Friday, January 11, 2013

Game Review: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja is the latest game from independent game studio Klei Entertainment. I've enjoyed previous games from this small developer before (including the violent beat 'em up Shank, and the adorable puzzle game Eets), so when I saw it discounted during the 2012 Steam holiday sale I couldn't resist. I've played stealth action games before, but I think Mark of the Ninja stands out because of its original design, tight controls, and player's-choice gameplay that's actually rewarding.

Mark of the Ninja's cartoon art style is very similar to Shank; unfortunately the player doesn’t get to enjoy it all the time as the stealth mechanics of the game reduce the beautiful visuals to monochrome silhouettes. However, as the game progresses the later levels feature flashes of lightening that reveal the fine detail and vivid colors that went into the level and character design. I certainly can’t accuse anyone at Klei of being lazy, and I even wonder if the artist was aware, as he handed his final revisions over to the developers, quite what his efforts would be reduced to for the sake of gameplay. It’s extremely rewarding to take out all the light sources on the screen, enveloping the guards in ominous darkness, finally picking them off one by one.

I will emphasize that although I found the controls precise and simple, I did use an Xbox 360 controller. The game was smart enough to show the correct icons for the 360 controller during the tutorial and on the game’s HUD; unfortunately, that specific feature is probably not going to work as well with just any generic gamepad, and although I’m sure the visual cues will be there for players using a keyboard, they may become frustrated trying to keep up with the fast, tense gameplay. If you’re playing this on an Xbox (the game’s available on the marketplace for 1,200 points), or using a 360 controller on your PC, the controls are going to empower you with confidence.

What really elevated Mark of the Ninja for me was the replayability, each level can be finished without killing a single guard if the player was so inclined (and had the patience to figure out all the puzzles in order to make it happen). The various guards present their own unique challenges – some carry shields while others are accompanied by dogs that will sniff out the ninja no matter how dark his hiding spot. The Ninja’s tools are varied and useful, and they can be unlocked along with extra costumes by collecting achievement points. As the player you have options, and options in a stealth game are paramount, not just for replayability but at a fundamental level that enables the player to participate in the experience on their own terms.

Without hesitation, Mark of the Ninja gets my recommendation. It’s easily accessible for casual console gamers and old-school PC gamers like me. If you’re a fan of the genre, or even if you’ve never played a stealth game before, this is truly a rewarding experience.

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