A few weeks ago my wife, daughter, and I went to a Sweet Sixteen party for a family friend’s daughter. The theme of the party was the Phantom of the Opera, and they played songs from the musical, including some that were heavily dramatic and scary to my four-year-old. In an effort to reassure her, I was telling her about all of the heroes that would be protecting us if something were to happen. There were security guards in the building, I told her, and Spiderman on the roof ready to get the Big Bad Wolf if he tried to come in. None of this was really helping. Then, I told her that there were ninjas outside, waiting to cut the Big Bad Wolf if he tried to run in the building.
“Ninjas?!” she asked excitedly. “Ninjas are going to keep me safe?”
She was fine for the rest of the evening, content with the knowledge that ninjas would keep her safe. Ninjas have been one of our biggest cultural imports, to the point where four-year-old girls know and understand their awesomeness.
It’s been a shame then that there hasn’t been a game authentic to the ninja aesthetic since Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (awesome as it may have been, Ninja Gaiden is not authentic to the history of ninjas) way back in the PSOne days.
Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja continues the studio’s tradition of having an amazing looking game that was established in Shank and Shank 2, their most high-profile releases on consoles to date. The hand-drawn animation is gorgeous and the colors in the world pop off of the screen. The great thing about the visual style is the way all of the stealth elements are clearly shown on screen without being too obtuse or too apparent. When your character is in darkness, the color leaves his body, with only his distinctive red tattoos remaining visible. It’s easy to see when you’re not in darkness, because any part of you that is illuminated is also then colored in. This is an easy visual cue to any player that an arm or leg is visible, which is something that is typically tough to gauge in stealth games. Sound, too is demonstrated using visual aids on screen, with a circle emanating out from the source of the sound, which shows how far the sound will travel and who, if anyone, will hear it. These easily distinguishable visual representations make the HUD irrelevant, and they smoothly relay key information that many games get across via clunky meters or bars. It’s nice to see Klei finally harness their obvious visual prowess in a way that complements the gameplay, rather than getting in the way.
The sound work in Mark of the Ninja is not nearly as impressive as the visuals. The music isn’t particularly memorable, and while the voice acting isn’t awful, it certainly isn’t great. The sound effects fare better, with the satisfying skinth of your sword plunging into enemies being the definite highlight of the game’s sound.
Klei has a reputation for pretty games that struggle to balance their visuals and their gameplay. Thankfully, Mark of the Ninja’s controls are crisp and responsive, giving the player consistent response to commands, as well as managing to avoid the feeling of being “locked-in” as in Klei’s prior games, like Shank. I was able to do everything the game required of me without much trouble, provided my actions were precise and deliberate. Mark of the Ninja is not a “twitch” game by any stretch of the imagination. Each action must be carefully considered before execution, and each movement must be done calmly and with purpose. The game does a remarkable job of making you actually feel like what you’d imagine a ninja would feel like, as the only way to succeed in the game is to keep a level head in every situation. However, the game overstays its welcome somewhat, as there is an extended section after the climax of the story that feels tacked on and undercuts the narrative thrust.
Mark of the Ninja is quite frankly the best stealth game in quite some time. Its mechanics are thoughtful and the environments and level design match up to the game’s gorgeous visuals. It falters a bit near the end, but the first three-fourths of the game are brilliant and worth playing.
A copy of Mark of the Ninja for the Xbox 360 was purchased for the purposes of this review.