Disclosure: Mark of the Ninja’s writer Chris Dahlen is a former editor of Paste’s games section, and lead designer Nels Anderson has contributed to Paste in the past. Neither are currently affiliated with Paste in any way. Additionally the writer of this review has written for publications edited by Dahlen.
I am, in my everyday life, a klutz. I bump into the refrigerator anytime I walk into my kitchen. I once seriously injured myself by tripping over an upright toy piano.
As such, I’m the type of clumsy video game player who usually steers clear of the “stealth” school of game design. Besides not being very good at those games anyway, I come from the guns-a-blazing philosophy of play, which involves battle cries and sprays of gunfire and then being shot dead immediately. I’m stealthy like a rhinoceros.
Mark of the Ninja, available now on Xbox Live, hearkens to classic action sidescrollers like Prince of Persia. It’s all running, jumping, swinging, hanging perilously from ledges, hoisting yourself up. Since this is a stealth game, stealth logic also applies: move quickly and quietly; stay in the dark; don’t trigger any alarms. Ninja lets a klutz pretend to be graceful for a little while, but it also demands she defy all those innate, barging-rhino instincts.
You play as a ninja—obviously—but you aren’t invincible. Your ninja-advantages are tempered by ordinary human limitations. You can’t see around corners or through walls (excepting a nifty ability later on), and your scope is narrowed to the immediate space ahead. If you watch close, though, you can just perceive the faint ripples of “sound” onscreen, which often represent the footsteps of a moving opponent.
Mark of the Ninja isn’t exactly funny—rather, it takes itself too seriously—but any time my ninja conceals himself behind an urn or disappears in a poof of smoke, I can’t help but smile. Much of the game is dedicated to waiting and watching, peeking through vents or over ledges, memorizing enemies’ movements and then zipping away. (“Stalkers”, which appear late in the game, also move in prescribed ways, but their patterns are not-quite-human, even erratic. Creepy.)
Some levels play more like a Paperboy obstacle course than they do a stealth game. In those cases you’ll restart at the last checkpoint, do multiple trial runs so you can memorize the lay of the screen, compose your strategy for getting yourself from A to Z and then, finally, speed through. The pacing of the action itself is phenomenal, too, what with the staccato of stopping and waiting and timing entire systems of fine, complicated movements. And you’ll die, like, a ton.
The controls—right-bumper for grappling hook, left-trigger to aim, X to attack, and so on—are laser-precise and taut, and the intuitive scheme quickly becomes second-nature. Meanwhile, your character sprite moves across the screen in this marvelously fluid, nimble way—just as a ninja might move, I expect.
The game looks good, too. Motes of dust waft through shafts of light, while intricate backgrounds subtly crawl and thrum during hand-drawn cutscenes. Your earliest enemies might pace, nap, go on smoke breaks. When an enemy is frightened (you can psych out a guard, for instance, by dropping a dead body on him), the beam of his flashlight trembles and jitters. These are such extraordinary little details; every screen is dappled with plenty of visual interest. Even on screens perfectly empty of human opponents, Mark of the Ninja seems so alive. It’s almost a shame that you murder anything.
I was initially surprised—squeamish, maybe—at how violent Mark of the Ninja really is. Of course it is fundamentally gruesome: This is a game about a ninja on a mission, after all. But I was actually uncomfortable—that is, until I dragged a guard through a vent and swiftly, silently slaughtered him, right under another enemy’s nose. It was totally rad.
Every kill rewards players with an (extremely satisfying, hugely gratifying) close-up of, say, the blade being driven in, with an explosion of blood that verges on poetic. Soon I found myself becoming more daring, more inventive with my kills, pouring more “honor points” into unlockable moves, all in hopes of seeing gratuitously gory new deaths. I have plumbed my very imagination for novel depths of cruelty. And because the art is so lovingly stylized—all clean, sharp, cartoonish lines—I felt less like a sociopath and more like an average comic book nerd.
The gorgeous art isn’t the only thing that mitigates Mark of the Ninja’s potentially unsettling gruesomeness. For one, you can never kill any attack dogs, evidently; you only “incapacitate” them, thank God. Fumbled murders are graceless and last too long, and the game calls a botched kill a “peasant’s death.” What’s more, you can generally complete a stage without killing anything—in fact, the game rewards you if you’re able.
There are a couple turns in the plot that make the good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy a little more ambiguous, which went a great distance in excusing my character’s actions (and therefore my own propensity for terrorizing enemies). Am I playing a good guy? Are these killings honorable? Has my character somehow been misled? Does the game tell a story about redemption? The plot doesn’t go too deep, no, but the moral and ethical questions are there, and anyway, it’s all very well written.
This isn’t to say that Mark of the Ninja is flawless. On replay I realized a final plot twist made a lot of sense, but at the time it blindsided me, yanking me out of the moment. Secret “challenge rooms” eventually become dastardly fun, but the earliest pull-the-switches-in-the-right-order puzzles are outright boring. There was a doldrum midway through the game, too, where I sighed and pressed the pause button, worried that the experience was growing rote.
And although the game rewards scrupulous play, you can certainly brute-force your way through many situations. That isn’t a problem. The problem is, while there’s always an elegant solution, there is often only one elegant solution. Although the game works hard to maintain the illusion of multiple pathways, Mark of the Ninja can be incredibly linear. It is frustrating when a very, very good game becomes a simple matter of solving problems in the way its designers intend.
Worst, there are glitches. Granted, I found glitches by accidentally innovating new ways to kill myself, innovations no game designer could ever anticipate. However, the game is otherwise so polished, play-halting glitches can’t be excused.
Here is a really silly one:
I suspect I’m not actually very good at Mark of the Ninja; I’m currently stranded in New Game Plus, Ninja’s unlockable “harder mode.” During my first playthrough, though, a fly in the living room might have witnessed whole catalogues of pleasant swears, a lot of tittering, several gasps, and exactly three instances of me dropping the controller in my lap and burying my face in my hands.
Still, I was seldom discouraged. I’m not a particularly adroit player, no, but Mark of the Ninja made me feel competent and clever. In spite of my sloppy thick dough thumbs, Mark of the Ninja turned me into a meticulous, thoughtful person, pulling from reserves of patience I didn’t know I had.
And—this is true of all the very best games, so I try to not say it with too much frequency—it is a real feat to make the player feel powerful and capable, even as the game repeatedly stalls her progress. As a platformer Mark of the Ninja has a palpable snap, but most of its real thrills are intellectual.
In short, playing it feels cool as hell.
Jenn Frank has written for Unwinnable, 1UP, Motherboard, Wired Gamelife, and Gameranx. She blogs about video games at Infinite Lives.