The warrior learns of the spiritual realm by dwelling on the cutting edge of the sword, standing at the edge of the fire pit, venturing right up to the edge of starvation if necessary. Vibrant and intense living is the warrior’s form of worship.
“The following is a contributor post by the Mail Order Ninja Mage.”
Time tends to move in strange circles, events echoing and repeating themselves throughout history. In this way, I find myself once again reviewing this game, as back in 2012 I was also provided a review copy of Mark of the Ninja on the Xbox 360–the days when Xbox Live Arcade was really one of the only ways that console gamers were experiencing indies.
Though some might scoff at the remastering of a game that is only six years in age, six years is an eternity in the land of technology in which gaming dwells, and bringing this game to new audiences is extremely smart of Klei Entertainment. I honestly hope that this is just the opening volley in bringing us the Mark of the Ninja sequel that we as a gaming community so badly need, but I digress.
We are here to judge the quality of Mark of the Ninja, and I want to be upfront with you when I advise you that I have previously awarded the game a much sought after 10 out of 10 rating. Spoilers for the review ahead perhaps, but Mark of the Ninja is a very good game. In fact, it once resided firmly on my Top Ten list of all time, before narrowly being edged out by others slightly more phenomenal games.
The question you might be asking at this point is why bother having the same person who reviewed it six years ago, and clearly loves it, review it yet again? Quite simply? I’m not the same person I was six years ago, and though I played through the game numerous times on launch I haven’t touched it since then. I didn’t expect the game to have magically grown far worse, but I also was curious if nostalgia of a completely different time of my life had colored my perception of Mark of the Ninja. On top of this, games have changed dramatically in six years, especially in the indie space, and the competition is fiercer than ever with masterpieces being released onto the Switch on a nearly weekly basis. Can Mark of the Ninja compete with six years of innovation in the indie space? Does the platformer stealth combo that was so fresh and amazing then still hold up?
It is with this mindset that I embarked on playing and reviewing Mark of the Ninja again, pushing to set aside all preconceptions and play the game as if it was a brand new release. Join me while we dig into one of my favorite games of all time, and discover together if it remains so by the end of this review.
Klei Entertainment has somewhat of a reputation for really cool art styles, and this game is one of the games that put them on the map for that. Its predecessor is the game Shank, from which Mark of the Ninja borrows its Saturday morning cartoon vibe–if Saturday morning cartoons spurted blood gratuitously after a sword was jabbed through their neck.
The hand drawn art and cutscenes hold up as well as the day they were released, and though the Switch doesn’t have the benefit of 4K, it looks as good or better than it did on the big screen with the 360. Due to the art style the developer went with, the graphics hold up fantastically, and while your mileage may vary, I adore the art direction of the game.
If we want to talk about the real star of the show though, we have to talk about Mark of the Ninja’s mastery of animation. Every frame flows together with such smoothness that it is almost hard to believe it is hand drawn. It makes the game look incredible in motion, but it also plays directly into the smooth-as-butter gameplay that makes this game so impressive. Seeing your ninja leap from on high, land gracefully, and slay a guard in mere moments with nary a hitch in the animation is a wondrous sight to behold indeed, and it just feels so dang good.
I am not the best audio critic out there. To be honest with you I simply know what I like, and what I do not. I can’t banter with you about composition, or overall connective tissue in a piece, but I can usually at least determine the truly great soundtracks in gaming.
Mark of the Ninja does not have any of the kind of music you would listen to on your phone. Instead, it is packed full of cinematic-sounding music filled with dramatic Asian drum beats and it fits the game beautifully. No specific track stands out, but I always felt the tension when I was discovered, or a big plot point was revealed. More important though was what wasn’t there, as silence was often the order of the day. It makes sense for a stealth game and allows you to appreciate the wonderful sound design of the levels. There is a good deal of voice work in the game as well, and it does the job, with a few standout performances from the star female character of the cast.
Overall the game does an admirable job and everything fits well, but it doesn’t soar to beyond good, so I can’t give it a higher score here.
Stealth is one of my favorite genres, which is a shame because it really isn’t a popular genre in games anymore. Sure, we have a ton of games that toss in stealth elements, but rare is the game that is focused around that experience today.
That is one of the reasons I fell in love with Mark of the Ninja back in the day, and my love for it is made all the more sharp by a quick decline in these sorts of experiences. Though there are a handful I can name, none of them are extremely high quality, and even the ones that are moderately fun (the Assassin’s Creed 2D games) borrow heavily from Mark of the Ninja’s playbook, without ever perfecting what made it so cool in the first place.
At first glance you might be excused for assuming that Mark of the Ninja is either a Metroidvania-style game that we have seen a flood of lately, or an action platformer like Ninja Gaiden, but neither of those is really accurate. Instead the game presents a level with a varying degree of approaches you can take to solve, presenting each like its own little puzzle of ninja awesomeness.
You control a ninja who not only possesses the normally amazing skills of a warrior of the shadows, but also has magical tattoos that allow him ever increasing power during the course of the game. The way the game slowly unfolds these powers and presents you with an ever increasing challenge as the AI ramps up and becomes more difficult is utterly thrilling. One of Mark of the Ninja’s most fantastic accomplishments is balancing that sense of difficulty while also making you feel like an all powerful predator of men–like the ones who have lived do so only by your grace–and you get to fully embody the fantasy of being a ninja.
One of the most difficult portions of the stealth genre–and the reason why I think a good deal of developers shy away from it, or don’t fully embrace it–is that there are a lot of needles you have to thread to do this genre well. The most difficult among these is undoubtedly AI. If you make the AI too stupid the player feels no real challenge, and instead just feels like his opponents are mindless dolts. On the other hand, if you make the AI too intelligent then you take away the player’s sense of power, and the inherent puzzle in navigating a room without being discovered. After all, if every enemy worked like they did in real life the resulting game would be incredibly dull or aggravatingly difficult.
Instead Mark of the Ninja perfectly manages this back in forth in a variety of clever ways. The enemies in the game will at first be extremely basic, and as the game goes on and you deal with more elite enemies that are well-outfitted, things get progressively more difficult. This allows the player time to essentially learn all of the rules of the game, what the enemies respond to and what they don’t among other things, before really putting that to the test in devious ways.
As your enemy grows powerful and gains more tools, you do as well, and each of these tools can be used in a delightful variety of ways. Mark of the Ninja is a masterclass in choice, which is more impressive because the levels are pretty linear overall. Even so, you can choose to approach the game in a number of ways, which both allow for variety as well as essentially letting you choose how difficult your experience is going to be. Each level is designed in such a way that you can play through almost all of them without murdering a single guard, but of course this can be incredibly difficult as you have to be far more careful. On the other hand, you can systematically assassinate your foes making it slightly easier, yet still feel like you are embodying the art of the ninja itself. In fact, I find this method far more engaging personally, as I get to be a swift killer in the night constantly assessing the best way to leave the facility empty without ever being seen.
If you are just terrible at the game, you can go in sword swinging, but because this is a stealth game you will die quickly. Even so, the developers account for this playstyle as well, allowing the monsters among you who don’t want to stealth in a stealth game a skill tree that allows you to grow ever more powerful in the art of sword swinging. The skill tree mechanic is a welcome one that allows you to customize your ninja to a degree, picking and choosing what skills you will master first. Gathering optional scrolls that further the story via use of haiku, not being detected by enemies, and completing optional objectives reward you points that can then be used to buy new skills between levels, and at certain checkpoints.
The skills you learn are varied and incredibly fun, everything from wrapping dudes up on a lamppost with chains, to earning new tools to distract the mercenaries that hunt you. Between all of the various skills, approaches to each level, types of enemies, and ways you can dispatch your foes the game never feels dull or repetitive.
A typical scenario might be a room with two guards in it, littered with lights and small areas to hide in the shadows. You use various grates in the ceiling and floor to deftly move past your opponents, slipping away without ever being seen. Perhaps you toss a noise maker to distract one guard, fall behind the other and kill him, tossing him into the grate below before his friend ever realizes he is missing. Maybe you string the individual up from the light, his flash light toting co-worker sees him and panics, firing in all directions frantically hoping to escape death, killing the other guard that rushes in from the adjacent room to investigate. Remarkably there are far more scenarios you can come up with, mixing and matching to your heart’s delight as you employ all the methods at your disposal to overcome the game.
The game does a great job of always providing audio and visual cues to help you know what the guards might do, how much sound your making, and how visible you are. If you run, circles echo out from your character showing all in that vicinity can hear you, guards footsteps echo with the same smaller surface in the dark, letting your ninja know approximately where they are even if he can’t currently see them.
All of these things come together to create the finest stealth based game I’ve ever played, and a true testament to what makes the genre so wonderful.
Shakespeare though the game might not be, Mark of the Ninja sets up a really cool narrative that neatly moves the plot along, while giving you plenty of intrigue along the way. The set up is that you belong to a clan of ninjas who are still seeking to follow the old ways, even as the world has moved on around them. They are threatened to be wiped out by a mercenary group that is heavily armed with the best of technology, and so they choose a champion to wield their greatest weapon–a tattoo made with the dye of a special plant that grants the ninja special abilities. The chosen becomes the clan’s greatest weapon, but not without a cost. As the person receives more pieces of the tattoo and its strength, he slowly loses his mind. In order to keep the clan and the world safe from his powers, the champion must kill themselves before they are lost to the madness entirely. This is how the game starts, with our newly tattooed champion finding his home under siege, his wise mentor kidnapped, which sends him on a quest of vengeance.
Along the way there are a number of cool twists and turns, but there also is a lot of cliché tropes to deal with as well. I saw some of the reveals coming miles away, but they were always fun to experience and well-acted with serviceable voice work. The ending even varies slightly depending on a final choice, and it is as appropriately paced as it is well done. As excuses to be an awesome magic ninja go, it certainly does the job, and I daresay is entertaining in its own right to boot.
We live in an era of an indie explosion of sorts, where thousands of indies hit Steam every week, and in those thousands there are dozens that are truly high quality games. There are so many games coming out in so many different genres that the idea that there is an underused genre is insane.
Except there is when it comes to stealth gaming.
Nowadays when we think of stealth people think of games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed, or other such third person titles. These games borrow elements of stealth mechanics, but never fully capitalize on them. In the newest Assassin’s Creed, if you get caught you just wail away until your enemies lie defeated around you, it makes you wonder why you bothered sneaking about in the first place.
It is even more baffling then that Mark of the Ninja did this six years ago and only Assassin’s Creed tried to copy the format, and then only with middling success. There just isn’t any other super high quality 2D stealth platformers/puzzle/RPG lite games out there. In fact I would argue that in my experience–and I attempt to play almost all of them–there are none. You can’t get much more unique than that.
In my opinion challenge is the most difficult thing for any game to do correctly. Make a game too easy and the people who are good at your game will lose interest. If you go the opposite way and make something too hard then you risk alienating a large portion of your audience who may not be super elite gamers. That makes it all the more impressive when a game nails that soft upward arc of increasing difficulty, and does so in a way that is also extremely accessible to others.
Like I stated earlier the best stealth games have a wide variety of ways to approach situations, and deciding how you wish to go through the game will vastly affect your experience. If you want to make it through like a silent shadow, getting 100% collectibles and never being seen, you have quite the challenge on your hands–especially in later levels. If you decide that it doesn’t matter if you get caught from time to time, your game is going to be significantly easier.
For the people that enjoy the genre like myself, I will restart a checkpoint a hundred times in a stealth game so I can be absolutely perfect, and luckily those restarts take mere seconds before you can try again. It makes everything immediately approachable, and for the most hardcore among us there are new game plus modes that remove a lot of the quality of life improvements like hearing or seeing enemies footsteps when you aren’t in the same room.
I don’t often replay games, but I’ve replayed Mark of the Ninja numerous times on its original release. Once the game is completed, a new game plus mode is enabled, and this makes things significantly harder for those who are interested. You retain all of your tools and abilities, but the player’s line of sight is now limited to wherever they are looking. This means if you look to the right, the room behind you goes dark. In addition, line of sight indicators for the enemy disappear; you have to just look at the enemy and see where they might be aiming, and you can’t detect the radius in which you might be heard.
All of this allows players who are good at the game and love it to experience it again whilst upping the difficulty, but even for those who just want to replay stages on normal you are scored based on a number of criteria and so you can always go replay levels to push for a higher score.
Both of these things–along with the fact that the game is simply stellar–seem to add up to a high replayability to me. Perhaps not on the level as games as a service, but certainly for a game of this type.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Though the ticker tape of the aggregated score might tell a different tale, I came away even more assured in my love for this game than I had prior to playing it again. The worry that nostalgia had somehow improved the game’s standing with me fell away, and I became enamored with the experience all over again.
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. It is gorgeously animated, polished to a bright shine, and has phenomenally unique 2D stealth gameplay.
The game is just as brilliant now as it was six years ago, and if you love stealth games you should be playing this one. Plus it has a ninja in it, and we all know how incredibly cool they can be.
We’d like to thank Klei Entertainment for furnishing us with a copy of their game for this critique!
Aggregated Score: 9.5
The Mail Order Ninja Mage loves video games across every console: an assassin of fanboy nonsense. He also really loves martial arts and pizza, though that is of no consequence here. To read more of his random word soup, or to view daily(ish) photo mode screenshots from his favorite games, visit him at Home Button.
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