After its release on Xbox Live and Windows last year, Mark of the Ninja has garnered some serious praise. Game developers, Klei Entertainment, have been primarily focusing on Microsoft’s digital platforms since they founded in 2005, although some of their titles have also arrived on MacOS. Of the eleven games of their career, their most popular titles include Eets, a 2D puzzle game released in 2005, a side-scrolling beat-em-up called Shank in 2007, and this year’s critically acclaimed, Don’t Starve, an action-adventure game.
It’s Mark of the Ninja however, that’s caused the most buzz, and after its unexpected arrival via the recent Humble Indie Bundle 9, Mac gamers can now see for themselves what all the fuss is about. As of this writing, the sale is now over, but the Humble Bundles are always an absolute steal and I encourage you to keep an eye on them.
I’ll attempt to save you some time by summing up this review in a few words: Ninjas. Stealth Kills. Grappling hooks. These words alone should hopefully elicit a positive response from all but the most jaded of gamers. Can the awesomeness of grappling hooks ever be overstated? No. But for those of you who need more, please read on, as there’s much more about this game that’s worthy of your time.
Enter Mark of the Ninja
The game begins with you waking up to a woman’s voice. It’s not clear what caused you to be unconscious, but you’ve since been mysteriously marked with a red tattoo on your body. Your equally mysterious female companion guides you through the basics of the game’s controls and stealth mechanics, and you quickly find yourself in the midst of some great ninja stealth action. The plot unravels from there, and I won’t spoil any further details. In all, the story is strong and well considered, however
I think it’s fair to say that platformers aren’t usually dependent on a story to create an enjoyable gaming experience. The narrative often simply provides a loose sense of motivation for all the fun parts, like jumping over man-eating flowers and chasing mushrooms, or in this case, impaling your blade through the throat of an unsuspecting enemy. Which just so happens to be a perfect segway for me to talk about gameplay.
As this is a stealth platformer, light and noise play a significant role throughout your missions. When not in direct light, your ninja becomes shrouded in the darkness and undetectable, so it’s best to avoid the many sources of light scattered throughout the game. Running should also be used with caution, as your heavy footsteps reverberate through the air, expressed visually via expanding circles from your feet. As a result, your footsteps can disturb the environment and may alert a nearby guard about your presence.
Your environment can also be used to your advantage, however. You can escape detection by hiding in certain areas, like potted plants and dark doorways. Places such as these provide frequent and convenient cover throughout the game.
The controls incorporate a nice mix of both the keyboard and mouse. You move your ninja with the A and D keys. To run, hold down the left Shift key, while Spacebar is for both jumping, and opening doors. In addition to this, the mouse is used in combination with the keyboard to perform attacking and evasive maneuvers. For instance, the mysterious tattoos on your body hold mystical powers, allowing you to enter a ‘focus’ mode when you hold down the Control key. With the mouse, you can then select distant areas to target with your ninja darts, that will help you in certain areas. During the game, you’ll need this skill to activate trap doors, smash out lights (be careful, broken glass is noisy) and distract guards with a nicely timed dart to a conveniently placed gong.
I will say that the keyboard-mouse combo does take some getting used to. There is a slight learning curve to the game before you arrive at a point where you feel comfortable with the controls, and can carry out an action as you initially intend to. Prepare to die a few times, or to at least be disappointed that you didn’t execute a move as flawless and ‘ninja-like’ as you envisioned. But stick with it and you’ll quickly get accustomed to the controls, and before you know it you’ll be performing silent assassinations like the best of them.
Stealth moves involve using your grappling hook to rappel up to elevated positions such as lights and dark ceiling spaces. From these higher vantage points, you can take a breath, time your attacks or simply avoid detection. You can also hang upside down and descend down your grapple chain like Spider-man, which is as useful as it is awesome. Similar to RTS games, Mark of the Ninja also incorporates a line of sight mechanic, where you’re unable to see the environment outside the sight range of your ninja. You, however, can sense nearby enemies from the noises they make. In all, this element adds an interesting aspect to the way you approach a closed door or grate and the game definitely benefits from it.
Taking this mechanic one step further, the developers have added a ‘leaning’ mechanic, that allows you to visually assess a space before entering it. You can lean into doors and grates before passing through them, thus timing your attack. Doing this lets you perform some slick assassinations. In one instance, I peeked out of a grate and saw a guard approaching. Timing it just right, I swiftly yanked him into the crawl space and dispatched him with a ruthless stab of my blade. Pretty cool.
In saying this, the stealth elements are so critical to your success in the game. This is so, as if you manage to sneak up to a guard undetected, you can perform an efficient, one-hit kill. If you are spotted, however, you will have a much more difficult battle on your hands, that will usually result in you having to take evasive action and breaking the guard’s line of sight. They’re all armed, and it doesn’t take many shots to take you down. In other words, the element of surprise is one of your most valuable weapons.
When you do successfully approach a guard, however, you’ll find the attack control scheme to be extremely satisfying. When close enough, left-clicking on a guard, then quickly swiping in the requested direction will execute a silent and bloody death on your unsuspecting victim. The physical motion of this maneuver is a great feature of the controls and adds a nice immersive touch that gels beautifully with the on-screen action. If however, you happen to swipe with the mouse incorrectly, your execution won’t be as flawless and your guard may cry out in surprise, alerting nearby guards.
The game levels are also extremely well designed. You’ll find yourself in fantastically complex situations that will require great thought and skill. As you perch quietly on a dark rooftop and peer down at the numerous guards patrolling beneath you, you’ll have a great time assessing your environment and figuring out the most efficient, ninja-worthy way to take them all down.
In short, Mark of the Ninja is a great-looking game. The overall aesthetic sets a playful tone with it’s illustrated, comic-book style. This whimsical tone allows the developers to crank up the gore, and the many over-the-top kill animations are as brutal as they are fun to watch. The combination of the excellent controls and slick, gory animations, makes executing a stealth kill on an unsuspecting guard very satisfying.
The game also begins with a brief, action-packed animated cut-scene. There are cut-scenes like this dispersed throughout the game, and they provide much of the game’s storyline. They are all very well-made and entertaining, in the fun, ‘cartoony’ style mentioned above, and much the same as Klei Entertainment’s previous title, Shank. In addition to this, the character animations are all first-rate and very charming. From running and jumping to crawling, grappling and simply sneaking around, the animations are all nicely done, with the ninja looking great throughout.
The backgrounds and buildings share the same quality and are very well made, with silhouetted trees and building profiles in the foreground, and a nicely layered backdrop of overlapping buildings in the distance. The combination of lighting and silhouette on these levels sets not only a nice tone for the game, but they also look fantastic.
In truth, my tired MacBook Pro is due for an update this year; I’m just waiting for a potential announcement of new models from Cupertino in October. It’s a mid-2009, 13″ MacBook Pro with 8GB RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. It’s not exactly a cutting-edge gamer’s rig, but it’s served me well over the years with the many intensive graphics and CAD apps that I need to use.
With Mark of the Ninja, however, I found I had to turn down the game’s resolution to get the frame rate back to acceptable, snappy levels. It wasn’t a big issue at all, and I only mention it as I didn’t expect it from a 2D platformer. And this cannot be a proper Mark of the Ninja Mac Review if I don’t mention its performance on our favorite platform.
Minimum system requirements:
- OS: OSX 10.7 Lion or later
- Processor: 2.8 GHz Core 2 Duo
- Memory: 4 GB
- Graphics: 256 MB VRAM
- Fun, smart stealth elements
- Great controls
- Great aesthetic and well-designed levels
- Slight learning curve
The Final Word
Klei Entertainment makes some pretty bold declarations on their website. There’s a lot of talk about redefining, recreating and “living up to” the coolest games of your childhood – “When talented, creative people can work toward that goal, amazing things happen”. Mark of the Ninja is a testament to this statement, as they have produced an amazing, well rounded and entertaining game. Satisfying, mature 2D platforming hasn’t felt so fresh in a long time.
Whilst playing it, I personally found it to be somewhat reminiscent of the original Prince of Persia, only with much more stealth and ninja awesomeness. In all, it’s a great game that I highly recommend you to pick up. And with the Humble Indie Bundle 9 sale, there was really no excuse. In any case, you certainly won’t regret laying down your hard earned cash for Mark of the Ninja. It’s a ninja-star sack full of fun.