First impressions are becoming increasingly important. XBLA’s option to try before you buy often creates a cycle of demo downloads before anything actually sticks and forces you to add some points to your account. Mark of the Ninja is a sticky game, both in the sense that it had me whipping out my credit card quicker than a thrown ninja star, and because in the game you stick to the walls like a human gecko, slinking up them with practiced, muscled ease.
In fact, there are times when you hardly see your on-screen character. If you do, you’re playing it wrong. Mark of the Ninja is, in form, a 2D stealth title, but it’s more than that – it is Shadow Complex meets Deus Ex meets Thief meets Dead Space. The first three influences are easy to see, given the broad and complicated design of each level, which allows multiple paths through areas. This sets up various ways to either murder guards or avoid them entirely. The Dead Space analogy relates to the way in which Mark of the Ninja improves in enjoyment as you experience it via New Game+, playing with upgraded ninja skills and approaching situations as a far more powerful stalker. Earlier levels, when you were hampered by the lack of certain skills – such as the ability to pull guards down through floor grating and murder them silently – become much more competitive to traverse after you have unlocked parts of the skill-tree.
Mark of the Ninja has its competitive carrot always dangling in front. Your score for each level updates as you play, with severe penalties if you are detected, to the point where you’ll often want to restart the entire level just to maintain your shadow-stalking profile. Each level has a list of optional objectives that net you bonus points. You also gain extra credit for remaining undetected by guards (usually by hiding right in front of them in a pot plant), hiding bodies (the animations for this are highly comical), performing stealth kills, finding hidden collectibles or completing the entire level with no kills.
Sound and line-of-sight play major roles and Mark of the Ninja reacts to these elements with amazing intuition. Sneak up to a closed door and push against it and the room that you are in, including the graphics of your character, will fade and blur to focus only on the next room, which was blurred out before you put your ear to the door. Your ninja senses then tell you what the room contains. Move away and that room once more becomes opaque, with any guard positions visualised only by pulsing circles where their feet are making sounds on the floor. Similarly, when climbing up a building, the roof section is best peeked over to see what might be waiting, as only the parts of the level that you occupy are filled with detail. Enter a lighted section and your ninja turns from blending in to standing out in stark contrast to his surroundings.
This creates an amazing atmosphere and makes exploration exciting. It can take several minutes to case a room, find all of the entry points, plan your attack and carry it out. When everything goes smoothly, you truly do feel like a ninja. If things turn pear-shaped, you will likely end up as a shredded ninja as it only takes a few bullets to kill you. This see-saw between totally deadly assassin and weak Swiss cheese creates beautiful tension.
As the game progresses, situations become more complicated, with laser systems needing to be disabled, sniffer dogs avoided, flare-shooting and shield-carrying soldiers to contend with, and increasingly complex electronic detection systems to negotiate. Your tools become upgraded as you play, with smoke bombs, noise-makers and more adding variety to how you distract or lure guards. Level design is broad and complicated but also tight, giving some stretch when it comes to optional stealth but bringing things back in for story-specific objectives. The true pleasure comes from learning each level and replying them to get as high a score as possible.
It can be frustrating when things go awry. Death is quick and you can often fumble with controls when panicked. It would also have been nice to have a middle speed of movement as the only two options are slink mode or a noise-creating run. However, for a downloadable game this offers amazing depth and replay value – almost as much as a full-priced title. If you love stealth games and have a competitive streak, Mark of the Ninja is a must buy.