Thursday 13 December 2012

Mark of the Ninja

The Title Screen

Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side-scrolling stealth/action game from Klei Entertainment. Originally released in 2012 on XBLA, a PC (Windows) version followed a few months later. Although published by Microsoft Studios, there is no Games for Windows Live integration.

Disclaimer: This is somewhat of a mature game. It features fairly graphic violence, but presented in a cartoon-like format. There are no other adult themes. 

The First Thing
The style is very striking and evident in every aspect of the game. The menus have quick and sudden transitions in keeping with the ninja theme of precision and speed and the options menu itself is fairly extensive, leaving me with a first impression of style, substance and developer effort.

Plot & Devices
A nameless tattooed ninja (you) is woken from his nightmare by another ninja, Ora. Their home is under attack and after repelling the invaders, the nameless ninja is informed that his tattoos give him heightened abilities, but will slowly drive him insane. He and Ora must take revenge on their attackers, and complete their mission, before the protagonist must honourably kill himself prior to losing his mind.

The nameless protagonist and Ora

There is not much depth to the plot. Brief animated cutscenes are used between levels to provide context and explain transitions. There are no in-game cutscenes and the camera will only move on its own occasionally to illustrate a particular point. Mostly the story is just a framing device, but it does managed to set up a choice at the end that is quite interesting.

The Game
Set in the 2D perspective, the player must traverse levels filled with lasers, guards, dogs and traps to complete various objectives. Although mostly in a side-scrolling tradition of left to right, there is plenty of up/down level design, as well as occasional backtracking. Levels are quite open, and there are often multiple choices with different obstacles. Occasionally there is a fixed path, but most of the time the player is free to explore and travel as they wish.

The player is awarded score, with a goal of attaining the highest possible. There is no mandate on whether to kill or not, and score is only deducted if the player is seen and an alarm is sounded. Killing enemies is a viable strategy, but bodies will have to be hidden from other guards; there is no 'render unconscious' ability. Guards can often be avoided, but sometimes a distraction is useful. Kills reward score when performed, and every guard not killed will add score at level competition. Each missions features three special challenges that will be something like "Sabotage the helicopter without killing" or "Be sniffed by all three dogs".

Avoid guards by hiding

Stealth is the heart and soul of the game. The ninja has many tools to use, but shadows and sound are the basics. Standing in light means being easily seen, whereas shadows provide near invisibility; unless the guard has a torch/night-vision goggles/is a dog. Line of sight matters and enemies will not look up unless they think you are around. Light sources are often destructible, but doing so will create a sound pulse. To raise the alarm, enemies actually have to see you as a quick glimpse will only arouse their suspicion.

Many actions will create sound pulses that will alert anything inside. The sound pulse is relative to the scale of the action performed and enemies inside the pulse will come to investigate; so thoughtful positioning is required to create good distractions. Alert enemies will explore the area, and not just stare at the object that made the sound. An aiming mode is available where time stops and the player can lock on to individual targets. During this mode, any action that will make sound displays a theoretical sound bubble which is useful information. Other items can be used during aiming, and it can be entered into at any time; even whilst jumping or falling. There seems to be no damage taken or sound made from falling.

Gadgets and special abilities are available to help. The ninja carries darts in an infinite supply, that are useful for distractions and destroying certain objects (maximum of three simultaneously). He also carries a grappling hook used to quickly, but not invisibly, move to certain locations. Towards the end the ninja will acquire powers such as being able to see through walls, and to teleport short distances. Other gadgets are split into Distraction Items (Noise makers, Smoke-Bomb, etc.) and Attack Items (Spiked Mine, etc.). They are unlocked during the campaign, upgraded with points acquired through getting high scores/special challenges done. 'Techniques' are purchased abilities mostly designed to kill silently. Right-clicking any item/technique will give a short audio description by Ora, in a nice touch.

Techniques, items, upgrades

New outfits are unlocked during the campaign, and the player is prompted at each mission start to choose their 'loadout'. Levels can also feature places where the player can re-customise and/or restock a loadout. The ninja can move quite freely and climb on almost any surface; including some ceilings. Special items are hidden in hard to reach areas that will result in bonus score if found. Each level has three scrolls that will result in an upgrade point and a short audio-log continuing the story of the previous tattooed ninja. Levels may also have a hidden gong, which will teleport the ninja to an enclosed puzzle specifically designed to test.

The art style is interesting and suits the gameplay, but seems a bit strange in cutscenes. I suppose the idea was to take the violence down a notch. A lot of effort has been placed into making it instantly clear whether the ninja is in darkness or light, and how much sound is generated - something many stealth games should take note of. The sound effects are good, but the soundtrack made little impact on me. Voice acting is a mixed basket, with most people seeming to be Australian mid-sentence, but the voice acting for Ora (the most used) is of a good standard.

The PC version is good and the mouse support is generally quite impressive. The only issue I had was the aiming of abilities such as Smoke-Bomb. Since it can only be on a surface, it feels a little clunky and was clearly designed with a gamepad in mind. All keys are rebindable but the controls can be a bit sticky at times, however I think this is a general issue rather than a PC one.

I have not talked about combat much because I never used it. Since enemies will defeat you very quickly if you are discovered, it is recommended to only perform silent/stealth kills. There are occasionally important enemies who must be killed, but they do not count towards the "No Kill" bonus. There are a wide variety of options available for silently dispatching enemies from the purchasable Techniques.

Maybe too many puzzles use lasers

Wrap Up & Negatives
The controls and checkpoint system irritated me. Although generally quite smooth, the controls are occasionally frustrating; especially with changing from one surface to another (wall to ceiling). Since one binding is used for 'change surface' and 'jump/drop', I fell down instead of changing surface many times - which if sneaking above an enemy is bad. The checkpoint system is generally forgiving and well implemented, but occasionally can save your progress at unwanted moments; especially if you have just done something you wish to undo. On more than one occasion I set off an alarm and went to reload, only to find that a checkpoint had happened and the only way to undo the alarm was restarting the level. I would personally change it so that a checkpoint only saves if there are no enemies currently aware of you.

I played a 'no kill' style, which I always enjoy, but like with many stealth games I felt I was being pulled in different directions. Mark of the Ninja is caught in that awkward spot of encouraging players to kill with abilities and upgrades, and rewarding those that choose not to with bonus points at the end. The score probably balances out, anyone who kills will feel they 'fail' to get the no kill bonus. It is difficult to provide a stealth game that fluidly encourages a mix the playstyles. Choosing not to kill also seems to turn the game into a puzzle game, rather than an action based one. I was looking for the 'solution' to how to progress each section without killing.

It is not a negative as such, but if you want detailed story progression, or emotional character development, this game will disappoint you.

This reminded me a little of the 1989 2D Prince of Persia which I have fond, but distant, memories of. There isn't a lot of depth, but gameplay definitely succeeds in a "Ninja" feel. The campaign took me about 9 hours to complete, but I would not say it was absorbing all the time. It definitely started to feel more of the same; especially the frequent laser puzzles. A few interesting final levels do spice things up though. Given that the story is quite light, I was surprised how I found myself weighing the final choice quite deliberately - which is impressive for a game these days.

Mark of the Ninja will always be towards the cheap end of the price spectrum (as of writing, £11.99 on Steam), so I sincerely recommend this if you are looking for a stealth/action/ninja game. I had a lot of fun with parts of it, and hiding in a cardboard box with little ninja legs sticking out is a developer stroke of genius...

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