Friday, September 7, 2012

REVIEW - Mark of the Ninja.

In good company.

Dedicated stealth titles - a rare sight, these days - tend to be slower-paced games, more concerned with the perfection of your plan than the fun of executing it.  Once upon a time, a mid-budget franchise called Tenchu was somewhat popular - and Tenchu was the antithesis of the plodding pace and often inelegant controls of its shadowy contemporaries.  

The ninjas of Tenchu sprinted from the shadows at a breakneck dash, snuggling up to a corner for a brief moment before springing forward with blade outstretched, cancelling attack animations to obliterate multiple foes before dashing up a wall and flipping into the sky, lashing out with a grappling hook to soar back into the protective darkness.  

Managing to be just as cerebral and dynamic as Hitman or Metal Gear SolidTenchu was also a gloriously  fluid, fun exercise.  It was the stealth franchise with the best gameplay - or more precisely, the game that felt most like play.  Excellent controls, excellent design and an excellent game, forever in the shadow of titles with bigger budgets and more impressive production values.  

I speak of Tenchu because Klei Entertainment, who cemented their place in my heart with the remarkable Shank 2 earlier this year, have tried their hand at this most hallowed of genres, and...

Let's not beat around the bush.  This is the successor to Tenchu's crown and a landmark entry in the stealth genre.  It's wonderful.


For starters, the game is gorgeous.

Click to embiggen.

Klei have always employed a style heavily influenced by TV cartoons, with special attention paid to striking silhouettes and painterly backdrops.  In Mark of the Ninja, they eschew the bright, saturated look of the Shank titles and bend their sizable talents towards a stark, lonely atmosphere while allowing function to dictate form.  Company co-founder Jamie Cheng has said the look of of the game went through multiple iterations before they came to its final expression - which goes a long way to explaining why it looks like nothing else.

In the top screenshot, you'll notice the skyline behind the player character is clear and crisp, while the space to the far right is blurry and obscured.  Mark of the Ninja employs a clever use of "fog of war," denying the player a clear view of objects or enemies their character cannot directly see.  Light and dark play a major role in the game - enemies can see you from across the screen if you're standing in light, but you can approach within inches in shadow - and the player is given a clear indication of their state by way of the two distinctly different looks of the ninja.  In shadow (above), you are a slinky black ball with a gray outline - in light (below), a fully-detailed ninja replete with blue leggings and bitchin' tattoos.  


Beyond allowing its gorgeous presentation to play a major role in its mechanics, Mark of the Ninja retains all the strengths its pedigree is heir to - which is nothing to sneeze at, with Klei - particularly in a game where platforming is such a large component.

Mark of the Ninja's animation is slick, stylish and entirely in the service of the player's experience - no frames are wasted when a player should have control (Uncharted, Sleeping Dogs - I'm looking at you), while it's still wise enough to offer up perfect moments of near-stillness to highlight the look on an enemy's face before you deliver the fatal strike, or the sharp silhouette of a ninja leaping out over a sea of desert temples.

What we have, here, is a remarkably beautiful game where part of the beauty is in direct service to the game's design, animated with such sharp, liquid-smooth grace that it's also able to be a platformer which feels faster than Sonic ever was - the occasional depression of the jump button replaced here by a half-dozen rapid taps as you ping-pong up an air shaft, ooze your way from a vent, soar up to a perch point and fling yourself into the sky.  In the time it takes Sonic to bend over and tie his shoes, Mark's ninja would have either slipped by, unseen, into the next room, killed him, or both.


Above, you'll notice several circles.  The blue represents the radius of a sound wave, produced by whipping a bamboo dart into an object.  The yellow represents the enemy's attention, which has now been turned to the object - and away from you.

Why hasn't any other stealth game done this before?  Elsewhere in the genre - when it's not merely about line-of-sight - your chances of detection often seem to be run through some byzantine algorithm, never to be fully understood by the player, leading to failure and frustration.  Mark of the Ninja lays it all out for you with crystal clarity:  light and dark, sound and silence.

At first, your attention to these systems demands you play the game rather timidly - slowly creeping from one hiding point to the next, careful to never run, as the sound waves echo out and alert anything within ten yards.

By the end of the game, you are dashing straight towards an enemy, timing a leap at that perfect moment when you're far away enough that he can't hear your footsteps, but close enough that you can soar overhead and slip through a grate, undetected.  You're zipping through air ducts like a flowing scrap of lightning-fast, liquid shadow.  You're springing from trapdoors, leaping into the air to freeze time, aiming a dart into a light, a trap onto the ground and your grapnel into a perch point.  A light shatters, a guard impales himself on your trap, and his friend staggers backwards, flailing his arms and blind-firing in terror as you lower yourself on a chain towards him...


The first time you combine the game's arsenal into such a sequence, it seems almost unbelievable that you did it - no other stealth game I've ever played has allowed for such speed - such clear, crisp control on the part of the player.  Such slick translation of a player's intention to onscreen action - but here we are.

You begin testing the game's limits - seeing just how firm its bedrock is, just how sharp its controls really are - and it never disappoints.  You can pull off ridiculously cool stuff, and it's all in strict keeping with the title's very reasonable rules of your tool set and your enemies' abilities.

Except - once - with vents.  If you're on a vent and you want to jump, you won't jump, as the jump button is also the button used to slip into a vent.  This issue only worked against me once in about twenty hours with the game - but it's the one thing I would suggest as an improvement.  Klei, make B the button to open vents.

Timing your actions between lightning strikes... so cool.

Any fan of stealth should be thrilled with such a game, but Mark of the Ninja doesn't end at merely slicing your way through a six-to-ten-hour campaign. There are dozens of tasks to complete and collectibles to discover (complete three tasks, find three collectibles and beat three score qualifiers to obtain all nine honor points for each level). It boasts a litany of upgrades, and beyond that, different "Paths" you can employ to drastically alter your playstyle.

Slip on a sinister oni mask and embark on the Path of the Hunter - which removes the need to input a direction and additional button press when attempting a stealth kill, but disallows the use of distraction items.  Fade into shadows with the Path of Silence, which removes all footstep noise (!) but disallows you from performing any kills.  Now it's a full-on stealth platformer that sees you dashing through its worlds at a breakneck speed, zipping around foes as fast as possible (and earning a major bonus at the end of each stage for sparing all enemies).

Another encourages you to be as brutal as possible by enhancing your ability to elicit the "terrified" response from your targets (my personal favorite is when they see a guard you've strung up from a lamp post - freaks' em right out), but here's the point:

There are a half-dozen different ways to play Mark of the Ninja, and they're all balanced to work perfectly.


Twice in one year, Klei have released beautiful, humble downloadable games that - shattering all my expectations - prove to be definitive entries in their disparate genres.  In direct contrast to standard stealth design, here we have a fast, fluid, gleeful exercise - never an exercise in patience, never frustrated by awkward controls or questionable balance.  It's gorgeous, intelligent and an absolute blast to play - a pleasure at every turn, a delight on every facet.

With Mark of the Ninja, stealth lives again - and the good old days were never this good.  Not even close.

It's wonderful.

THE GOOD
  • Ninjas.  Additionally, 
  • a stealth game that's more fun to play than Tenchu was - and, until now, Tenchu was the gold standard of fun stealth - which makes it
  • the best ninja simulator there's ever been.
  • a slick, fun, fluid, ultra-fast platforming game
  • a razor-sharp, thoughtfully-designed stealth game
  • Almost-perfect controls which mean
  • you can pull off amazingly cool sequences.
  • gorgeous graphics
  • exceptional animation
  • beautiful art direction
  • a nice dynamic sountrack
  • I love all the unlockables
  • Great balance.  You are a god of silence/slaughter when undetected, but one misplaced step means you're dead. 
  • super-fast load times and a great checkpoint system (a must for a stealth game)
  • for the first time, Klei have put together a story that's actually engaging, with a very affecting ending
  • tons of alternate routs to find, collectibles to discover and challenges to defeat
  • Level select!  Yay!
  • a variety of alternate playstyles provide a ton of excellently-balanced replability
  • great ending
  • New Game Plus mode reduces your line-of-sight to a forward-facing cone and removes the sound-distance/enemy-attention indicators for a vicious new challenge. 
  • all killer, no filler
THE BAD
  • Once I wanted to jump but I went into a vent instead, because jump and "enter vent" are the same button.  Just once, though.

THE VERDICT
Mark of the Ninja is one of the best games of 2012.  It's like a gift.

Mark of the Ninja was provided by the developer for review purposes.
They only requested that I link to the game's Xbox.com page.  
Why not click on it?  They seem like cool folks.

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