Across nearly two decades, developers have been shoehorning stealth mission into games not designed around furtiveness. Whether tasking Young Link with sneaking past soldiers in Ocarina of Time or having players skulk around the habitually firepower-fueled battlegrounds of Gears of War 2 and Killzone 3, these clandestine undertakings were merely intended to deliver variety. Inadvertently, they devalued the stealth mechanic, relegating it to the level of the insufferable escort mission in the eyes of the gaming collective. Elegantly, recent XBLA release Mark of the Ninja reminds us of the thrill found in surreptitiousness and the euphoric allure of bloodshed without the slightest forewarning.
Developer Klei Entertainments (Eets Chowdown, Shank) understands that a game which articulates the methodical movements of a shinobi shouldn’t have players stumbling over the control scheme. Fortunately, Mark is much closer to a Pray for Death Shô Kosugi than Chris Farley Beverly Hills Ninja, allowing players to effortlessly scale vertical walls, peep through vents, and quickly grapple-hook their way onto highlighted perches. Although disorientation can infrequently occur as the button to pick up a body also doubles as a hide command, Mark of the Ninja routinely bestows the sensation of being a disciplined ninjutsu master. Whether allowing players to lock their bamboo darts on illuminating (and weighty enough to squash) lamps, or ignite firecrackers and smoke bombs to provoke a bit of feudal-era shock and awe, your loadout is as fun to use as it is functional. Completing missions and secondary objectives provide currency to augment your arsenal, providing rewards such a cardboard box that pays homage to Solid Snake’s low-tech gadget of choice.
Complementing Mark of the Ninja’s proficient input scheme are a number of visual cues which remove some of the ambiguity which permeates the stealth genre. Naturally, the protagonist’s profile darkens when they are veiled by the cover of darkness, and cones which depict the optical awareness of enemies are depicted. Yet, innovations such as a radiating sonic ripples which divulge any noise made by the player or environmental highlighting which exhibits the contour of the game’s darkened environments give gamers a satisfying edge against technologically savvy foes. Even when the game deliberately cultivates obscurity by employing a fog-of-war technique, its motivation is undeniably thoughtful; ratcheting up the tension to absorbing levels of intensity.
Whether though thoughtful design or meticulous play testing, Mark of the Ninja’s journey provides players with a procession of gratifying surprises. When replaying the title’s tutorial level, I deviated from my Kunoichi sidekick’s commands, resulting in an unexpected verbal admonition. Playfully dumping bodies off the side of a building caused unseen guards to become aware of my presence and also to become demoralized. Smartly, Mark’s levels are built around a score-based system, encouraging experimentation, replay, and a bit of competition with your XBox Live friends. Expectedly, the game supports both a bloodthirsty, ‘kill them all’ approach, as well as pacifistic option for those seeking an immensely engaging experience. Since your amassed arsenal carries over in the title’s New Game+ option, players might want to go aggro on an inaugural playthough, before using their dividends on a ‘no kill’ run.
Mark of the Ninja’s visuals match the expertise of its control and play mechanics, offering a fluid framerate and bold, square-jawed characters that exhibit an undeniable Genndy Tatakovsky-esque vibe. Although the game earned an ‘M for Mature’ rating from the ESRB, its representation of mayhem is fairly restrained. In execution, the quantity of kill animations feels a bit restrained with throat slits and stomach stabbings comprising the bulk of enemy deaths. Ideally, players would have been offered a risk/reward situation proposing a more difficult QTE command which would escalate the ferocity and point value of every kill. The game’s other misstep is the extension of a plotline decision which doesn’t affect the endgame, giving a deceptive decision of choice.
For players who considered this year’s Summer of Arcade offerings to be somewhat lackluster, consider Mark of the Ninja as Microsoft’s implicit apology. At fifteen dollars, the title offers a seven hour campaign which rests at the upper echelon of XBLA experiences, delivering an excursion destined to revive the spirits of any enthusiast disheartened by the attrition of the stealth genre. Even gamers who traditionally loathe slink and slay gameplay should give Mark a demo; the title’s articulation of creeping about shirks many of the control problems inherent in similarly-themed, three-dimensional titles.