June 25, 2013

Mark of the Ninja: A Review


Mark of the Ninja has been raved about by a number of people I trust, including the PA guys and Extra Credits. It's been called the stealth game that sets the standard for all future stealth games, and for a reason. It has compelling and rewarding gameplay, a decently engaging plot line, and some very prettily effective artwork, all of which contributes to and is pointed towards the experience of stealth. Moreover, it raises some fascinating ethical questions in a way that cannot be ignored.

Gameplay and Mechanics

Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game. As far as genres go, stealth may be the most descriptive and helpful: stealth games all involve sneaking around and avoiding fights, instead of dashing headlong into them. This is the core mechanic of Mark of the Ninja, and it is how the majority of the game is spent. You encounter areas littered with hiding holes and air ducts, bad guys trying to catch you, and interactive background objects like destructible lights, gongs, and grappling hook targets. Typically, the first step is to scope the are out using "Farsight," an ability granted by your ninja mark (I'll talk about that in the "plot" section ahead). Then, you sprint between dark corners and hiding spots, drop down behind bad guys to silently eliminate them and then hide the bodies, avoid contact for ten seconds or so if someone spots you, and eventually make it to the other side. Then, you encounter the next area, and repeat the process.

In all reality, you can view it like a puzzle game which allows open-ended, creative solutions. The bad guys and map elements are the problem that needs solving, your abilities as a ninja are your problem solving tools, and how you navigate through the bad guys is your solution. The puzzle itself is dynamic, as well, because the sentries react to everything. When running, or landing from a tall jump, or destroying a light, your character makes noise. Enemies that are close enough will react and come check out what that noise was. This allows you to move enemies around at your will, by making them chase noises. It can distract, but it can also alert a horde of enemies to your presence, and spell doom.

The game provides you with a number of intriguing abilities and items. Each has its own value and use. During normal play, you can only select four items at a time. Which items you have with you not only determines what you're able to do, but also the particular style of stealth you will employ. For instance, having the smoke cloud allows you to disable several enemies and sprint past them while they choke, enabling a head-on style of stealth, whereas the caltrops require an enemy to walk over them before they are disabled, leading to a more patient and calculated approach to the same puzzle. Moreover, each item is fantastically fun to use, and is extremely rewarding.

Movement as a ninja is at first frustrating, but allows for a large degree of depth and skill once the player is accustomed to the system. Your ninja can cling to walls, hang from certain types of ceilings, duck quickly into ducts, and move silently in the shadows. Doing so takes some very careful button pushing, and timing is essential. Your vision is dependent on your location: if your character can't see into a room, then neither can you! Moreover, your ninja can do more than any human, but within reason. He can cling to any wall, but doing so requires hitting the wall, often at the end of an across-the-room jump. He can jump higher than any person, but must do so at exactly the right time to avoid vision, and at exactly the proper angle to catch a ledge or pass through a small gap. With practice, you can be as smooth and silent as silk. But in the first level, you end up a little more like a clumsy ninja wanna-be. The skill curve is steep, but rewarding.

My only gripe about mechanics is the death system. Dying simply transports you back in time to the last save, retaining whatever your score was, as well as resetting any challenges you may have failed. For instance, if one challenge was to "Make it to the next checkpoint without being spotted," and you were spotted and killed, you could re-attempt the challenge from your last checkpoint. This led to some interesting gameplay decisions. It actually made sense, upon failing a challenge, to intentionally die in order to reset the challenge criteria. I realize that's an exploit of their system, but hey: that's a massive, glaring exploit they should have fixed.


The game begins with a raid by soldiers upon your ninja clan. Your master is held captive, and you must free him with the help of a female ninja sidekick and some hallucinogenic but power-infusing tattoos. As the game progresses, you gradually defeat more and more enemies while unlocking more narrative moments in short cutscenes or through level development. You're just as likely to be told what is going on by sneaking through a level as you are by watching two people trade dialogue in a cutscene. This actually allows for a rather engaging narrative: you act out the narrative as you go along, even retaining character control in a number of important story moments. In the end, you're left with a choice, which reflects the choices the game has had you making throughout its length.

The game's plot develops very quickly: almost too quickly, in my mind. In fact, the focus of the game is not on story telling, but rather on feeling like a ninja and deciding how to act as one. As a result, none of the plot twists were compelling or truly astounding. Rather, I felt like they were excuses to get me to jump and assassinate my way through more intricate levels. This is not necessarily a problem. This game certainly does have meaning, but that meaning is not narrative meaning. The narrative is there to give context and importance to your actions: actions which have a direct impact on your score at the end of a level and your characters overall progression. And in doing so, it's effective. Don't expect a novel's worth of character development and emotional energy, though. It's not what this game tries to do.


Mark of the Ninja's artwork and soundscape work fantastically well with the gameplay to make you feel like a freaking ninja. I mean, that's the point, right?

The visuals are simplistic but effective. The game has a cartoon-like, 2D style which accurately captures detail but leaves most of the levels cut out of blacks, grays, and brown-ish golds. The art is designed with the gameplay in mind, clearly. All shadowy areas to hide in are the same range of colors, while all lit areas where bad guys can see you are a distinct range of colors. The art is functional.

However, the artists clearly had some fun with the backgrounds, and it pays off for the player experience. The drizzling rain outside, the haunting, Japanese-inspired interior decorating, the effect of watching your character's body change from silhouette to brightly illuminated and back as you pass through light and shadow, and the overall thematic darkness punctuated by bright and warm light all add up to an aesthetic which captures the feel of stealth and the importance of your actions. You feel like your actions matter, because your actions look so dramatic as you drop down into a hiding spot or sneak successfully between two guards. And that's exactly what the art of the game is meant to do.

My only gripe about the art comes in the stealth killing cinematic. They look cool the first few times, but quickly get old. There are four or five ways you can kill people, each in a quick-time event, which is challenging and engaging in terms of gameplay mechanics. Then, you sit and watch a few seconds of bloody slicing which you can't skip, and in which real game-time passes. Not only does it make getting anywhere quickly difficult, it also gets old seeing the same gory hacking and stabbing. They could have added a few more animations, or made the assassination scenes skipable, or something.

The soundscape is also effective. While sneaking quietly, the music is quiet. The sounds of footfalls and enemies conversing ring out through the relative quiet of the night, enhancing the experience of stealth. The quiet, mystical undertone of Oriental music is engaging, while not getting in the way of feeling stealthy. On the other hand, once you get spotted, the music is loud and frantic, adding to the confusing and frenetic attempt to fade back into the shadows. Overall, the sounds, voice-acting, and music contribute beautifully to the aesthetic whole.


The primary moral aspect of this game is its ability to make your choices feel like they have impact. This happens at every level of the game, and places the role of video games, as interactive artwork, on center-stage. Each jump you make, each spot you hide in, feels like it has almost eternal significance. This is accomplished by the devs in a number of ways: first, through the artwork and soundscape, getting caught feels bad; second, through the gameplay and scoring mechanic, how you angle your jump arc has a direct impact on how well you do; third, the game uses the "kill it or let it live?" choice mechanic extremely well, giving players full control over whether they sneak past each guard, or slaughter them all.

This "kill it or let it live?" mechanic has been seen in a number of games, notably ones like Fallout or Bioshock. However, Mark of the Ninja does something I've never seen before: you are rewarded, heavily, for not killing anyone. This is done by the devs in two ways. First, you get a huge chunk of points at the end of each level if you manage not to kill anyone. It's a tough calculation (200-400 points per kill, 3,000 for not killing anyone) and probably changes depending on how many enemies are in a given level, but it's at least roughly equal. Second, not killing anyone is actually a tougher challenge than killing everyone. Killing is relatively quick, silent, and painless: you can eliminate each enemy one-by-one with relative ease, if you want to. Sneaking past each enemy without killing any of them? It makes each area-puzzle significantly harder and engaging, and thus more rewarding. This is something a lot of development teams don't do, I think, and it's why this game functions so well: not only does it give you the choice, but each choice is thought out and gameplay is manufactured and designed to be engaging, regardless of choice. Often, "don't kill anyone" achievements are lame, but Mark of the Ninja makes it difficult and challenging, equally or even more so than simply going through assassinating people like you might be wont to do. This is one of the game's great strengths, both in terms of morality and gameplay. Not only does it make the game more engaging, but it also makes the player realize the effects of his actions, and hopefully leads to some thought about why the player is going around killing people, in the first place.

There are two morally problematic points in this game. The first is minor: the amount of blood is rather gratuitous. The assassination scenes that I mentioned above are brutal and bloody, and anyone easily affected by seeing buckets of blood will be revolted. Granted, it's cartoon blood, and granted, you can skip killing people, but it's still a weakness in the game. The second point that I disliked is the final decision in the last level. You need to decide whether to kill your master and slaughter the rest of you ninja clan by succumbing to the insanity caused by your tattoos, or to kill yourself and allow the ninja clan to continue on its immoral path. Honestly, when I realized that was the choice I had to make, I was very unhappy. I wished I could make a different choice, and I couldn't. I paced back and forth, looking for a morally commendable way out, and there wasn't one. Technically, this makes the game a tragedy: the main character descends to a position where they are incapable of acting well and attaining happiness. Now, evaluating this morally, it is a very provocative and thoughtful moment. I think that, insofar as this gameplay moment forces the player to think, it is good. However, I am worried here, because I think it is possible for the player to miss the thoughtfulness that the developers meant to be there. The suicide option was called "honorable" throughout the entire game, and I'm worried that some player might just accept that, and not think about it. Granted, the game is based on the Japanese view of suicide as an honorable way out. However, that does not dismiss the ontological problems any ethical philosophy has with suicide, nor does it absolve a Western player who is foreign to Japanese culture. One line from the supporting female ninja, to the effect of "Would it be honorable to kill yourself, when there's so much wrong you need to fix?" would have solved this problem, but no such line exists. As a result, the possibility of misinterpreting the moral dilemma the developers were looking to create exists, which is a very serious flaw.

Overall Thoughts and Recommendations

This game is very effective at doing the two things it tries to do: first, make you feel like a ninja, and second, make you wonder whether it's a good thing to be a ninja. The ninja aesthetics and feel of stealth are fantastic, the mechanics are tight, and the levels are extraordinarily well-designed. The thoughtfulness it forces on all of your choices and the ending dilemma are thought-provoking, if you allow them to be. Overall, this is an excellent game, and definitely worth the $14.99 price tag. There are some provisos, though, and I'll list them in my appropriateness metric:

  • Under 10: This game is not appropriate for players under ten. Not only is the bloodiness too much, and the ethical questions over their heads, but it also is simply too difficult for someone that age to complete it while still having a good time.
  • 10-14: Maybe, with parental discussion. This age might still find the game a bit too challenging, and the ethical dilemma will be a little inaccessible at this age as well. With some talking it out, it should be fine, but it's still not optimal.
  • 14 and older: I definitely recommend this game to anyone who wants an engaging stealth game while also having something to think about. This game does both, and does them both well. If you are sensitive to blood, you may not enjoy it, but otherwise it's definitely worth playing and thinking about.


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