In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog; I ran up walls, brutally murdered countless guards and broke hundreds of light-bulbs.
Klei are one hell of a developer. Mark of the Ninja, in my mental list of games, sits just behind Hitman: Blood Money and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as one of the finest stealth games ever made. I have difficulty finding fault with it as the game was a joy to play from start to finish.
What makes Mark of the Ninja so damn good are the game-mechanics. There are refinements and fresh ideas I wish more stealth games would have. The movement feels really snapping. You can cling to just about every wall in the game and, unless you run, you can’t fall off ledges. You can flit from one ‘grapple point’ to another with the push of the button and it does it instantly. That’s what really makes this game feel great: when you need to do something, the game immediately lets you do it. There is no animation priority here. Need to slide from one hiding spot to another? Lean in that direction, press B and the Ninja just slides across to the next statue. No need to get out of hiding and amble your guy over to the location and press another button to duck down. You truly feel in control at all times.
On top of all that, if you need to throw some of the many gadgets you have at your disposal; or, even need a bit of time to work out where you need to through out your grappling hook, the game has a mechanic that allows you to stop time, select your item(s), choose where to throw them and then, once you come out, it happens immediately. This sets up some elaborate situations where you can throw a shuriken at a light, a spike trap on the floor in front of a guard along with a smoke bomb where you are standing and it all occurs simultaneously as soon as you resume time. It felt great and was always useful throughout the game.
There are other more quality of life mechanics that really make stealth a very pleasant experience in Mark of the Ninja. All the things you need to know whilst sneaking are found in the environment around you. None of it is relegated to an esoteric icon. The noises you, other guards and even certain things in the environment make are shown as light-grey/blue rings that spread out from its source. This is previewed when you stop time so you can work out if breaking a light-bulb will make enough noise to attract a guard.
Your visibility is shown by the colour of the Ninja. If the blue and red uniform is visible, he is in light, if it’s all black then he is hidden. It’s a binary-based stealth system that I greatly appreciated, especially as it doesn’t impact the graphical fidelity (unlike Splinter Cell: Conviction or, to a lesser extent, Dishonoured) by making things all washed out.
Another interesting mechanic is the Line of Sight system. As with most stealth games, you can tell which direction a guard is looking in, but there is an interesting twist with yourself. Scenery blocks your vision, so you have to peak through doors, grates and over ledges in order to see where the guards are and where they are looking. And when do you spot one and then stop peaking, the game shows you a silhouette of their last known location, which allows you to plan accordingly. Its like Klei have taken all the refinements that individual stealth games have made over the years and combined them in into one slick package.
I have to keep talking about the game design in Mark of the Ninja because there is just so much to talk about. The levels are big, have multiple paths to take and encourages some degree of experimentation. One area may have lots of lasers blocking your path, forcing you to go around. However if you previously equipped the smoke bomb that temporarily blocks lasers, you can go through it, thereby allowing you to perhaps avoid a tricky room or two. The downside is that you might have missed a collectible by doing such a thing.
Each level really allows you to go wild with the toolkit the game gives you, both mechanically and upgrades/items-wise. They all have different sub-objectives that, once completed, gives you upgrade points. Some require a great deal of forethought, especially if it involves terrorising guards (which is best done by hanging them from lampposts à la Batman: Arkham Asylum). Some upgrades make items better, others make you more effective with different ways to kill or, for example, becoming quicker at lock-picking.
There are even other ninja outfits to unlock that dramatically changes the way you play. Prefer to kill? There is an outfit that heals when you kill, but you can’t use non-lethal items. Prefer to sneak? An outfit makes you quieter, but you can’t have a sword. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t really use the new outfits as I didn’t want to funnel my way into one avenue of playing, but I will certainly give them a go.
If I have spent the majority of this BDTB gushing over the game-play of Mark of the Ninja, it’s because that is real highlight of the game. The graphics have a great deal of style to them, and I like how hand-drawn they seem and how clean they are, but they aren’t a highlight. Same with the story; it is barely there but what is there is pretty good. There are some cool designs and twists with both as the game comes to an end, but they aren’t anything to write home about. No, what needs to be lauded is just how incredible the game-play is. It is so good that I will certainly New Game+ Mark of the Ninja later in the year, something I only do for the crème de la crème of games (like the similarly superb Bastion). I don’t think there is a stronger recommendation.
Next time on Breaking Down the Backlog: Bayonetta 2