I absolutely hated Klei’s 2011 digital release Shank. I think it is a disgrace, an embarrassment to the video games medium that wallows in joyless, cynical immaturity and dully moronic violence. Its humor and tone are straight out of one of those mid-1990s post-Pulp Fiction “indie” crime or action films and the look was a cheapjack imitation of pretty much any “edgy” adult cartoon you’ve ever seen. The gameplay was stultifyingly stupid, rife with button-mashing and little to offer but mindless and unappealing lowest common denominator bloodshed. I gave it the lowest score possible at Gameshark, and I stand by that. I ignore the fact that a sequel exists.
So it’s a big surprise that Mark of the Ninja, their latest now on XBLA, isn’t just good- it’s one of the best games of the year. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed stealth action game that makes the daring assumption that the genre doesn’t have to be relegated to a third- or first- person presentation. It’s a 2D platformer that feels like a classic of the form overlain with an index of the best sneaker mechanics. It’s not hard to go through and sort out the bits came from Metal Gear Solid and which from Thief or Splinter Cell. It also borrows liberally from Rocksteady’s masterful Batman titles- not the least of which is that incredible feeling of bad ass empowerment that comes from scaring your enemies, hiding in the rafters, and stringing them up. They even borrowed a couple of riffs from Elevator Action. Shoot out the lights so they can’t see you. Or just drop the lights on ‘em.
As much as has been appropriated from previous sources, Mark of the Ninja is one of those studied, academic games where it’s more innovative than imitative. Working out how to put stealth gameplay in a 2D platformer is a compelling design goal as it is and many indie developers would have called it a day there. But Klei brings in multiple gadgets including distraction devices, upgradeable techniques in both lethal and nonlethal varieties, and a plethora of visual cues and signifiers to enable players to play strategically. Light, sound, color, and iconography are surrogates for your own lacking ninja skills and intuition. As in the best stealth games, a little risk-taking is often necessary and that thrill of hiding behind a door while a patrolling guard walks by is a source of nail-biting tension. Foul up, set off the alarms, and either try to mitigate the breach of stealth or start again at one of the generous checkpoints.
There’s often more information than is actually necessary and it can be a little gamey. I’m not sure that even the best ninjas- even Sho Kusogi or Stephen Hayes- can see a dog’s sniffing radius. And the AI can be pretty easy to fool, but that’s not uncommon in the genre. Some of the puzzles, particularly deeper into the game can be tiresome. But these are small complaints in a game that is otherwise outstanding in every way.
Except for the story. It’s stupid, and to be honest I lost interest in it during the first cutscene. The animation style is back, but it looks more refined and confident. It’s typically lame Z-grade piffle about Ninjas, clans, honor, magic tattoos and whatnot punctuated by completely unnecessary violence that makes the game feel far more teenage Xtreme in your face than it needs to be. But you’re not going to play this game for a great story. You’re going to play it to find all of the hidden scrolls, secret puzzle levels, multiple pathways, and to complete objectives that essentially let you organically select how hard you want the game to be. And of course, you’re always going to want to replay a level you hacked and slashed your way through to get the no-kill bonus. High score leaderboards add to the fun, I’m not sure how in the world one guy on mine consistently scores so high on every level. Maybe he’s really a ninja, I don’t know.
Every year for the past several years there have been two or three XBLA games that have really exceeded expectations and blown past their AAA retail peers in terms of presenting us with interesting concepts and new ways of enjoying classic gameplay models. Last year it was Bastion and Outland. This year it’s Sine Mora and Mark of the Ninja. Another game this good and Klei will be well along the road to redeeming their earlier transgressions.