Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Mark Of The Ninja

In October came two stealth games on the PC – one was Dishonored, which was heavily flawed and, had it not facilitated its mechanics towards a more straight up action game, would probably wind up being a bad game. The other was Mark Of The Ninja, which honestly feels like a 2D version of the Tenchu series where you played as an honest to god fucking ninja – the assassin of the night. Funny enough, Assassin's Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution were on their way... and did absolutely nothing to make you feel like an assassin, at least not without overpowering you to the point where stealth feels like a waste of time when a direct confrontation would lead to a much more favorable result at a much quicker pace. So really, Mark Of The Ninja is a refreshing sight to behold – a stealth game where being stealthy is encouraged? Where direct confrontation might get you killed because ninjas only have a black garb and not heavy armor or superhuman abilities like Ryu “I Can Swim In Lava” Hayabusa? Where staying out of sight and sound, having patience and a well timed strike, concluded with a quick getaway or repositioning to kill the other targets is the preferable method, all supported by the overall design of the game?

Pinch me, because I must be in heaven.

Well, I suppose the story will be doing that for me because it's mostly... blech. You play as an unnamed ninja who is branded with a tattoo that sharpens his senses and reflexes, which is tantamount to being some sort of hero to the unnamed clan of ninjas that you serve. However, it comes at the cost of it chipping away at your sanity, so the precaution to branding such a tattoo is that you commit suicide once the madness begins to take hold, or as you're told by master Azai, when you complete the mission. The mission is to take down a group of people who have attacked the dojo. There is a twist that begins the second half of the story, but it does little to really... matter. It serves as justification for why you're going through a series of strongholds to kill certain people, but to call it a compelling masterpiece would be quite farfetched. I suppose a good story wasn't really Klei Entertainment's intention, but I don't know, if you're going to have a story, at least make it worth a damn. Actually, they do try to make it worth a damn with the last level where everything that's said and done comes down to a decision that you have to make, and while it's brief, for a moment, you believe that you're experiencing a strong ending that makes it all worth it... that, or a crappy ending that makes virtually no sense, depending on your decision at the end.

Thankfully, everything else makes up for the lackluster story. For instance, the gameplay is simply wicked. The idea of a sidescrolling stealth game may seem perplexing at first, but once you start playing through the first level and get an idea of what's going on, you'll catch on quickly. The idea is that you either have to sneak past or kill enemies, making sure that nobody knows you're even anywhere near the area. You're given a sword, a killer karate chop and darts at first in order to carry on your mission. But given that it's on a 2D plane, how would a ninja sneak past his prey without killing it? You're occasionally given pots, dumpsters, doorways and other background objects to hide behind/inside, and at times, you're given alternate pathways. For instance, you can either enter through the front door (so to speak) and try to sneak through lights, praying to the nine divines that you don't get caught (technically in the light, you can get spotted; it's just that a guard will investigate that area rather than outright setting off the alarm – it's when you're close to the guard that they'll call for reinforcements) and get to the next area; or you can enter a ventilation shaft and skip a few lights or even the room altogether. While the game is linear in the sense that you're going from Point A to B, the levels are quite big and there are often some nooks and crannies that allow you to bypass certain areas or cause more trouble for the guards than the main path, and some even have collectibles such as scrolls and artefacts, so it's worth exploring the levels. Not to mention that the way it goes about sound is simple yet effective – walking is quiet while running is noisy, so try not to run unless you intend to distract them.

Speaking of scrolls, you'll earn honors through finding the three scrolls found throughout each level, as well as doing three optional missions and getting a high score. Now, by optional mission, I actually mean that you carry out the main mission, only you do certain things or do it a certain way. Stuff like not breaking a single light or not using any distraction weapons – look, the idea of being restricted may sound like a drag, but the levels are designed in ways to allow you to easily accomplish these missions if you put in some effort. Sure, it might seem tricky to not be able to destroy lights, but if you look around, hide from enemies and get through portions with grace, you won't need to destroy lights. There are plenty of opportunities to hide, stab enemies and hide their bodies (or avoid them) and make your getaway without any issues. This applies to the other optional missions. If you can't accomplish them, then you can simply try again and rethink your approach to it. Mark Of The Ninja offers you, the player, a series of choices as to how you can cover each level. Get all stabby stabby, distract enemies, use traps, go through one of two or even three routes when given the opportunity – it all depends on how you'd rather cover things. It's really refreshing to be given a choice of what you can do in a generation where you're forced upon a set of ultralinear hallways with set pieces and combat zones to look forward to.

Now, you probably just read that last paragraph and wondered to yourself “score? huh?” - well, you acquire points for doing things throughout the level that benefits you. It's not just by killing enemies that you get points; whether enemies walk past you without sounding off the alarm, get distracted by you, get their dead carcasses hidden by you or crap their pants and go crazy by the sudden deaths of their companions... through traps or hanging them with your chain; simply finding dead bodies will have them call for reinforcements. That brings us to when a guard needs his buddies. When you get caught or they suss out a dead body and successfully manage to sound off the alarm or radio some reinforcements, you lose a lot of points. If you're OCD about points, you'll make a point to never get spotted, but for those who don't care about points, all you have to worry about is possibly dying if guards do manage to find you as unlike Corvo from Dishonored or Connor from Assassin's Creed 3, you don't have superpowers or a million hit points. Hell, you don't even draw your sword in direct combat; you just have the karate chop combo. So many times, I just wanted to slice up a guard. I wouldn't even mind if it gave me less points to kill guards upfront like this because that's what the Tenchu games do, but what Mark Of The Ninja does instead is have you use the karate chop combo to maybe knock them out and then stab them for half the points you'd get if you did a stealthy kill, which is half of what you'd lose if you get caught or they find a dead body and call for reinforcements. Thankfully, you do acquire smoke bombs partway into the game, which can aid you in making a getaway.

That's another thing – you're given an arsenal of equipment that can be used to either kill or distract enemies while you make your way through each level. Each of these items have their own distinct use, like killing an enemy as they walk past, making them go “oww my toe” as they step on some three corner jack looking things, make them stare into a pretty light and make them hallucinate, among other things. But of course, what game would be complete without a cardboard box, am I right? To be fair, it's quite useful when dealing with guards that move back and forth, and when you upgrade the cardboard box, you can kill them from inside of it. That's one thing I don't quite like about this game, though; you have to unlock methods of assassination. Seriously? I get unlocking the other bits of equipment; I get upgrading my health and defense; I get upgrading the lightness of my feet; but needing to spend honors just so I can kill enemies from inside a cardboard box, or from above, or from the other side of a door? I don't know, it just baffles me, but it's a minor inconvenience and once you get an upgrade, you keep it forever until you erase your game or install it onto a different PC, so nothing worth getting pissy over.

This game has some replay value, don't you worry if, for whatever reason, 8 hours is too short for you. The New Game+ mode presents a trickier challenge in that your sight is limited to what's in front of you, you have to use your instinct to gauge whether destroying or throwing noisy stuff will get the guards' attention or not as there's no visual on that, guards' field of vision is invisible and you die in just one hit. From there, you're basically forced to further sharpen your instincts, choose your equipment carefully (you can only carry one distraction item and one attack item or trap as I like to call them – same deal in the regular game, by the way) and judge whether your next move is one that'll get you to the next area or six feet under. Liberal checkpoints do make things quite a bit easier as you don't have to redo too much upon death, and you know what, games like this need liberal checkpoints. Leave me starving for checkpoints in games like Thief and Hitman where each and every event is a link in the chain that is the level, influencing events to come in said level; Mark Of The Ninja, even as a score attack game, works best when you're not repeating – frankly - fragmented sections of a level because this one fragmented section had a guard or a laser sensor that caught me by surprise. Each part of the game has its own challenge; repetition of earlier challenges just feels like a waste of time when it's this one you're trying to get done.

Now, if there's one thing I love about Klei Entertainment's games, it's their visual style, and with Mark Of The Ninja, they're in top form! It's very cartoony with some vibrant colors and very smooth animation. It's at its best when it comes to the kills, which look very brutal. I mean, you got this ninja who grabs you, stabs you either in the heart or up your skull, and then either lets you down without alerting so much as a dust mite or slices your abdomen. Naturally, blood splatters everywhere and the way that it spreads is also very well animated. Besides the animation, I found the lighting rather impressive, or more specifically, how they handled the lighting. When you stand in lights, you're fully colored, but in the darkness, you're just a silhouette with a gray outline. It's simple, but it's rather effective in determining whether you're in darkness or not, and hey... at least it matters whether you're in the dark or not unlike in Dishonored! Where the visuals really shine is in the final level... oh my god, it's just so beautiful.

The sound design is also rather good. The voice acting tries to carry the ultimately uninteresting (until the end) story by at least sounding competent enough to work, but nothing about it really stands out in a positive way. Instead, the music is what kicks ass. While you're sneaking around, the music is more low key, just staying in the background. It often sounds like traditional Japanese music, which goes well with the fact that you're a ninja. But then you either get caught or there's a scripted sequence where enemies are out looking for you after you do a mission, and then the strings start to blare out in a fast paced fashion to convey the feeling of excitement. Like with the graphics, the soundtrack truly shines in the final level, and like the visuals for it, the song is just beautiful. It's like a whole otherworldly experience that's like a dream... which I guess is the point when given its context in the story.

A point I made in the introduction was that the design choices were facilitated in a way that made you feel like a ninja. Honestly, with everything that you're given, you do feel like a ninja. Stalking your prey and gracefully moving through levels as if you were never there is about as easy as it gets while offering quite a challenge – it all depends on your instincts. You could either find ways to avoid conflict with enemies or murder all of them. You could graceful leap around and then climb up the sides of buildings to skulk through vents, or run through and murder everyone in your way. It all depends on what the area around you offers. All of this culminates towards an ending that, in and of itself, feels like a journey before the very ending itself satisfies your every orifice.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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