I'm a fan of stealth games, but no stealth game has ever completely pulled off the act of sneaking in the shadows without problems—like poor AI, excessive trial-and-error, or general wonky mechanics. Mark of the Ninja is one of the closest any game has ever come to successfully pulling off stealth gameplay. Much of the reason belongs to the game's 2D art, which makes knowing whether you're hidden or not simple and straightforward. But Mark of the Ninja is not just a great stealth game, it is a great game, period.
Mark of the Ninja is the newest game from Klei Entertainment—the studio behind Shank and Eets—and, like all of their games, Mark of the Ninja features beautiful 2D art and great cutscenes quite similar in style to Shank. As impressive as the art is visually, it's also important in terms of gameplay. The art is crisp and clean, and it's always easy to see where an enemy is, where a hiding place is—like a vent, a doorway, or a light post—or where light ends and shadow begins. There's no guessing when it comes to whether you'll be seen and the 2D art also allows for on-screen cues—like rings depicting where a sound will be heard—that are much more easily visualized than if the game was in 3D. The game is pretty dark visually and you will probably have to adjust the gamma settings, but a few seconds worth of adjusting left me with perfect visual clarity.
As much as I love stealth games, they aren't always fun; I'm not saying they aren't enjoyable, but sometimes hiding in shadows, playing the waiting game just isn't much fun. Mark of the Ninja is fun, so much, in fact, I found myself playing the same level multiple times, looking forward to trying a different path or going through an entire level without killing a single person—which is much more fun than it sounds. Mark of the Ninja is more active than typical stealth games and you always feel like you're doing something as opposed to waiting and waiting and waiting for an enemy to reach a certain point in his or her routine. Added to the more active gameplay is a checkpoint system that is extremely forgiving, never penalizing the player too much for failure. A game like this could have been easily ruined by poor checkpoints, but Mark of the Ninja never tries to do anything but make the game accessible and fun.
Another reason the game is so successful at stealth is its level design. Every level is finely crafted, allowing multiple ways to handle any situation. A guard can be walking back and forth in a room and you could take him out by dropping a chandelier on him, distracting him and sneaking up behind him, hiding in a vent and pulling him in as he walks by, or nothing at all; it all makes the game feel incredibly open for experimentation and I never got bored in any situation.
Each level ends with a high score—with points obtained from killing enemies, managing to stay unseen, completing level-specific goals, etc—and, in addition to just the score, you earn "Honor," which can be used to buy and upgrade abilities. The points and "Honor" system add an additional reason to keep playing, and going through an old level with new abilities is always fun—one of my favorite abilities is the "Hisomu Terror Dart," which makes an enemy go crazy, shooting at anything that moves, even his own kind. On top of all that, a New Game Plus option unlocks upon completion of the story, adding extra challenge and another reason to keep coming back for more.
I was always hopeful Klei Entertainment would pull off stealth gameplay in a 2D world, but I never thought Mark of the Ninja would good as it is; it's wonderful and one of the best games I've played all year—the downloadable space has delivered some real gems this year. The story is a bit lacking, but it does its job and the cutscenes are beautiful and always enjoyable, if a little short. I never felt frustrated—which is a huge accomplishment in a stealth game—and all I wanted to do was keep playing. If I had one complaint, it would be that the game has an end. The game is still fresh out of the oven, but I'm already dying for more and hopefully Mark of the Ninja sells well enough to justify more meat to eat...figuratively of course.
My name is Marc, and I loved Mark of the Ninja. (I love bad jokes.)
Mark of the Ninja (1200 MS Points / $14.99)