Review: Mark of the Ninja (XBLA)

mark of the ninja rainy city screenshot
Review: Mark of the Ninja (XBLA)

Platforms: XBOX 360, Windows PC, Steam

Game Name: Mark of the Ninja

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Developer: Klei Entertainment

Genre: Action, Stealth, Adventure, Puzzle, Platformer

Release Date: Oct 16, 2012

ESRB Rating: M 17+ for Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence

Developer Summary:

In Mark of the Ninja, you’ll know what it is to truly be a ninja. You must be silent, agile and clever to outwit your opponents in a world of gorgeous scenery and flowing animation. Marked with cursed tattoos giving you heightened senses, every situation presents you with options.

mark of the ninja rainy city screenshot

What We Think:

Let’s begin with some definitions and qualifications:

1. While Microsoft is listed as the publisher for Mark of the Ninja, it was developed exclusively by Klei Entertainment who own the IP and had 100% creative control in making it. At PAX they were even a part of the Indie Megabooth where the crowds surrounding their booth caused me to wander over to their next title in development – “Don’t Starve” which they are also self-distributing: this game 100% indie.

2. This review is based on the XBLA version on XBOX 360. I have not played this game with a keyboard. I have only played it with a gamepad and it works perfectly. So although I link to the Steam version below, please bear in mind we have not yet tested the PC port and even if we had, it would have been using an XBOX game controller, thus (remembering Dead Island) your experience may vary.

We have heard some early reports about the Steam port that XBOX icons are still present in the place of kybd controls in the HUD. Hope Klei can sort this out so that everyone can enjoy it for what it is and not get mired down in these kinds of porting issues. In short, this review and its score are based on the XBOX 360 version.

3. Forgive me if you catch me gushing over this title like bright red blood from an enemy after your katana has sliced through it.

mark of the ninja - soldier kill - screenshot

4. Sometimes platformers and action titles call themselves ninja games because one of the characters is dressed in black and can wall jump. They might as well be green and walk funny and be called zombies. This is not one of those games. In fact Nels Anderson – the game’s lead designer – says that rather than look at kitschy martial arts films from the 60’s and 70’s, he and writer Chris Dahlen studied actual Japanese history and the period called “sengoku jidai” when ninjas were most actively deployed into combat and affairs of matter and state. So in spite of the modern technology found in the game – from automatic weapons and halogen searchlights to motion detectors and laser beam grids, the spirit of ninja here is pure. This is amplified by the fact that in game you are searching for artifacts, scrolls and honor in order to progress.

mark of the ninja - modern technology - screenshot
It’s a purist’s tribute to Japanese history, but with modern technology

The premise is that your clan has been knocked out by a bunch of military types with money and power on the brain. You are a special ops ninja (if that isn’t a redundancy) in that you have been injected with a unique full-body tattoo that gives you heightened abilities, hence the game’s title.

So while Shank has since been relegated to a “learning exercise” by its own developers and its sequel was a noted improvement, with Mark of the Ninja, Klei has not only matured substantially, but building on what they have learned, raised the bar — not only for themselves but everyone around them. Here, rather than eviscerate baddies or blow things up, you do quite the opposite and are rewarded for refraining from such actions, though they are fully available and are quite elegant when executed.

You will be able to drag enemies through vents in the floor to their deaths, or slit their throats and then hang them up from the nearest flagpole so as to terrify their colleagues, or slide across the floor and literally sweep them off their feet, among a variety of other engaging ninja-like options.

If I had to describe it to a gamer I would say it’s like n+ meets Ninja Gaiden and Splinter Cell. That’s a terrible description, because it is far better integrated than someone who just put a bunch of tropes in a blender and prayed it worked.

mark of the ninja - nes box art mockup
Creative Director Jeff Agala (Artist for Shank and Mark of the Ninja) created this Ninja Gaiden box art mashup re-imagining the title for NES

The game’s replayability comes from the fact that you can always clear a level with less kills, less detections, and so on. By being more ninja-like you get to do more ninja-like stuff and perhaps here is the highest compliment – it makes you feel like a ninja. Sure if you want to bust your way through ham-fistedly, the game will accommodate you. But you also have noise makers, smoke bombs, and a grappling hook at your disposal in addition to countless hiding spaces to get around such confrontations and in order to explore your cunning.

Presumably, there is a perfect game that makes the need for further play moot, but there are such a wide variety of ways to solve your way through any given challenge, (and almost every couple of steps throws you into a new one) that this sort of completionism is likely not possible for several go-arounds. I still wonder, for example, if I could really have cleared some of the rooms without smoke bombs, as there was no foreseeable way to do so, and I felt I was forced to restart from my previous checkpoint so that I could get up to that puzzle with bombs still in my inventory. But I guess another play-through is in order just to see what alternatives Klei seeded in the environment, if in fact, any.

This is so “screenshot,” it was taken with a point-and-shoot camera of the game on my HDTV playing off my XBOX console on XBLA. This is because the Steam version wasn’t out yet. But this room drove me NUTS – note the blue circle around the target – the guy with the tracker on his wrist. It’s solvable though and it was sooo satisfying.

As far as platformers go, (and I am calling it one) Mark of the Ninja offers everything you could ask for – tight intuitive controls, beguiling aesthetics, seamless puzzle transitions with a wide variety of solutions, secret challenge rooms, intriguing unlockables and style-shifting upgrade paths. The wall-jumping, floor-siding, stringing-up-your-enemies mechanics are flawless and never get in the way of the action as they are wont to do in some twitch-reliant side-scrollers. In fact, the first time I truly gasped out loud was when I had to use the Focus ability to bullet-time my way through disabling a pair of power amps – I couldn’t believe that’s what I supposed to do, but once it worked, I fell in love all over again.

It is a near-perfect game and only gets a light reprimand for a slightly thin storyline, and not being three times as long, because it is that good that whatever ending is on offer, will always leave you wanting more.

Buy this game – it is a standout in a year rife with incredible indie offerings, and is one of the best platformers to come along in several. And when you do, you’re welcome.

Get Mark of the Ninja on XLBA for XBOX 360

Get mark of the Ninja on steam

[xrr rating=”5/5″]