Mark of the Ninja PC Review: Great Stealth Hampered by Controls

You also have access to a few cool ninja weapons and gadgets, like bamboo darts that can be used to distract enemies or break lights, smoke bombs that can obscure you and break laser trip lines so you can get by, and noise makers that will draw off enemies. There are a few deadly attack items as well, like mines and darts, but you score more points if you ghost levels than if you’re on the warpath. For the most part, while you can get combat upgrades, you’ll generally lose most confrontations you get in; you are, after all, bringing a sword to an assault rifle fight.

Points are what Mark of the Ninja is really about, injecting an arcade flair into the stealth action. The better you are, the more points you earn. Sparing every guard while cleverly avoiding their patrols nets you high scores, but perfectly executed kills also have their rewards. And Mark of the Ninja rewards you for playing well, throwing out score goals and often random secondary objectives for you to try to meet to earn “seals.” Those can then be spent on upgrades, many of which are notably cool. You can’t grab people from below and execute them awesomely at the beginning of the game, but you can after the right upgrade.

Klei gives you a lot of great tools and systems, too. You can smack a guard in the head with a dart to distract him, but it’s often much more effective to throw down a mine in his path, or drop down on him from above. Execute your enemies well and you can terrorize them, which causes them to lose their cool, shoot at shadows (and allies, accidentally), and generally go crazy. The mix of straight up avoidance, stealth kills, distraction and terror give you all kinds of tools for any situation, while keeping them tough to work through.

The best part of the game is not the cool moves and tools you have, although you do have many, it’s the way the game handles enemies and their ability to detect you. Stealth games often get into trouble with elements like sound and line of sight, because it can be very hard for the player to determine what’s “too loud” or whether they’re fully hidden, especially in 3-D games. Being a side-scroller, Mark of the Ninja has a leg-up on this issue, but it uses darkness and light beautifully to augment its stealth. Color tells you what’s in darkness and what isn’t, and when you’re in the dark, you can’t be seen unless light hits you. That means you need to avoid flashlights, and secrete yourself in positions where you’re not likely to be hit with an errant beam of light as soldiers look around.

As for sound, the game visualizes your louder actions with a shockwave, and if it’s too close to an enemy, you know it. Screw up a stealth kill, for example, and an enemy will cry out, drawing his friends if they’re within about a screen of the action. The important thing, though, is that the system makes it easy to gauge how sound works in the environment, which allows you to make better choices as you move around. Stealth is about strategy, after all, and Mark of the Ninja provides you with systems and information that let you make good decisions, but which also make for many a challenging situation.

It comes down to stealth in Mark of the Ninja being really well-made, with the game being careful not to give the player either too much information or not enough, and instead hitting a perfect balance. It gets even better in New Game Plus, when your visual cone is much more constrained, making everything that much tougher and more deliberate. Mark of the Ninja isn’t quite perfect — the story is both predictable and a little droll, and playing without a gamepad can occasionally get frustrating when you need high-precision, speedy actions. But this is how stealth should be done, and Mark of the Ninja delivers a lot of value for its low price.

Pros:

  • Great stealth systems in a 2-D platformer
  • Lots of cool tricks and tools that let you be a bad-ass ninja
  • Abilities balanced well with challenge and demands of stealth
  • Points system, secondary objectives and tougher New Game Plus add replay value
  • Great price point for a lot of game
  • Art style is a great compliment to action

Cons:

  • Story’s pretty weak, giving little context to action
  • Ending (and twists) are pretty obvious
  • PC controls leave something to be desired; try it with a gamepad

Final Score: 90/100


Follow Hornshaw and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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