Has there ever been a prepubescent boy that did NOT want to be a ninja? The reality of being a merciless assassin bound by an inhuman code has never been a deterrent. The fact is, the idea of being a ninja absolutely cool. Having the word “Ninja” in the title of a game, instantly grabs my attention. Even if the developer of said game is better known for titles that never interested me.

For those of you who like stealth games and hate long worded reviews, let me save you some time: Mark of the Ninja (MOTN) is an absolute must have and you owe to yourself to indulge in it.

For anyone that needs a little more info before making a purchase, let me tell you exactly why that is.

Stealth games revolve around one core mechanic: power struggle. As I mentioned in an earlier post: “True” stealth games will put the player in a very vulnerable position 99% of the time. But then, there is a 1% time window where the balance of power shifts overwhelmingly in the player’s favor. The trick is to make the player “feel” powerful even when he/she is forced to hide. And this is one of MOTN’s strongest points. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Formed in 2005, Klei entertainment has made a name for itself in the indie sphere with games such as Eets, and Shank. The latter in particular, wowed many with its distinctive art style, even if the game itself was underwhelming. Luckily, the same artistic direction carries over in MOTN. Simply put, the game looks gorgeous.

MOTN follows the exploits of a champion of the Hisomu ninja clan. Without ruining the excellent story, let’s just say the champion (controlled by the player) is a super ninja of sorts. The source of his power comes from his tattoos. The more elaborate and expansive his ink, the more powerful he gets. Slight problem though, the ink is also slowly driving him insane. Apart from expanding the narrative, it is also a great way of progressively introducing new powers and abilities to the player.

Coupled with the cartoony (that’s a compliment) art style, the story makes for a rather compelling experience. Add to that a rather enticing musical score with some excellent sound effects and it’s fair to say that MOTN is pleasing to the senses. Even the loading screens are pretty! It makes me wonder why so many games focus on “realistic” graphics and what not. Something like this is just as effective if not more so. One look at MOTN in action is enough to convince me that the game will age very well. I could play this 10 years from now and still be amazed at how pretty it is.

The game plays like a side scroller. Each level has a number of objectives and multiple ways of getting to it. It is remarkable just how spoilt for choice I felt while playing MOTN. Even though I stuck to the shadows, not wanting to be seen, it felt more like “planning” rather than “hiding”. It’s a subtle thing and one which so many supposedly stealth games get wrong. Not to say that the champion is invincible. Far from it. Revealing oneself prematurely will more often than not result in a rather quick and painful demise. Even so, there are many, many ways to mess the opposition up.

For instance, if there are three guards overlooking the entrance to a building I need to get into, I have a number of options. If they have a predictable circuit, I could just time my movements so that they do not ever see me as I flit from shadow to shadow, killing them as I go. So long as they don’t see any bodies and my kills are “clean” they won’t notice. Or I could bust the bulbs illuminating the place, making it much easier to get to an overhead vent. I could also use a firecracker to lure the guards away. There is also the ol ninja staple, the smoke bomb. My personal favorite though, is using a terror tactic, either by using a tool or special kill move (such as stringing up a victim for all to see, “Predator” style). This will freak a guard out, making him shoot his buddies as I slowly creep up to put him out of his misery.

Further more, many of the tools at your disposal can be upgraded. The same goes for your special abilities. You CAN fight your way out of a tough spot with the right skills but it will be a challenge and it is quite clear that the game incentivizes stealth  above all else.

Even so, there is a lot of dying in this game. A. Lot. It’s to the games credit that this does not frustrate the player much. A death usually means that the player made a mistake rather than the game acting nasty (usually). Besides, if nifty finger yoga is not your forte’ (it certainly is not mine) it is simply a matter of changing ones approach. MOTN almost always has multiple options for solving a problem. In fact the game is at its weakest when it locks you into only one possible solution. Thankfully, this only happened three times in the entire game and didn’t last long.

You will need said multiple options too. It does not take long for the opposition to wise up. Enemies get progressively harder as the story unfolds. Dogs will sniff you out even if hidden. Guards will shoot flares to illuminate a large area. Snipers will ruin your plans of running across open ground. And there are even cyber ninjas that are damn near invincible. And don’t even get me started on the hidden “challenge” levels.

The controls are tight and a keyboard /mouse setup works well. One of the features I was most grateful for was the ability to pause the action in order to queue up certain moves. So targeting a power switch or two whilst mid air was a cinch. In many cases the ability to stop time like this is absolutely essential. That being said, there were a few instances where the camera would focus in a weird way. This is a minor gripe however and did not affect me much.

The game is a little short (it lasted about 7 hours for me) but is geared for multiple play-throughs. Besides, it’d feel stupid complaining about that for a game that costs 15$.

In many ways, MOTN is a case study for game design done right. The way it presents information is simple, efficient and perfect for what the game needs. It nails all the important mechanics and is aesthetically gorgeous. And it does all that whilst putting most AAA titles (with budgets 50 times as big) to shame. MOTN has undoubtedly raised the bar for stealth games today and is the title that stealth fans will be comparing other would be contenders to.

I can think of no higher praise than that.