I leap from lamp post to lamp post, perched above the halogen glare that lights the streets and the two guards below. Their breath fogs in the rain, and they’re so cold they don’t even bother to look up. Not like that would help, the very thing that illuminates the street below blinds them to my presence. I grip my sword and slowly lower myself down on my chain. One of them is smoking, the other watching the thunderclouds roll in. Both oblivious to the danger above. Silent and quick like death, my chain loops around the first, turning into a gallows for the unfortunate soul. My katana slips through his windpipe, silencing his cry. I string him up, letting his lifeblood drip into the pavement below, and leap back onto the lamp post. The second guard turns, and sees his comrades corpse dangling in the wind. He screams in terror, and stumbles backwards.
It is the last thing he does.
Mark of the Ninja is a stealth 2d platformer, and is not the type of game that I would expect to enjoy. I’ve never been much for anything that require hand-eye coordination or lightning reflexes, both of which are usually required for a game like this, but Mark of the Ninja is surprisingly empowering.
As a ninja, you have a plethora of ninja tools, both offensive and obfuscating in nature, and a myriad of abilities. Your senses are so well honed that you can essentially freeze time as you hurl darts, smoke bombs and flares with pinpoint accuracy, and when attacking from the shadows you are death personified. But this is not a power trip, like some other fighting games out there. If anyone spots you, or if you are lit by lights, your death is only a few desperate footfalls behind. A bullet kills a ninja as easily as an ordinary man, even one as skilled as you.
Mark of the Ninja has so much depth it can be played in so many ways, especially as you level up and unlock certain abilities. A non-lethal rogue could sneak by guards undetected, flit through laser traps and use many tools of distraction to escape notice. A brawler could conceivably rush guards, take them out with a few well placed blows, and toss the corpses unceremoniously in the sewer. I prefer to dangle the corpses on lamp posts, scare the guards, and let adrenaline and friendly fire take its course. Watching a terrified guard stumble to his death is a testament that Mark of the Ninja has one of the most amazing emergent strategy systems I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently.
It does have some things that I’m not a fan of, though. I like the puzzling aspect of the game, sitting on top of a moonlit rooftop as a plan my way around the horde of guards below. Jump past the first, tumble into a sewer, creep by the next few, pull one down into his death and hide his body, grapple above him, run off with none the wiser. What I don’t like is when it devolves into a bit more of a twitch games, especially when I have to dodge sweeping lasers and flickering search lights. A lot of that could have been solved with the right selection of ninja tools, which is my second gripe. You often have to select your ninja aspect (otherwise known as Marks) at the start of the level, together with your ninja tools, before you know what the level, as well as optional quests in the level are. While there are options to ‘respec’ mid level, these are few and far between, and hard to find besides. Turning yourself into an unholy shadowy terror and then finding out that you’re facing a level of lasers, trip wires and motion sensors is literally like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Yes, it’s doable, but a ninja who plans his tactics without prior information seems like a poor ninja to me.
Still, Mark of the Ninja has a lot more awesome than it does aw. The flaws annoy, but don’t really detract from an immersive and absolutely fun game, and a pretty enthralling story. What I like about Mark of the Ninja is that it walks the fine line of power and danger, and if you’ve ever wanted to be a ninja, with all the abilities (and vulnerabilities) that brings, this is probably one of the best games that you could buy.
Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and Xbox Live for $14.99