Let's talk about ninjas. If you were a child in the 80s, ninjas were kind of a big deal. They were our cowboys. Movies, comics, cartoons, and TV shows constantly fed our insatiable appetites for these ultimate warriors who combined the martial arts prowess of the 70s Kung Fu star with the graphic violence of the slasher flick villain and we couldn't get enough. The problem with these passive forms of entertainment though is that you don't actually get to be the ninja yourself. Enter videogames to solve the problem. Classic ninja games such as Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden gave us access to the moves, weapons, and action of the ninja genre, but something was missing. Ninjas were history's invisible assassins, not feudal era commandos. It wasn't until decades later that the ninja genre finally combined successfully with the stealth genre with Mark of the Ninja.
Mark of the Ninja is the type of game that likes to combine elements of various established genres and make them its own. It's not as gimmicky as Evoland, and not as blatant as the Darksiders games. At its core, Mark of the Ninja is a 2D side scrolling platformer. Anyone who's been keeping up with my reviews knows that I have a definite fondness for those. To start with, your ninja is as acrobatic as would be expected, leaping around and scaling walls and ceilings in a classic Strider meets Spiderman fashion.
That sets up a good foundation, but then we add the stealth elements. As far as stealth games go, I'd say it leans more towards the Batman: Arkham series than it does the Splinter Cell style. Like the caped crusader, you'll use a variety of hidden takedown moves including grabbing people through vents, from under the floor, and while hanging upside down from a rope. These takedown moves are important, because the direct combat is a lot less effective than you might expect.
Mark of the Ninja is not a brawler, a beat'mup, or a button masher. It's a puzzle game hidden in an action game shell, even more so than with other such games such as Hotline Miami. Your greatest adversary is the level design itself. That's not to say that there aren't actual enemies, there are plenty of those, but they feel more like pieces of a larger puzzle while playing through it. It's not a pure puzzle though, as you almost always have multiple ways of approaching any situation. Sometimes it's best to crawl through an air duct and silently take out a sniper from behind before dealing with the machine gunner on the ground, but other times you're more in the mood to just grapple up above the ground troops and hit the sniper with a well timed dagger before he can respond.
Adding to the challenge of the levels is a line of sight mechanics that obscures any part of the area that your ninja wouldn't be able to see. This means that not only can you hide from the enemy, but the enemy can also hide from you. Visual clues illustrate where on the screen sounds are coming from, so sometimes you can tell that somebody is walking across a room, but not who it is until you take a peak.
If the levels themselves aren't pushing your skills quite enough, Mark of the Ninja also provides a number of optional Challenge Rooms hidden throughout the map. These rooms are much more difficult than the game's usual pace, and take various elements such as laser traps and turrets and turn them into a frustrating series of mechanical death that I found incredibly satisfying to work through.
It's not all monotonous repetition though. Throughout the game you collect honor (XP points) that can be spent on upgrades which unlock new moves or improve your stats. There are bonuses for not being detected, or taking down all of the enemies in an area, giving you an incentive to replay levels either to be a completionist, or just to get more upgrades if you're having trouble in later levels. It never gets into RPG levels of depth, but it definitely meets the standards of most modern action games.
So, what exactly is Mark of the Ninja about? It's a story of betrayal, conspiracy, revenge, and a descent into insanity. You play as an unnamed member of a ninja clan who has just received what basically amounts to a magic tattoo. As the chemicals from the ink seep into your system, they enhance your abilities, but also drive you insane. It's a story of plot twists and ambiguous choices as you uncover the mystery of who betrayed the clan, and stop a resulting plot involving an army of armed mercenaries. As the insanity kicks in, you begin to question your reality Total Recall style. It doesn't dive as deep into the subject as Alice: Madness Returns, but it still handles it well.
Much of this is portrayed through in game dialog which helps you feel as if you're actually part of the story, but the real magic is in the game's cutscenes. These between level cinematics are beautifully animated and give life to the world. Oddly though, as prevalent as anime influence is in videogames, this story which takes place in Japan by a Japanese protagonist has a distinctly American animation style.
In an age of endless retro graphics pixel art releases, it's refreshing to see quality 2D visuals. Everything is well drawn and shaded to create a stunning dark moody atmosphere. Lighting effects allow for strong shadows to hide in, and the muted blurring used by the line of sight system mentioned earlier gives Mark of the Ninja a unique and impressive look. It's no slouch on the audio side either with a combination of composed score and atmospheric background drones setting the tone under the game's organic sound effects that make everything feel just a bit more solid.
I've been rambling on about how much I enjoyed this game, and it is a great game, but it's not perfect. As some other reviewers have mentioned, you do spend way more time dodging laser traps than a contemporary ninja story possibly should, and a few of the rooms felt unbalanced as if they just tossed in as many guys as they could rather than creating memorable obstacles. The game is also a bit on the short side which could be a plus or a minus depending on how big your Steam backlog has gotten. Overall, I had a great time with Mark of the Ninja, and if you're at all into stealth, platforming, or ninjas, you probably will too.