors; combined with the ability to climb every vertical surface this makes for very interesting traversal. Your clan forbids using your sword in straight combat, so fighting enemies head-on with your fists is very ineffective, although not quite as useless as the game wants you to believe.
The fact is, pummeling a guy until he falls over and then stabbing him in the neck feels cheap and rubbish; a ‘peasants death’ as the game calls it. It’s much more satisfying to come up behind him and cut him from crotch to chin without him ever knowing what hit him. After a bit of practise you learn to work a room like a pro, picking off guards and stashing their bodies with such grace and poise it’s impossible not to feel awesome.
Helping you along is an impressive set of moves and equipment that would make the rice-ball-using shinobi of Tenchu green with envy. Your arsenal mainstay is a set of nifty bamboo darts, useful for smashing lights and banging distracting gongs as well as knocking out the power to many of the dastardly lasers, motion trackers and automatic guns that will hound your progress.
Distraction items range from simple noisemakers to smoke bombs and a hilarious parody of the cardboard box from Metal Gear Solid. Rounding out the collection are the Attack items, designed to directly harm the enemy, including madness-inducing darts and a jar of nasty flesh-eating bugs. Using this kit couldn’t be easier. Hold LT and time will freeze, giving you ample time to aim your chosen thingy. Mark your targets with Y and upon releasing the trigger you unleash your bit of kit.
Using this to cut the power to a deadly laser inches before you actually hit it is a highlight to say the least, but the system works brilliantly across the entire range of equipment and makes knowing when to use it the tricky part, not actually using it in the first place. All the items, as well as your repertoire, can be upgraded using Honour.
Honour is earned by nailing score targets, meeting certain parameters and finding the hidden scrolls in each level. You earn points for pretty much everything but lose a few if you’re discovered or an alarm is raised due to your negligence, further reinforcing the focussed stealth direction of the game.
Challenges range from killing a certain number of guards to daft things like hiding five bodies in dumpsters or hanging three guards from lamp-posts. While optional, these challenges are more than enough reason to replay each level to perfection and create an enjoyable new angle on each stage.
Scrolls are usually hidden in secret areas, with one from each level tucked away in a hidden puzzle room. These chambers contain no enemies but test your finesse and logical thinking. While again optional, there’s nothing better than flexing your mad ninja skills and cracking one of these rooms. As long as you don’t epically suck at the game there’s always enough Honour to steadily upgrade your kit, and it’s easy to go back and earn more if you really want that elusive move.
Sound and light play a big part in MOTN and are handled with as much aplomb as the rest of the gameplay. When you run, grapple, or do anything else to make a noise, grey circles ripple out of the point of origin. Catch a bad guy in these circles and he’ll investigate, which can be good or bad depending on the situation. Using noise as a distraction tool is key to mastering the game, but carelessly running about can get you nailed down in a second.
Light is used in a similar way, with very clear light beams and vision cones making it easy to see if you’re visible or not. Get seen and the bad guys come looking, which again can be used to your advantage if you know what you’re doing. Overall getting discovered needn’t spell death if you’re quick enough and know how to escape, but you certainly feel like a twat and it’s very compelling to try and get through each level entirely undetected.
You can also only see, to an extent, what your character can see. Unless you peek out of a vent, for instance, you’ll only have the little footstep ripples of the guards above to tell you where they are and will have no idea what lights, traps and detectors are waiting for you. Thankfully guards are stupid and won’t notice you looking, but it creates an interesting ‘look before you leap’ style of gameplay that feels like a departure from the standard 3rd-person stealth tactic of using the camera to look round every corner.
After you crack the game and unlock New Game + this mechanic gets even tighter, with literally everything outside of your immediate vision cone (including what’s behind you) being shrouded in fog and darkness. Just this change alone challenges your skill right away, not to mention the enhanced enemy awareness and damage.
Playing MOTN is like running silk through your fingertips and has core replay value; by that I mean you’ll play it again just for the pure enjoyment. A game this good demands perfection and I can guarantee you’ll be coming back to it again and again until you can ghost through each level like a shadow.
Poetry in motion
Klei Entertainment carved a visual niche for themselves back in 2010 by animating Shank in a unique ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ style that was smoother and more fluid than anything that had been seen before. The feeling of playing a great cartoon has been carried over to MOTN and suits the setting and genre perfectly.
While not as bombastic as it’s louder cousin, MOTN has retained all the juicy cartoon violence and over-expressive characters that made Shank such a joy to look at. Everything is rendered in glorious cartoon colour, with stark lines between light and dark lending a welcome film noir edge to everything. Characters animate like cream, effortlessly flowing from one movement to the next without a hint of stuttering or clunkiness. It’s fascinating how robotic other game characters look after seeing MOTN in action.
The use of light and colour is exemplary, with clearly-defined shadows making skulking in the dark easy. Characters in darkness (including your own) switch to a stylish, almost ink wash outline to ensure you always know when you’re out of the light. Aside from the technology, the actual use of lighting is fantastically well thought out, particularly noticeable on one level where lightning is striking. Having to time you movements with the lightning makes you realise how important the darkness is.
The signature cartoon cutscenes are brilliantly animated, rivalling anything on Cartoon Network. The great thing is that this style and fluidity crosses over into the actual gameplay effortlessly.
Silence is golden
Despite staying quiet being one of the principle goals of the game, ambient sounds and chatting guards serve to make the world of MOTN feel totally alive. Everything has a cool sound, from the ‘thwip’ of your grapple to the gruesome slicing of your sword. More than just doing its job, the sound design gives the world depth and palpability, to the point where hearing a footstep or a dog sniffing you out makes you stop and think.
While music is a little thin on the ground, what is on offer is great. Tapping into the roots of Japanese music and combining it with traditional action orchestra, it walks the line between classic ninja and modern action hero very well. When you get spotted it busts into Metal Gear-style drums and stabbing strings, designed to make you panic and rush your movements.
The lone ninja
There’s no multiplayer to speak of and I can see why. MOTN is about a lone warrior kicking ass and taking names (quietly, of course) and to crowbar in another player would’ve made fuck-all sense. That said, a separate co-op mode à la Shank 2 would’ve been nice and maybe taking a lesson from the later Splinter Cell games in how to create stealth-based deathmatches would’ve been useful.
As it stands, the only way to compete with your mates is on the obligatory leaderboards and considering the world number 1 has an impossible (and likely falsified) score of over 410 million points, it’s unlikely you’re going to be king of the world any time soon. The fact is, MOTN doesn’t need a multiplayer and stands taller than most of its XBLA peers on the strength of its single-player campaign alone.
The ninja has made its mark
Coming out of nowhere and leaving an impact on the entire XBLA scene, Mark of the Ninja shares more than a few characteristics with its titular hero. It’s smooth, sharp and stylish, bottling everything that’s great about the stealth genre and unleashing it as a beautiful splash upon a scroll of parchment. Gorgeous visuals complement top-class gameplay to form one of the greatest digital games of our generation, of any genre. If you needed any more proof that XBLA games were more than just casual bursts of cheap fun, then here it is.
Feeling like a culmination of Klei’s unique and passionate work, Mark of the Ninja will please stealth fans across the world and make tons of new ones in the process. While I doubt playing and enjoying this game will allow me to see the joy in following a target for twenty minutes or dragging a body across a courtyard to hide it in a bush, it has certainly shown me that stealth done right can be enjoyed by anyone. Give the trial a download and have 1200MSP at the ready; you’re certainly going to need them.