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06 October 2014 @ 08:31 pm
Game Review: Mark of the Ninja  
I'll admit at the outset, it's pretty easy to win my approval if a game lets you play a sneaky ninja. That's pretty much the second character type I'll play in any game that allows character customization, either after I play my go-to character--an elf wizard of some kind--or initially if it's a game that has neither elves nor wizards. A sneaky sniper in Fallout 3, a sneaky archer in Skyrim, a thief in the Quest for Glory games, that kind of thing. So Mark of the Ninja didn't have a particularly long row to hoe.

Even with my initial bias toward it, I was surprised at just how much I liked the game. You start it up and the story is conveyed in a few seconds: you're a ninja, your clan is under attack by bad dudes, you better get on that, son. And within a few moments, you're hiding in the shadows and sneaking past guards and climbing on walls and ceilings and, once you get your weapon, flipping out and killing people. If you're into that sort of thing, anyway--the game is theoretically completable non-violently, though the tools you get to wreak mayhem are so much fun that I abandoned that approach after the first level.

I am their worst nightmare.

One of the main reasons I loved Mark of the Ninja is that the controls are amazing. I started off with a mouse and keyboard, which was a bit muddy and led to a lot of confusion and failed attempts at stealth, but once my F710 gamepad came in the mail (and in response to some comments to a Facebook post I made complaining about responsiveness with Kb+M), I plugged that in and never looked back. On a gamepad, I can count on one hand the number of times that I had that instinctive "No, you idiot! Do what I tell you!" response to the ninja doing a graceful dive straight into a guard's sight cone, and most of the time I was pulling off horror-movie-style sequences like leaping out of a vent, murdering a guard, and disappearing into the vent again, all in the time it took the other guard right next to me to look the other direction.

And it got even more horror movie when I earned the Path of Nightmares costume and started throwing dead guard bodies onto other guards, hanging guards from lampposts, and dropping guards into patrolled paths from roofs. Normally, guards who find a body will check on it and then radio it in, setting off the alarm, but the Path of Nightmares meant that guards became Terrorized instead. That let me set up elaborate friendly fire chains among the guards, which was not only amazingly fun to pull off, it increased my score too.


Even in games that have a score, like roguelikes, I almost never actually care about it, but for some reason this time was different. How Long to Beat suggests that the base game is 8 hours but a completionist is over twice that long, and that fits with my Steam time currently sitting at 21 hours. Every mission has three optional objectives--stuff like "never get detected" or "steal the brushes without using any tools" or "kill three elite guards after disabling them," and I made sure to do those objectives in every mission. I would also spend time killing all the guards, hiding their bodies, making sure that I hid so I'd get the "Unnoticed" score bonus, throwing kunai into lights to get the "Distracted" bonus...all of that. Most of that extra time is restarting from the last checkpoint either because a guard saw me in the middle of some elaborate murder cascade or because I realized I didn't break a light and missed a couple hundred Distracted points.

One could argue that this produces degenerate gameplay, the way the XP rewards in Deus Ex: Human Revolution encourage individually knocking out every single guard and stuffing their bodies into the ventilation even during a nonlethal playthrough (which is exactly what I did when I played. People do what they're incentivized to do), but the leaderboards and the score screen at the end of each level implies that that game was designed with that sort of score-seeking behavior in mind. And hey, I beat all my Steam friends, so I'm satisfied.

All that time paid off in worthless epeen bragging rights.

The only part of the game that really struck a sour note with me involved plot developments affecting the ninja's capabilities. Mark of the Ninja's plot is mostly just an excuse to murder/sneak past [delete as appropriate] dozens of Australian guards working for a Russian guy in Japan, but due to events near the end of the game, most of the ninja's capabilities are taken from them in the second-to-last mission. I found this to be infuriating, because up until this point Mark of the Ninja had done its best to accommodate itself to any playstyle applied to it. I ghosted through the first level and everything worked fine, and as I drifted into Batman-except-psychopathic-murderer I found that the vents I had hid in and the ceilings I had crawled along were now perfectly placed to launch stealth murder attacks from.

Level 11 doesn't let you do that. You don't have your sword because reasons, your enemies are all superpowered ninjas who can move the same way you can and are invincible unless killed with environmental obstacles or traps, and you have to sneak your way through the whole level. I know why the developers did it, because I have the version of the game with the developer commentary and there's a bubble about how most stealth games either make you a steel typhoon of death or an invisible ghost near the end, and they wanted to go the other way and require you to hide again, and I respect that as a thematic choice...but totally invalidating my chosen playstyle really rubbed me the wrong way. I suspect I wouldn't have minded so much if I had been playing the whole game as an silent wind, but as a murder ghost I spent a lot of time glowering at the screen near the end and it tainted my enjoyment of the game.


That was just a few sour notes in another otherwise beautiful melody, though, and I won't allow the Peak-End Rule to ruin the rest of the experience just because the last couple of levels were annoying. And anyway, if you prefer ghosting stealth games, the ending will probably be just a greater challenge rather than an abrupt record scratch. Despite all the games I still have to (well, "have to") play, I loved Mark of the Ninja enough to get all the seals, scrolls, most of the achievements, and beat all my Steam friends on the leaderboards.

For people who want to put even more time into it, there's a New Game+ mode that adds exciting challenges like not having eyes in the back of your head--a.k.a., the ninja can only see in the direction he's facing--and the player's actions don't produce any sound bubbles, which I just realized I haven't talked about at all but which are visible in that second screenshot and are another reason why Mark of the Ninja's control scheme is so great. The sound bubbles clearly show the consequences of the ninja's actions, and combined with the tight controls it's always obvious that any screwups are the player's fault. I'm not well-versed in the genre, but this is probably the best stealth platformer I've ever played.

Bonus Content
I ran into a bug at one point when I dumped a guard out of a dumpster to hide in it myself, and, well...

Huh. That's the first video I've ever uploaded to Youtube.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Might and Magic VI: the Mandate of Heaven - Dunegon Exploration 1