Mark of the Ninja has been exceptionally critically acclaimed - I haven't seen a score under 9 (or equivalent) from any media outlet big or small. That's good! But it's also made by the team that brought us Shank, a soulless repetitive brawler ... that's bad!

Fortunately, Mark of the Ninja is like the most polar opposite design philosophy from Shank that you can have while still basically being a 2D platformer. While Shank was Devil May Cry brought to 2D (chew through hordes of cloned mooks with ridiculous damage resistance and pointlessly flip between weapons to rack up "style points"), Mark of the Ninja is essentially Tenchu: Stealth Assassins brought to 2D (sneaky ninjer antics are the order of the day and you can often avoid combat entirely with a little patience.)

The setup is in the modern day, but you're a member of the last surviving ninja clan. Ninjas in this clan can get special tattoos that give them superhuman abilities when called up to perform some heroic feat, but the tattoos will eventually drive them mad so they have to commit seppuku when their mission is done. You are some nameless dude who has taken on the tattoos because a private military company of Hessians has moved into the tower next door and won't stop blasting Pantera at 2 am. Most of the game is spent infiltrating a couple of their facilities to find and execute their Chief Executive Hessian, but when they're all done with you find out Cheesy Master's whole plan was to steal their tech and create hybrid Hessian Ninjers which we don't approve of for some reason or another. So the back few levels of the game have you dealing with all that.

The primary influence here is obviously Tenchu but Klei also freely borrows mechanics from any other stealth game that work - for example Arkham Asylum's smooth transition between grapple points and hanging garrotings of enemies. Unlike Rikimaru and Ayame of Tenchu and The I'm Batman, however, melee combat is not really an option here for our tatted up protag. In a pinch you can knock a guard down for a couple of seconds, but once they are alerted to your presence your only viable option is usually to run and hide until they cool down. Health follows the Dudebro Military Shooter rules in that it auto-regens quickly when nothing is going on but it only takes a couple of bursts of gunfire to kill you. And later in the game there's snipers, Elite Mooks and Hessian Ninjers that can one-shot you.

What Mark of the Ninja brings to the table is an innovative "vision system" that somewhat realistically restricts character knowledge about enemy position and movements relative to where they are and what they're doing. For example - say you're crawling through a ventilation shaft underneath a room. Your ninjas super senses will enable you to hear the guards footsteps, represented by a series of white circles moving across the area. Find a grate to peek through and you can actually see them - pop back down into the vent and you'll be left only with a red impression of where you last saw them accompanied by the movement circles again. The game's greatest success is this system and deftly weaving it in (along with sensible context cue gameplay) in a way that makes sense and never feels unfair or broken.

Complaints with Mark of the Ninja are few and minor, but I felt there was juuust enough to not quite merit a 5/5. It has the same cutscene art of Shank, that sort of cheap-looking Cartoon Network / Flash style. Aside from not being particularly impressive, the kiddie tone also totally clashes with the dark material of the game. The art design takes a sharp turn for the awesome once in-game, but the cutscenes just don't do it. The story and characters are also pretty threadbare and not at all engaging on their own merits. Klei also doesn't have the cultural cachet of the Tenchu games to work with, where the designers were basically paying homage to the quirks and aesthetic of the badass 1960s and 70s samurai movies they had grown up with in Japan. Tenchu is lovably cheesy; Mark of the Ninja is just cheesy. I didn't care for having to do a mini-QTE for each stealth kill, either; they're not difficult but I felt it broke up the pace of the game. The biggest complaint is simply that I felt I kind of had to drag myself through the final few levels. The whole arc leading up to the assault on the Hessian Tower is great because the game is slowly incorporating new elements with each level. After you kill CEO Hessian, however, you've seen all the possible upgrades and pretty much all of the enemy types to boot. The only major new addition from that point forward is the Hessian Ninjers; they're a great enemy as they can grapple, climb walls and chase you into hiding spots, but you also don't see them until the final couple of levels. The back 1/3 of the game really kind of feels tacked on just to add gameplay time to the whole thing.

Klei won some indie awards for this game and I really don't know that that's fair - their games always seem to be released and promoted by a major publisher and in this case they received a considerable infusion of Microsoft Bux (and marketing power) in return for not publishing on the PS3 and Wii. They certainly do deserve some kind of commendation, though; after playing Shank I would have never guessed they had this sort of thing in them, but they've managed to create the best 2D stealth game yet. I'm sure we'll be seeing its context cue conventions and vision mechanics copied in at least a handful of titles going forward.
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