Review: Mark of the Ninja (XBLA)

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If you like stealth games, ninjas,  or awesomeness; buy Mark of the Ninja.

 Typically I might open a review making you wonder what the score will be. There is no need for that here, as Mark of the Ninja is an undoubtedly splendid game and one I can’t recommend enough, and doubly so if you are a fan of the stealth genre. Klei Entertainment simply nailed every aspect that I look for in games and did so with a high level of graphical fidelity and an astonishing amount of polish.

Within the game you play as, well, a ninja. As if ninjas weren’t already awesome enough, this particular ninja has been chosen by his clan to be a champion; a chosen assassin who is tattooed with the ink made from a plant with mystical properties that grants it’s wearer strange powers. The ink has a downside though as it slowly drives the bearer insane, which eventually drives the ninja to suicide to keep from turning on his clan. The setup was more than I was expecting and the ninja vs the futuristic world, though done before, is more than enough to carry us through the fun bloody stuff. Voicework is mostly clean and well done and gives strength to the story as does the cut-scenes that are expertly animated.

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No witty caption: Just look at that art.

Anyone who has played Shank or it’s follow up, Shank 2, know that one of the things Klei Entertainment brings to games is a fantastic art direction. The levels themselves are bathed in shadow with accents on your character and the enemies unless you are in the light. Colors within the light are bold and bright with a tone similar to a Saturday morning cartoon. Individual stills of characters will literally having you wish you could save the screenshot to your 360 as a wallpaper and the characters look as good in motion as they do standing still.

You won’t just be standing around looking sexy though, instead you’ll become a predator making his way through the level toward your goal. One of my favorite things about the genre is the tension of not wanting to be caught while playing a fine tuned predator who chooses who dies and how; Mark of the Ninja does not disappoint in this regard. Your character feels not only agile and stealthy as he makes his way through vents, over and under buildings and crawls up the walls like a black garbed Spider Man; he also feels like an extremely dangerous and deadly opponent with a strong sense of tactical ability. Some areas filled with enemies play like puzzles, the best kind that have numerous ways to solve. For instance, I may grapple to a light fixture and once one of the guards back is turned lower myself down, slice the guard’s throat, and string him up by the grapple point before the other guard turns around. If an enemy sees something this gruesome he’ll become terrified and fire his weapon off randomly, forgetting to sound the usual alarm one would. If another guard happens to be in his crosshairs when he does freak out that guard will be gunned down by his own ally. The ninja hides the bodies and advances to the next room.

This scenario could easily play out quicker and with a more aggressive and faster slant. Upon entering the room the ninja slows time and tosses two bamboo darts into the light shattering them and plunging the room into darkness. Guards are alerted and turn toward the noise as the ninja, never stopping running, slides into him and launches the guard into the air, tosses down a poison smoke bomb, does an instant kill on one guard and throws out a vial of bugs onto the next guard, bugs that love to eat flesh. All of these actions can be queued up in the slow motion I mentioned, and all will play out in the order you selected them. Not only does it lend an impressive tactical side to your assassin, but it also makes for some very tactical play that will leave you feeling like a bad ass.

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Ninja + Rooftop + Guard with back turned = Really bad day for workman’s comp

Most games brag on the ability to approach each level as you wish, and Mark of the Ninja really sticks with that to a degree. No, you won’t be going full out slash fest at first on the gun toting guards, as that is the way to an early and shameful defeat. However, depending on how well you do in the level by doing optional challenges: finding all three hidden scrolls in the level, and how well you score; you’ll unlock honor which can be spent on abilities. As you progress you’ll have three separate trees available to you: ninja, distraction and attack items. Ninja tends to be geared toward playing a level with a high amount of stealth. This is my preferred play style as to me there is simply nothing like going through a level making sure every kill is perfect, waiting for that right moment to strike.

Distraction can meld with the ninja style or become a play style completely on its own. You’ll need a healthy dose of distraction if you want to be the kind of ninja who only kills his target and disappears without leaving any other trace he was there. It’s impressive and a credit to Klei Entertainment that you can play through every level without killing anyone, but your target. There are multiple paths and ways around pretty much everything and everyone in the game. For instance some tripwires may be set up in the room you are in. Below a vent lies a guard who can be easily killed and behind him is a switch to turn off the lasers. Of course you could do that, or you could toss a smoke bomb into the path of the lasers which lets you pass through unscathed.

Attack items can be used with stealth, but mostly they are a little louder and meant to bring the pain. With upgraded armor and some of these weapons you can blast through a level destroying most in your path, even if you might not get more points for it. This is still very much a stealth game and playing as such will be ultimately more rewarding, but that being said the fact that you CAN play through anyway you want is a boon to gamers.

Besides choosing what items and skills to bring with you into the game you can change the overall specialization your ninja has. Once unlocked each is completed with a costume change and a set of special attributes to compliment your chosen style of play. One suit may give you extra health and armor along with the ability to gain health back from stealth kills, but takes away your distraction items. This gives you a more aggressive all out style of play. Another may let you choose to sacrifice the use of your sword completely, but make running cause no noise, which typically will have a circle of noise that radiates out from you alerting guards. This lets you fly through levels with ease if disappearing without a trace is your goal. It’s just one more way that Mark of the Ninja sets itself apart from the pack and elevates it’s gameplay.

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See Ninja Run. RUN NINJA RUN!

Its art is extremely appealing, sound is solid and satisfying, gameplay is varied and fun and the game has an impressive hour count for its fifteen dollars. On my play through I logged 7 hours, and that’s with missing a few things. That ISN’T even counting the times I reloaded a checkpoint searching for that perfect sequence of kills (the reload itself happens nearly instantly with no significant load time). Throw on a new game plus mode and you are looking at a significant amount of content for your money.

Every once in a while a game comes around that you feel that perhaps, developers had made just for you. A game that comes together in simply every aspect of your favorite genre and clicks with you as a gamer. Mark of the Ninja is that game for me. Hands down, it is one of the best games I’ve played this year and Mark of the Ninja is an instant buy.

A copy of this title was provided to The Paranoid Gamer for reviewing purposes. To purchase the game, or queue to your Xbox for trial, please visit this page.

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