The ninja, like the zombie, the pirate, and the zombie-hunting pirate cheerleader, is a thing that will always stalk pop culture like a panther would a wounded clown. I should warn you now that I am one of those who thinks this is wonderful; almost everything, from cereal to your average moodily lit rooftop, benefits from the addition of ninja.
This is doubly true for video games, and I present proof in the form of Mark of the Ninja.
This side-scrolling stealth title has been out on XBLA since 7 September, and on Steam since 16 October, but (apparently thanks to the Film and Publication Board) South Africa has yet to sink a grappling hook into the PC incarnation, which I’ve been casing in advance like a house full of jewels and candy.
The shadowy, secretive child of Klei Entertainment – creators of Shank, Eets and the upcoming Don’t Starve – garbs you in the tattooed flesh and fashionable attire of a modern-day ninja whose clan is under attack by an appropriately villainous corporate sociopath.
Mark of the Ninja (MotN) has much in common with Shank; it has the same lanky, in-your face swagger, the same casual approach to brutality. But it’s learned a few tricks from the sidelines of its older brother’s bar-brawling nature. Where Shank is a gun-toting gangster grinder, MotN is a refined, thoughtful dart to the jugular – and it’s indisputably the better game for it.
This is about as pure a distillate of the stealth genre as you’re likely to get: there is no cowboy showdown option. You may be a ninja, but like other humans you’re still just a fragile assemblage of skin, muscle and bone; also, machine gun beats samurai sword every time. Botch a stealth kill and you’ll probably survive a one-to-one, but any more than a single foe and you may as well commit seppuku.
So like an infinitely cooler version of the cockroach (yeah, that’s right), you shun the light; you take to ducts and other surreptitious routes; you drop from the shadows to slip a wakizashi in a guard’s throat… I am aware that the link to cockroaches is getting tenuous.
You’re kitted out with an arsenal of traps and distractions (as well as, you know, a two-foot razorblade of death), and every situation is riddled with options. Do you let that trio of goons catch a shadowed glimpse of you, then dissolve into a vent and sneak up on them from behind when they go to check it out? Do you engulf them in a cloud of choking gas, only to descend from your grappling hook to string one up – then leave him hanging to terrify the others so badly they end up shooting one another? (This is totally a thing you can do.)
Or, do you kill the lights with a bamboo dart and ghost past without even breathing on them? It’s this last option that captures the icy heart of MotN: the utter badassedness of completing a level without touching a soul, without being so much as seen. And it goes without saying that this is as easy as a blindfold trapeze act on barbiturates. Okay, it’s a little bit easier than that.
Really, this is the sort of game that might have ended up a guess-ridden mess, but at every stage it’s possible to plan your approach in detail. This is thanks to good level and cover design, a sort of sixth sense, and a splendid take on sound. Because you’re a ninja, right, and you have special ninja tattoos made from the magical toxic ink of awesome, you can see sound; it emanates in a ring from the point of origin, say a footstep. The louder the sound, the bigger the ring, and the more likely somebody will hear.
Another feature making this more a game of precision than twitch is the ability to stop time at any point to throw up to three queued items and launch your grappling hook on resume. The strategic options grow as you complete levels and buy upgrades with the coin of renown, earned by being slick.
None of this is insurance against failure: things can and do go epically wrong. The emergent play that arises from these moments can be great, with a narrow escape feeling that much more worthy of celebration. When it does go tabi socks-up, checkpoints are for the most part placed well, slicing levels into segments that remain challenging without being irksomely repetitive.
Wrapping all this up is an entertaining plot that gives the action context, along with a back-story told, fantastically, through a series of haiku scrolls that become increasingly hard to track down. The ending is inspired, and afterwards you’ll want to play it all again, which is presumably why there’s a “new game plus” – the way serious ninjas have fun.
It’s so absorbing that I find it hard to be critical, and thankfully there isn’t much to complain about. Sure, it’d be nice if hand-to-hand combat were more deadly, and I’d like to have been able to knock guards out, but there are solid design and balance considerations backing up the lack. And aside from one or two keyboard quirks, this is a proper PC port.
If there is anything I may cry myself to sleep over, it’s that MoTN doesn’t have cooperative play. I understand why – I imagine it would have complicated development by an order of magnitude – but by the chin hair of the grand master, this would have been a mighty game to play with a friend.
That said, this remains a mighty game. MotN’s prime feat is its sense of liquidity – a deeply satisfying flow carved out at the intersection of spot-on controls, thoughtful level design and perfectly pitched difficulty. It’s like Klei, using a set of micrometers and archaeological brushes, has isolated the essence of kickass from every ninja movie worth its caltrops and poured it into a game.
In other words, if you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be a real ninja (assuming, of course, that the ninja of yore controlled themselves in 2D from afar with game pads), MotN has your name written all over it in blood-soaked kanji.