Mark of the Ninja Review

September 17, 2012

/ by Tin Salamunic

Developer(s): KleiEntertainment
Publisher(s): MicrosoftStudios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Release Date: September 7, 2012

Mark of the Ninja is one of the most ambitious, enjoyable, and creative indie-developed games on the Xbox Live Arcade, period.  This little gem does not only stand up to stealth veterans like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, or Tenchu, but its gameplay is superior in every way, setting new standards for the entire genre.  In a way, it’s more of a stealth game than all the other titles combined.  Developed by Klei Entertainment, creators of the fantastic Shank 2, Mark of the Ninja is a must have if you own an Xbox 360 - and it’s only fifteen dollars!

The Good
- The best stealth gameplay around
- Creative level designs
- Superb graphics
- A ton of replayability
- Great checkpoint system

The Bad
- Subpar ending
- Occasionally finicky controls

The narrative plays out like an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon.  It’s fun and charming in a Samurai Jack kind of way, with gorgeous 2-d cut scenes that are somewhat short, but superbly animated.  The controls in Mark of the Ninja are perfect.  Moving around the comic book style cityscape feels smooth, precise, and flawlessly responsive.  Level objectives are generally straightforward; you’re moving from point A to point B while seeking out collectibles along the way, but it’s the level design diversity and the many ways you can take out enemies that make this title above everything else in the genre.

Expectedly, the gameplay focuses on sneaking around and taking out baddies stealthily, but what’s amazing is that the stealth works exceptionally well in the two dimensional environment, I’d say even better than in most 3-d games.  Similarly to Splinter Cell, you’re crawling through vents and hiding in shadows most of the time, but it’s the perspective that makes the navigation so strategic and fun.  There is a gradient of light surrounding your character, the Ninja’s line of sight, giving you just enough environmental visibility to plan your next move. But you’re not just moving from left to right, no, you can crawl underneath your opponents, across the ceiling, and even directly through the rooms while hopping from vase to vase while trying to stay undetected.  Once you’re behind an opponent, you tap X for a cool finisher move.  But like a real Ninja, you don’t want to leave the bodies lying around.  You can hide them in vents, toss them down the stairs, throw them into dumpsters, and even hang them from the ceiling to freak out the other guards. 

As a Ninja, you have to keep quiet and the game handles noise vibrations very creatively.  When sprinting, you see sound vibrating in a large, circular halo around your character and if guards catch the noise, they quickly move to your position.  If they find a dead body or if they see you in the distance, they immediately sound the alarm and start scouting the area, searching vents, doors, and other hiding places.  A Metal Gear Solid style timer counts down until the guards return to their positions, giving you seconds to either move forward or stay put until the situation settles.

Once you start acquiring gadgets, things get really exciting.  Every traditional Ninja gadget is at your disposal; smoke bombs, throwing stars, spike traps, you name it.  You assign gadgets to the D-pad and you can mix and match gadget combos to catch enemies off guard or set explosive traps for them.  You’re given multiple solutions to get through each area and this gives the game tremendous replayability.  Once you reach later stages, rooms become filled with lasers that can kill you in an instant, poisonous gas, guard dogs that can sniff you out of hiding spots, and even snipers that can take you out with one shot.  This is where all the Ninja strategizing comes into play.  You can use a smoke bomb to disable a laser, or you can drag a dead body across the sensor to prevent detection.  There are so many possibilities in each area; you’ll want to replay the levels over and over just to figure out the coolest way to increase your score.

While the gameplay is definitely some of the best in the genre, there are times when the controls are somewhat finicky.  If you drag an enemy into a particularly tight vent, the button commands will have a spasm and you’ll keep picking the body back up when you’re just trying to exit the vent.  Other times, you have to navigate around moving boxes while dodging lasers and you end up plunging to death because your character jumped, instead of moving around the box.  Also, since your Ninja sticks to walls when you jump against them, it can be tricky navigating narrow areas quickly because you end up getting stuck when you’re actually trying to jump off.  But this is all just nitpicking. Mark of the Ninja has some of the most refined control mechanics around and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about them.    

Then there’s the incredibly addictive scoring system.  You’re given points for every stealthy, Ninja-like action.  If you hide a body after killing an enemy, you get points.  If you remain undetected in a hiding spot while guards are passing by, you get points.  If you use a combination of gadgets to distract and then kill an enemy, you get points.  At the end of each level, you’re given an honor score, which is based on your overall performance during a mission.  It’s incredibly satisfying finishing a level with a perfect score, especially in later, tougher stages.

You’re also rewarded spending points based on your stealthiness that can be used to upgrade and purchase gadgets, or learn new moves.  You can even equip different outfits that have varied attributes, like increased damage, faster movement, more durability, and so forth.  Adding to the already complex levels are hidden challenge rooms.  You have to find a giant, hidden gong that transports you to a trap-filled room with a hidden treasure.  These rooms are trickier than most levels and they’re a great plus for treasure hunters. 

Mark of the Ninja boasts some fantastic visuals.  If you’ve played Shank 2, you already know that the developers have a unique, charming, and cartoony, albeit bloody, style.  But unlike the colorful setting of Shank, Mark of the Ninja is significantly darker with only hints of color in the background.  Even though the entire game takes place in a night-covered cityscape, there’s plenty of visual diversity as you traverse underground dungeons, subways, Japanese gardens, and rooftops.  Everything is beautiful animated, from the Ninja’s smooth acrobatic skills to the brutal kill animations.  Accompanying the stylish visuals is the superb audio.  It’s quiet, atmospheric with no background music.  All you hear is the echoing of your footsteps and the guards’ chatter in the distance.  The occasional voice acting is really well done, but it’s in the second playthrough that you truly start appreciating the sound effects.  Once you beat the game, you unlock a new game + that removes visual sound cues and forces you rely solely on the echoing of your footsteps.  You need to learn and memorize how far the sound will travel when running through an aluminum vent versus a wooden floor.  If you manage to score perfectly on this new difficulty setting, then you’ve got some mad skills to brag about.

There is no other way to put this; Mark of the Ninja is the best game on XBLA.  Even players that dislike the stealth genre will get a kick out of the title due to its creative gameplay mechanics and fantastic replay value.  The developers should be commended for their originality, especially when you consider that the game has set a new standard for stealthy gameplay.  If you thought Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid handled sneaking around well, you’ve seen nothing until you play Mark of the Ninja.

Final Score “The Best Game on XBLA” 9.5
Beautifully animated, Samurai Jack-style visuals with incredibly diverse level designs and awesome kill animations. Mark of the Ninja feels like an interactive comic book and it's one of the best looking 2-d side-scrollers out there.
This is hands down the best stealth gameplay ever. Mark of the Ninja raises the bar for the genre so high, it makes you forget about Sam Fisher and Solid Snake. And if that's not enough, it has more replay value than most AAA titles out right now.
The first playthrough was much longer than I anticipated and you'll be playing the levels over and over as you try and perfect your honor score. The levels are long and there are multiple ways to your objectives. Bravo!
It's subtle, quiet, and atmospheric. It sets the mood perfectly and you'll have to heavily rely on the echoing of your footsteps if you decide to go for the more difficult, new game + that eliminates all visual sound cues.

Review by Tin Salamunic

Tin Salamunic is the founder of The Game Scouts. He is a Video Game Journalist during the day and illustrator at night. He's been obsessed with video games since the early NES days, collecting every major system and game on the market. Video games are the reason he pursued the illustration career and he hopes to be creative director for a video game company one day. All Articles by Tin.

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  1. I'm getting this ASAP!

  2. I'm really crossing my fingers for a sequel. This was one of my favs this years!

  3. Klei's one of my favorite Indie developers ever.

  4. Never played any of their other games before, but after this, I'm going to check out everything else they have to offer.

  5. Radical. The XLA gets a great exclusive! I've been so butt hurt since Journey! T_T

  6. @Michael | Yea, this one's a true Masterpiece!

  7. Game of the year in my opinion! :)


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