Although Klei created games prior to Shank, the sharp, hand-drawn comic-book visuals and over-the-top violence of that title put the developer on the map. After following it up with a sequel, Klei decided to explore some new ground with Mark of the Ninja. It still has the same sharp visuals that have become something of a Klei calling card, but the gameplay stands on its own. This is 2-D stealth action at its finest.
Spread out over 12 levels, Mark of the Ninja follows the path of a lone ninja who has committed himself to the ultimate sacrifice. He accepts a mystical tattoo, the "mark," which enhances his abilities and allows him to defend the clan at the expense of his sanity. After completing his mission and securing the clan's safety, the ninja is expected to throw himself on his sword before going insane.
It may seem like a heady plot for a downloadable action game, but it plays out well. The story is told through cut scenes as well as via story flashbacks, which are only revealed when you find hidden scrolls that are scattered about the levels. Near the game's midpoint, there is a small plot twist, where it appears the clan's leader may be just as corrupt as those who attacked it. The instance is predictable, but how it is eventually resolved is memorable.
In order to capture the feeling of being a super ninja while still remaining constrained to a 2-D plane, the developers at Klei took a fog-of-war approach. Light and line of sight are incredibly important in Mark of the Ninja, as they determine what you can see as well as what your enemies can see. If you're in the light and within range, you're toast. Most of your enemies have automatic weapons and body armor. In a one-on-one matchup, they'll fill you with lead before you know what happened.
Learning how to use the environment to your advantage is key to survival here. Instead of trying to run and gun, you need to be tactical. Sneak up behind someone. Kill from the shadows. Set an environmental trap. Or simply distract them and run on by. While killing is certainly enjoyable, it is by no means the only method of progression.
The visual effects used to highlight the fog of war are sharp, with any section of the screen that is not directly visible appearing slightly out of focus. Stationary objects (such as doorways and stairs) remain visible, but that's only because you know their location. Moving sentries will have their last known position marked by a ghost image, though their actual location remains unknown until you can get eyes on the target.
Layering on top of the visual cues are corresponding audio cues. Whenever anyone in the world makes noise, the sound travels outward in a circle. If it's an enemy, you'll hear him, and his noise cone will be visible on the screen. You can use this to your advantage to locate opponents who would otherwise be out of sight. You can also use noise to distract targets by tossing something nearby and then moving when their backs are turned. Running also generates noise, giving you the benefit of speed at the expense of stealth.
As you make your way through the levels, your ninja gains access to more powers and skills. Some of these are done via story progression, but many of the upgrades are purchased. Techniques are always available to you, but distraction and attack items are limited by the outfit you are wearing. You can choose which items to equip before each level starts. It is also possible to replay prior levels after you've unlocked some gear. Metal Gear Solid fans will appreciate the cardboard box item.
Movement in Mark of the Ninja is a straightforward affair, with the sole exception of ledges. Most of the time, your ninja assassin does exactly what you want him to so, but every so often, he'll decide to stop at a ledge when you really want him to jump off. Other times, the opposite happens. Either way, it usually means a death and a restart. The generous checkpoint system means very little ground is lost by death, but the unwanted break in the flow can be irksome.
Rounding out the package is a new game plus mode. Made more difficult by the removal of some visual cues, such as the sound cones, new game plus is a welcome option. You don't need to complete it if you're just there for the story, but for those players who reach the end and find themselves wanting more, it's a great way to extend play time.
Whereas Shank and Shank 2 seemed to succeed on brute force, Mark of the Ninja feels like a more nuanced affair. All of the Klei hallmarks are here, and the polish has been turned up to 11. A few minor issues aside, there is much to like here. Add Mark of the Ninja to your digital download queue posthaste.
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