I really don’t have much to say about “Mark of the Ninja” now that I’ve beaten it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I have less to pick apart and gripe about in this review than in previous write-ups, so, yeah – this is good.
I was initially drawn to the game because of the art style. The game is just beautiful to look at. The characters and objects on the main plane pop out with deep, black outlines and vibrant colors. The objects that the ninja can hide behind in the immediate foreground and background are pitch-black in shadows, but are definitive in shape. The backdrop consists of layer upon layer of foggy cityscapes, giving depth to the surroundings – making it feel like you are actually at a location that is part of a larger world rather than in a linear pocket dimension. The motions of the ninja and the guards have complexity to them. There is no single animation for how a character moves, and the guards respond to the events around them with bodily and facial expression.
On top of the visual attractiveness of the game is the wonderful sound design. Heavy bootfalls on hard concrete echo loudly (which you can see as well as hear). Lights break and traps set with very distinct, sharp clicks and clatters. The bodies of the guards let loose a satisfying “squish” when you run your sword through them and make a muffled “whomp” when you drop them to the streets below. The game looks and sounds well-designed and well-refined, and it pays off big time in the immersion factor.
The mechanics and gameplay are loads of fun. That being said, I had some difficulties adjusting to what was required of me because I am not a patient person. During the first stage or two I would just try to blitz my way through and leave a sea of bodies and blood behind me. That really isn’t the point of the game, and it became less and less effective as I progressed through the levels. I eventually developed my ability to sit down, shut up, and wait for the opportune time to move or strike. Sometimes I had the luxury of creating an opportune time, such as shattering a streetlight above a guard to distract him so I could slip by undetected; but a lot of the game had me waiting and analyzing patrol patterns and jumping from one shadowed corner to another, slowly making my way through a labyrinth of buildings to my objective. It forced me to adapt or fail, and luckily I chose to and was able to adapt.
There was only on little problem that I had with the controls, and that was trying to make the ninja mount a wall or grab the underside of a balcony. With the first, it was just angling the controller’s joystick in the right direction until the “jump” button turned into “mount wall”. (By the way, actually being able to see what actions the four main buttons would accomplish at all times in the corner of the screen was a genius idea and made this game much less stroke-inducing. Kudos to whoever implemented that into the game.) Most of the occurrences of the first event happened while crawling around in the sewers or air vents, and so the only consequence was usually about fifteen seconds of the ninja leaping around like a child full of pop rocks in a bouncy castle. However, the second event lead to some interesting scenarios where I would leap down from a wall to be out in the open, under a lamp post, directly in front of two guards, instead of grabbing an overhang above me and hoisting myself up onto a ledge. But I’m sure all of those concussions and deaths were due to user error.
As far as the narrative goes, it’s mainly your basic revenge story: Private corporate armed guards assault ninja dojo. Unnamed ninja protagonist kicks ass and rescues his sensei. Ninja vows to kill the man who ordered the attack. Ninja kills said man. The end… right?
Oh, my little pretties, the story gets beyond twisted after that. Apparently, your sensei – Azai – triggered the attack from the corporation – Hessian – in order to provoke them into attacking the dojo. Since the protagonist was asleep during the attack (due to receiving a tattoo made from a desert flower that gives its wearer heightened senses and abilities but eats away at his mental state), he only knows of Hessian’s brutality and leaves to defend his dojo’s honor by killing the head of the corporation. The entire point of giving the protagonist the mark in the first place was so he could infiltrate the high-tech corporation, giving the dojo access to the advanced weapons and technology. So now that the ninja has ensured the survival of his brethren, he is supposed to commit seppuku before the madness of the mark devours his sanity. But instead, he sees Azai’s deviation from the traditional teachings as dishonorable, and decides he must be killed.
The ninja then goes on the run from his former companions and travels to the desert to try to find any remaining desert flowers. Upon reaching their old dojo, he rescues the tattoo artist – Dosan – from a group of bandits and discovers there is only enough ink left for one more tattoo. Also, Dosan explains why the clan now desires night-vision goggles and laser pistols: the bandits attacked the area where the magical desert flower was located, and Azai couldn’t defeat them. So to preserve the clan, he abandoned the region with the flower and decided that – since ancient magic was no longer available – he would ensure the clan’s survival by equipping it with better weapons and armor. After divulging this information and finishing the final tattoo, the clan catches up to the ninja and kills Dosan. Now the ninja must use his new powers to return home and face Azai.
I won’t give away the plot of the last few stages because it is awesome and I don’t wanna spoil it, so you’ll just have to play it for yourself (or find a synopsis on some other site, but shame on you for thinking about that). Also, there are plenty of other things that happen along the way, and a larger amount of detail in the back story can be found by discovering hidden scrolls in the game’s stages, but I think I hit most of the high notes in the previous paragraphs. Trust me, though – the ending is incredible. I actually had to pause the game and let everything line up and sink in before moving forward to the final showdown.
Overall I think this game is phenomenal. I loved the challenge, loved the visuals, loved the sound effects, loved the story, loved the gameplay – it is totally worth picking up. The game has a great difficulty curve: it starts you out with a small amount of items and maneuvers at your disposal and only throws one or two types of enemies at you in early stages; but as the game progresses, you gain access to new abilities and gadgets, and stronger enemies get dropped into the mix. I found myself completing several challenges on a stage just by playing it through on the first try, although there were several times where I restarted from a checkpoint because I just wanted to get through the stage undetected. With all that restarting and a good deal of exploration on each stage, I clocked in about ten hours before reaching the end, although you could easily do it in less time if you don’t care so much about collectables or higher scores. Conversely, you could sink several more hours into the game if you are trying to pick up all nine medals on each stage, but you get to decide how you want to play the game.
Anyway, final words on “Mark of the Ninja”: super fun, aesthetically appealing, great story – go get it!