Mark of the Ninja review for XBLA

Platform: XBLA
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: Leaderboards

I?m not as familiar with developer Klei Entertainment?s previous work as I probably should be, but having played through Mark of the Ninja for this review, I?m certainly more than willing to backtrack through some of their previous releases. Mark of the Ninja is absolutely fantastic, and can easily be slotted into my personal top 10 list of all-time, great XBLA releases. Seriously, the game more than deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other XBLA hits like Shadow Complex and Braid, and delivers a pretty unique, 2D stealth experience that is unlike anything I?ve played on the service previously.

Mark of the Ninja puts you in the role of a master ninja, imbued with a deadly mark tattooed across his body. This tattoo amplifies his abilities, and is used as the character is deployed against deadly, military style forces that want to eradicate your clan. The game is laid out across sixteen stages, divided across four areas. Each stage is fairly open, allowing a lot of verticality and options for the player that?ll allow you to tackle each objective placed before you in a variety of ways. While the majority of the game is focused on moving from one point on the map to the next, the way to get there can be achieved through a few different paths, making subsequent playthroughs feel fresh again.

Your character tends to slink through stages at a very deliberate pace, but you?ll have the option to run if you?d like, with the disadvantage of having your footfalls give away your location to nearby enemies. You can also climb up most walls and certain ceilings, along with a hookshot style ability to latch on to objects like lampposts and ceiling grates, which typically lead into hidden tunnels that allow you to move stealthily through buildings and other structures.

Enemies pepper each stage in a variety of locations, and often have set routes that they?ll walk through before circling around to move back to their point of origin. This feels reminiscent of a number of stealth focused games, like the original Metal Gear Solid, and allows patient players the ability to plan an enemy?s route and decided the best course of action from there. As a ninja, you also have a variety of tools at your disposal to break up the planned path of any given enemy, including noise making bombs, small traps to ensnare enemies, and darts that can break nearby lights or hit a random gong to draw the enemy away.

Mark of the Ninja does a really great job of introducing a steady difficulty curve to the player by way of enemy variety. At the onset of the game you?re faced with simple, predictable, and easily manipulated soldiers. These guys are generally oblivious to where you are unless you step into the light right in front of them, or make a whole lot of noise. They?re easy enough to take out, and do their job of introducing a new player to the easy to master stealth kill mechanics featured in Mark of the Ninja.

However, the game will shortly introduce enemies with shields, that can only be taken out from behind, dogs with a smell radius indicated on screen, which will pick up your character regardless of how hidden you are if you?re within that small circle. Later enemies will have a similar radial effect, night vision goggles, more powerful flashlights, and some are invulnerable to killing unless they?ve been previously stunned by a trap or other hazard. As these enemy types are doled out throughout the 16 levels, you?ll be forced to implement new strategies and make use of new abilities and tools at your disposal, and I think the game does an excellent job of giving you ample reason to experiment with different techniques, and make full use of the abilities given.

And the variety in which you can either take enemies down, or avoid them entirely, is pretty abundant throughout each level. As I mentioned previously, you?ve got a lot of room to work with within any given stage, with both exterior and interior environments. There are typically multiple exit and entry points, and you?ll be awarded bonuses at the end of each stage for either avoiding kills completely, or murdering every enemy soldier in sight. Both options are completely viable, and take a bit of ingenuity on the player?s side to actually pull off.

Besides just facing off against numerous enemies, each stage often features a number of traps, puzzles and other hazards to traverse. Some of the puzzle sequences, mostly the ones involving lasers and auto-moving structures, can get to be a little frustrating. I found these sections were better reserved for the optional shrine challenges found in each stage, but even if you have a bit of trouble with making your way through these sections, the game frequently checkpoints and you rarely need to traverse a long section of a stage multiple times.

Another stand out thing to mention about Mark of the Ninja is that I?m absolutely in love with the way the game looks and animates. There?s a style to the game that feels reminiscent of the classic Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, and the animation quality of the 2D characters is top notch. The game is certainly rated M for a reason, with some fairly gruesome kill animations, but there?s a lot of variety found in these sequences, and it?s honestly kind of fun to see what these guys came up with. Outside of the art style, the soundtrack is appropriately themed, and has a certain ambient vibe that never feels overpowering in conjunction with the stealth nature of the gameplay.

Overall, Mark of the Ninja is a must have title for Xbox 360 owners, and something that any fan of the XBLA service should certainly be checking out. It?s honestly a shame that this game wasn?t a part of this year?s Summer of Arcade promotion for Microsoft, because it?s certainly better than just about every title promoted this time around. Hopefully this game will reach the eyes, ears, and hands of a whole lot of people, and I can?t wait to check out the next thing Klei Entertainment has in store for us, (along with backpedalling through stuff like Shank and N+). Definitely pick this one up; it?s certainly worth your time and attention.

Grade: A