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Now Playing: Mark of the Ninja

motn

I picked this up as part of a Humble Bundle that contained two games I wanted to play; FTL and Fez. I’d never even heard of Mark of the Ninja, yet it’s become the most-played title in the little selection I secured.

It’s a stealth game and I’m not generally a fan of stealth games. My experience of them is creeping through dark corridors in first or third person, waiting an apparent age for a guard to wander over to an area where I think he can’t see or hear me, followed by a cautious move forward revealing he can, in fact see me and then my untimely demise. Repeating this semi-random process ad nauseum does not a fun game make.

But Mark of the Ninja is different. It’s simple shift of the action to a two dimensional platform perspective is a thing of genius, solving all these problems at a stroke. Now I can tell at a glance whether a guard can see me or not, or whether he’ll be able to hear an action I take. This is stealth by strategy and when I fail, I failed because I fucked up.

The result is a weird and compelling blend of puzzling, twitching and sandbox experimentation. Levels and your palette of actions are carefully designed so that there’s more than one solution to most problems. At the most basic level you can usually choose to either sneak past a guard or take him out.

In a more complex scenario you might blind a guard by blowing the light, throw down a trap for him to stumble into hoping his sudden and grisly death will panic his second comrade into accidentally shooting a third. There’s a lot of options in between these extremes too.

I ran through it in about seven hours total and mostly I thought it was novel and rather brilliant. But it started to pale just toward the end. Why?

A mediocre plot didn’t help. Ultimately I think the sandbox aspects of the game don’t work as well as they should because your goals are limited: it all still comes down to creeping past guards or killing them, no matter how many tools you have at your disposal for achieving those aims. But as a stealth game it’s an unparalleled experience.

Mark of the Ninja in Review

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.