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Mark of the Ninja Review (360)

What a terrible name! I mean seriously, in the history of bad game names has there ever been anything more dull and nondescript than “Mark of the Ninja”? Impressive only in that no other game has already been released with the same name, the title of this game seems designed to make it blend in with all the other releases on the XBox Marketplace and disappear from sight completely…..  JUST LIKE A NINJA WOULD! Maybe its not so stupid after all.

Coming AFTER the summer of Arcade, its great to see a game of this quality appear on Xbox Live Arcade. In fact, Mark of the Ninja is substantially better than most of the Summer of Arcade titles released in 2012. Certainly its better than pointless Kinect fodder like Wreckatear, and it wouldn’t have looked out of place as one of the marquee releases on Microsofts service. It may be an uninspiring name, but Mark of the Ninja is a seriously good game.

Klei Entertainment was the company behind the Shank games, and while those titles were generally well received, they made more of an impact with their brilliant cartoon violence than they did with their gameplay. I liked both games, but mechanically they had issues and I never felt fully in control of my character. Animation took too much precedence over responsiveness, and I often felt like my failure was not my own fault. This is not a criticism you can level at Mark of the Ninja. The controls are so slick and responsive that you’ll never blame them when things go wrong. Instead, you’ll load up the last checkpoint and try again, and you’ll love every minute of it.

Mark of the Ninja starts promisingly enough, with a nice animated intro setting up a stereotypical ninja revenge mission. From the opening moments, there’s no doubt this is a game from the same team that made Shank. The bright cell shaded 2D graphics with an emphasis on crimson blood and gorgeous animation make a great first impression. By the time that you’ve performed your first stealth execution and witnessed a poor guard be eviscerated, you’ll be clamouring to kill everyone in the whole level the same way.

The combination of 2D gameplay and stealth works really well. Stealth is a kind of gameplay that many don’t enjoy, but here each enemy, security camera and guard dog is a puzzle to be tackled, and each one has multiple different solutions. While you can level your character for straightforward combat, its far more rewarding to try to make your way through the stagess without every being detected. That’s the ninja way. For those who are especially dedicated, you can try to make your way through the levels without killing any opponents for the maximum score. While this is rewarding in its own way, there’s something about these games that make me want to stealth kill every single enemy I come across. Although the stealth kills are great, sadly there’s only a few animations for them, but you do unlock more ways to kill as you level your character.

There’s some clever mini-goals built into each mission too. Every level has three of these, and some are straightforward, like getting a certain distance without setting off an alarm, there are more original ones too, like hiding five bodies in waste bins throughout the level. These challenges add a lot to the game. Like the optional goals in the newest Assassins Creed games, these additional mini-goals direct the player to attempt different approaches that they might not have tried otherwise.

These mini-goals work because each problem you face in Mark of the Ninja, whether an enemy to eliminate or a trap to sneak past, has multiple solutions. The level design is razor sharp, with buildings and environments having a sense of logical consistency as well as serving gameplay well. The environments feel real (or at least “real” within the world of the game), and not just like excuses to create a fun level. Whether you’re entering a warehouse or tower block, you feel like its layout and structure makes sense.

All of these nice little touches are layered onto a game where the moment-to-moment gameplay feels simply fantastic. The way your ninja avatar moves and controls is crucial. You can grapple hook up to high areas (an obvious nod to the Arkham games), but as well as that there are a great number of little actions you can perform that make you feel both stealthy and ninja-like. You can cling to walls Ninja Gaiden style, and even crawl across certain ceiling types. Jumping and movement is precise and nuanced and you can sneak past enemies by moving normally, while running feels exhilarating and fast, but is noisy and attracts guards if any are nearby.

Visuals throughout enhance the gameplay, and there are a number of little sneaky ninja moves you can use that change how the world looks. When you come up to a grating you can tip it open to look inside a room, and when you do everything inside the room will become visible. Closing the grating will mark the last known locations of enemies by showing an outline of them, and its a neat visual touch. Similarly, both you and your enemies look different when you are in the dark; the game uses a cool cel shaded outline effect to show this. In the same way as you can peek through gratings, you can put your ear up against a closed door and your ninja hearing will give you an idea of what is inside the room.

Mark of the Ninja combines all these neat touches with some fundamentally great gameply to create a brilliant stealth experience. My only issue (and admittedly it was a big one for me) was some terrible checkpointing leading to whole sections of the game being played two or three times. I found that I had to set aside dedicated blocks of time to play the game to ensure I wasn’t interrupted and didn’t lose huge amounts of progress. I shouted at the game. Quite a lot.

The story is a little generic too, and there’s nothing that stands out about the presentation of the game. The audio also doesn’t match the quality of the visuals and the gameplay, although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it.

That aside, Mark of the Ninja is a fine game in its own right, and maybe one of the best pure stealth games ever made. As well as everything mentioned above, there are some great challenge rooms which offer tough puzzles to solve for the completionist. For everyone else, playing through the campaign is more than worth the price of this Xbox Live Arcade bona-fide classic.

8 ninjas ninj-ing out of 10

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