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Mark of the Ninja -an in depth review (Spoilers)

Mark of the Ninja is the critically acclaimed platformer hand crafted by Klei Entertainment. The game was released in 2012 for the xbox 360 and windows systems, it was released later for linux and OS X systems in 2013. It's garnered several editors choice awards and a damn good scores from Metacritic (a 91/100), making it on paper one hell of a game. Fear not though, I am here today to give you an in depth reveiw of the game and explain to you why it deserves the scores it has. 


          Mark of the Ninja is a 2D platformer that focuses on stealth and otherwise being ninja. The story is set in the modern day, where ninjas have perhaps become slightly outdated. You play as a ninja (go figure) who's clan was ruthlessly attacked by mercenaries. Your task is to strike back at the man who ordered the attack, and regain your clans honor. However, to do it you accept the burden of the mystical Mark, giving you mysterious abilities; but these powers come at a horrible price. The marks powers hail from a mysterious plant, who's origins I will later discuss. Besides giving you superhuman abilities, it turns whoever accepts it mad, in time. Turning on anyone and everyone, killing with the only intention to end lives. To ensure the safety of the clan the bearer of the mark kills themselves, turning themselves in before becoming to powerful to stop. 

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        One thing that you catch on quite quickly is that the game strives to keep elements of the ninja authentic, point in case is that you don't know who you are. Your name, and anything about you is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the only information you have is Ora, your companion throughout the game, and the name of your clan, the Hisomu. This approach to a character, especially a main character is not a common thing. Even in other games where the main protagonist is a ninja, it's more common that his/her name is one of legend (or infamy). However the fact of the matter is that the identity of a ninja was completely secret. So much so that it would be quite common that ninja's from the same clan would confront each other in battle (1). This was the case because ninja families were born to serve lords, for honor of their lords and clan.

      I will admit that the storyline is not the most complicated, nor is it a epic that spans several hundred hours; but for the narrative it tries to tell, it is well done. Not only from what happens during cut scenes, but during the game too. Now in most cases I don't really enjoy collecting, running every which way to find small things that give you an arbitrary 100% that don't really affect the game and its story. In Mark of the Ninja there are collectibles in the form of scrolls, and artifacts. Artifacts only give you points that count towards your final score, where the scrolls contain Haiku's. There are three a mission, and together they tell a short story about the clans history. Here's an example:

       On a starless night,  An unkindness of ravens,  Lands along a wall

Drunken, laughing guards ,  Spill outside with joy to meet ,  The eyeless faces

A thick liquid drips ,   Down a silken thread that hangs ,  Above a pillow

This particular set of scrolls tells of a mission. One that brought the Hisomu clan into legend. Reading through them really gives you an idea of how things were back in the day. When ninjas were feared, for the unknown power they wielded with deadly precision, and how it has all changed in the modern day. This is a major theme in the games storyline, and drives the majority of the plot. The death of the Baron, who ordered the attack on you from out of nowhere. To the well kept, dark secrets of the ink plant. These events simply act as a story, a children's tale. Because the whole game leads to its finale quite literally, and figuratively. 


       Throughout the game, it feels like you are alone in your mission to save the clan. Like you have been knowingly abandoned to your death, and the only 'light' is your one companion in all this. Ora, who is that companion seems to follow you through the thick and thin. Through the castles, deserts and back home. During development, it was decided that Ora would have a big speaking role. Which is hard to imagine in a game about stealth. So what you'll notice is that she only shows up at select times during a mission. Most often at the beginning and end, with some exceptions. So she's a constant factor in how you see the different situations, always lending a couple quips to give you some perspective. One thing I don't like, is that it's a narrative you have to listen to, and her reasons are never explained. All you know is she's a 'friend'. It feels like she has no other use in game than to push an idea. Thankfully, or at least true to the games varying gameplay, you make the finale decision. Figuratively and literally.

Game play:

Mark of the ninja is a particular game in the sense that its a 2D stealth platformer with emphasis on lighting dynamics. It uses a number of small mechanics to make the game play .It also uses sound quite effectively in its design. Stealth is often based on being able to see the mark and in some cases hearing them move, there are also some instances where you can sense the unseen. Mark of the ninja's game play makes use of them all. In general game play, not standing in a spotlight's or flashlight's gaze means you are in the shadows. 

       The lighting system is really interesting, and I'll explain. All light in this game comes from a source: lights, chandeliers, spotlights, floodlights, flashlights etc. Each has a one of a few 'gazes', as in it propagates outwards from the source in a particular way. Chandeliers give light out in about a ~150degree radius, and the light reaches as far as the outline shows. Flash lights have a smaller ~25 degree radius but can be shown anywhere the guard points, so are flexible in their direction of gaze. However if the guard is looking for you it's much harder to move around. So being caught out by them will happen more often. Another example of a source are the floodlights. They are similar to the the flashlight and ceiling light, in that it is staitionary and has a smaller AOE; but it has a protection from another small game mechanic, which i'll get too soon. Being able to skirt light sources is key in staying hidden, and you'll have too look out for a number of different types too. Because as soon as you step into the light you'll know. If you take a look at the photo to the side, paying particular attention to the to left you'll see a small icon of the ninja. This is your stealth indicator, and the icon will become lighter, as well as your character model if you step into the light.

       This is when you know you can be seen. Which is interesting because it doesn't mean you will be seen. The guards that populate each level have a small area in front of them that they can 'see'. This is indicated by a light outline that propagates out their eyes. If you come into this area they'll see you, and being sighted is its own little mechanic. You can in fact stand right in front of them, if your in the shadows, without being noticed. Get too close though and you'll be spotted out from the flashlight. So here two mechanics come together to create a game play experience. If you're standing in the light, and a guard happens too look towards you, he or she will instantly spot you. Which means a light source effectively extends the guards sight range. I think this is a really cool because of how it mirrors real life, as light tends to help you see stuff. In game play it keeps you on your toes, as just because there aren't any guards on screen to spot you doesn't mean one won't. As far as I know the range is pretty big, but not infinite. So avoiding lights becomes immensely important if there are guards around, especially if they are looking towards you.  

       The other way you can be found out is by sound. Being a ninja, you were trained to be as quiet as possible, so moving around generally makes very little noise. Running however will make quite a racket, and anyone nearby will hear it. In the first play through of the game you can see how far the sound travels out from its source. The game indicates this by a transparent white circle that moves outwards from the source. So its omnidirectional, but in a 2D space (if that makes sense); and I think it does because if you think about it, the idea feels right. It makes sense when you play the game and hardly needs explaining, it's easy to grasp. Which is a recurring theme around Mark of the Ninja's game play, and this why I think the game does very well.

       Now its all well and good that you can see the sound visibly, but how does it affect the game play? I'll use an example; in the image to  

the left. Here you'll see two guards, and our ninja protagonist perched on a hanging platform just above. By the feet of one of the guards is the source of the sound (I'll explain later what it is). Now you can see by the outline how far the sound went, and that the guard is in that area. The smaller yellow circle around the guard indicates that he has heard something, and the fainter yellow circle is where he thinks he heard it. So you can imagine how this works now. Using something that makes sound you can get a guard to turn away, so you can slip by, or murder him.

         One thing you'll have to remember though is how much sound you make, because if you noticed, the sound in this game travels through everything. Its one of the slight gripes I have with the game but its fairly minor, and actually makes game play better. In the picture above you'll see the outline goes into the floor. In another case perhaps its at a wall; the sound would go through it and into the next room for anyone to hear. Thus the real life physics of sound absorption is omitted (its not the only time this game does that). You'll find though that this has very niche but effective game play uses. For example getting the attention of a guard behind a door, so that he comes outside and you can sneak into the building without being spotted. Its a peculiar interaction, but its quite cool to think about.

       Now for actual gameplay, the how do I ninja bizz. Controls in Mark of the ninja are really quite simple, left analog for moving and right for looking around. A button for jump, X to punch/kick, and Y to use your tools (if you haven't noticed I used a xbox controller). Other buttons do things but i'll get to that in time. In the beginning of the game you don't have much, in fact you have nothing. So everything is 'vanilla' and as the game progresses more tools are added, more powers tapped, and techniques learned. Each level is story driven so there's no generic kind of mission, but I'll use the first level as an example. The first mission is to free your ninja brethren from the mercenaries, and is quite simple as most first levels are. In order to do so however you need to stay hidden, or you get caught and there's no one to free anyone else, logically. 

        So you have to hide, and there are a lot of places to do so. Much of each levels design is centered around how you can move through them. For example a hallway will have doors that you can hide behind. Allowing you to avoid detection by sensors and patrolling guards.  Simply done by pressing A next to one. There are many other things to hide in and on, trash dumps, garbage cans, pots, statues etc. For a normal person, hiding behind one of these isn't too hard, if whoever is looking for you isn't trying very hard. So a ninja with superhuman abilities should have no problems. 

      Suppose however you can't hide. There's a guard who just won't look away long enough, what do? In Mark of the ninja you have to often think about 'how can I get past this, and what can I use to do that?' In most cases your tools are immensely helpful. They allow you to distract and kill, depending on how you feel. Historically a ninja would not kill anyone but his/her mark, to avoid being caught; and it is possible to end every mission without killing anyone (save a select few). If you do choose to kill, there are many ways to do it. A wide variety of tools, and death blows are at your disposal. Assassinations are sometimes necessary, and they work like a combo. Input the combo correctly and the mark dies silently, but mess it up and whoever is dying will make a lot of noise.  It's oddly satisfying to flawlessly take down an entire task force alone. But it also comes at a cost. A cost to your score.

       Now it might be odd to think, there's a score system in a ninja stealth game. What the diddley doo for? To create balance, and options for the player. You could kill everyone and hide their bodies (for extra points, plus safety) or just leave them be. Not killing them is harder to do, if your plan is to stay unnoticed, but also gives greater reward. At the end of each mission your score is tallied, and the points come from how you interacted with the guards. Either he/she never noticed anything, got distracted by a noise or something you did, or died at your hands. For the system to be balanced, each has a different point value. Untouched give the most while dead give the least. Additionally extra bonus points come from not killing anyone, and distracting no one. They are much harder to achieve but are possible. 

      Most of the fun in the game play for me was being able to choose. It felt like I chose my own path. If a particular area was too hard to get by without killing, then I would go find a different way past. And my favorite thing about the games is its vast array of possible plays. There is absolutely no reason to play a level the same way ever, if you wanted to. It was also a lot of fun to be a ninja, in the way ninja's really were.

Audio + visual:

The game looks like a cartoon, there's no denying this. The visuals are bordered with a small out line to make it easier to see, which is nice in the relatively small amount of light. Only the foreground, and things you can interact with have these visible outlines. The rest of the scenery though is very much beautiful. Mark of the ninja makes use of multiple layered backgrounds, and I think its a cool way to depict a city. There are 5 different areas, with completely different visuals, and its a treat to just look at them sometimes. 

It's not generally a thing to do, but if you stop and look once in a while you can see how much detail goes into this game. Especially when you listen a bit. In a game with patrolling guards, most of their dialogue is simple and repeats over and over. In mark of the ninja the guards have a huge repertoire of lines, and they hardly ever repeat something you've heard before. I mean they don't exactly say anything that has any particular importance to the game, but its that level of detail they put into the little things that count.

     The music is also quite dynamic. Each level has some ambient music that's played in the background, but there are many occasions where it transitions out. For example if you get seen and the alarm goes off, the music becomes energized and really helps give that atmosphere of panic. And generally I enjoy the music, and how atmospheric it is.

      The art style in this game is amazing and is definitely one reason you should play it.

Final Thoughts:

      For me this game is amazing. There's so much option, and each play play through can be different from the last. There just so many small mechanics that just mesh together so well, and its clear the developers really spent a lot of time building the system. Plus the finale is just amazing, the atmosphere is just amazing.

     This game definitely for me deserves a spot in my top 10 favorite games, and I highly recommend anyone playing it regardless of whatever type of games you enjoy. 

If you asked me i'd give it a  9.5/10


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