Thursday, July 25, 2013

Second Opinion: Mark Of The Ninja

Made by the same boys and girls who made the Shank games and eventually Don't Starve, Mark Of The Ninja carries a very similar philosophy in that it rides a singular note, but my god, it'll do everything it can to kick your ass until shit comes out of your ear. Unlike Shank, it doesn't flat out fail in every other department, but it's clear that Klei Entertainment pick a main style of play, focus most of their attention on that, add a dash of smooth Flash cartoon looking visuals, and then come up with some other shit at the last minute. In Shank, it was about beating enemies up with a different assortment of weapons; in Mark Of The Ninja, it's about stalking fortresses in the night, sneaking up on your victims until their backs are turned or they're left dazed and confused. From that moment, you draw your sword and stab them in their cold, black hearts, or jam your sword up their jaw bone and right through their cranium. Or both. Either way, nobody has to know that you did it.

From there, it becomes clear that Mark Of The Ninja is a game where you play as a ninja and you have to *gasp* use stealth! I mean, a ninja sneaking around, making sure not to get caught, and killing whenever it's necessary? Holy shit, what a unique concept, I've never seen that before! Seriously, what ninja game besides the Tenchu series can hold such a claim that you play as an honest to god fucking ninja!? Most ninja games focus more on being a badass one man army like Joe Musachi or Ryu Hayabusa, and here's Klei Entertainment, the one company you'd expect to make a sidescrolling Ninja Gaiden-esque game, making a game that feels like a sidescrolling version of the Tenchu games! Mind you, Tenchu actually lets you draw your blade in direct combat while Mark Of The Ninja forces a karate chop combo onto you in a vain attempt to knock a guard down before killing him. But then part of me thinks that it's not only Klei trying their hardest to deviate from the Shank series' blend of relentless, downright badass action (I mean holy shit, he stabs his foes with a running goddamn chainsaw), but also their response to how in the shit the stealth genre is – and how appropriate that it's released at roughly the same time as Dishonored (essentially the yin to this game's yang), Hitman: Absolution (basically Splinter Cell: Conviction with a half broken disguise system) and Assassin's Creed 3 (which was just really, really fucking boring)!

But yeah, to kick things off, the story is... okay. It revolves around an unnamed ninja who must defend his clan from a corporation who had just attacked them. He's branded with a tattoo mark with special ink that sharpens his senses and gives him shaper reflexes, but it comes at the cost of his sanity, meaning that he has to kill himself once the mission is over. But there's more to this mission than meets the eye, and the plot twist in the second half makes you wonder “whoa, what are they going to do next”. Well, just wait for the ending – or should I say, one of two endings, where you'll either find yourself in amazement over what the clan is really about and how badly the ink really screws with you... or just wonder what's going on. At the same time, the last mission is where everything truly comes together; every moment of the story is building up to this entire mission and by the end, you'll be wondering if the story itself was any good, or if it's just the euphoria derived from the last mission. Then you realize that the story, prior to that point, felt like filler. Not counting the mid game plot twist moment, each scene just felt like justification for carrying on your mission without really turning into anything resembling a compelling story. I suppose that's just Klei being Klei, but one day, they'll manage to string together a 100% compelling narrative.

So while it flounders in the story department, it more than makes up for it with the gameplay. As I've mentioned, you basically sneak around and either slip past or kill guards so that you can make your way to Point B. Now, you may be looking at a screenshot and wondering how in holy hell stealth works in a two dimensional setting. Simple – using cones to signify lines of sight and lighting (and that's another thing... lighting, in a MODERN stealth game? Are these guys the most off the rail cunts or what!?), as well as the addition of a run button that'll let you move faster at the expense of silent movement (and soundwaves are generated as clear circles), turns a simple game of hide and seek to a somewhat more complex game of chicken. Should you risk getting seen in the light while running and potentially either distract your foes or get caught and have them call reinforcements onto you, or should you sneak up to them using background objects to hide behind and go in for the kill? Then Mark Of The Ninja throws you a curveball partway into the first level with the addition of darts, which you can throw at enemies or at objects to either shut off light sources and/or distract enemies before either slipping past them or killing them. Doors start to open at that point and then you have to make a decision on whether to use noise as your ally or to bug the guard by throwing a dart at them (they don't kill guards) to draw them close to their death or to at least slip by.

As you're given more toys to play with (either through progression or from buying them at flags found partway into levels and at the beginning of levels), the game further opens itself up and by the end of the game, you'll probably be able to equip what you think sounds good (so long as the game doesn't force something else onto you – not that it'd matter because they give you advice on how to use it) and be able to use it like it's second nature. That's the thing with games like this; it's only as easy as your mental capacity allows it to be. If you're somebody who can use the tools and the environment at your disposal, then it's a matter of timing, patience and knowing how to use everything around you to your advantage. If, on the other hand, you're a fucking idiot who can't learn from your mistakes, well, tough shit buddy, enjoy losing points from setting off the alarm before you die and get sent back to the last checkpoint. Unfortunately, this game does coddle you a bit – there are lots of checkpoints and the points reset to however much you had when you first got to that last checkpoint; can't really say it's 100% idiot proof unless said idiot is lucky enough to get away from the guards or kill them without getting themselves killed and just be 800 points short of what they could've had at the end of the level if they just didn't set off the alarm.

Mark Of The Ninja is both a throwback to when stealth games actually felt like stealth games instead of The Bourne Identity on bath salts, and an accessible game in the stealth genre instead of just trying to be a complete bastard. Because Klei Entertainment had to make sure that their effort felt genuine while having it be a sidescrolling game, they employ a lot of deceptively simplistic design choices to make it happen. On paper, the guards' AI is easy to exploit as they're attracted to noise and will investigate right about where the source of that noise came from; they will investigate where they last saw you if you're caught in a light and they're a fair bit away from you, meaning that you can make a clean getaway if you're quick enough; they hardly get suspicious of the ducts; they almost never leave the area that they're patrolling even when backup is called for (only the guards in the area and MAYBE ones that are nearby will jump in). In practice, you should just not tempt them unless you can make a getaway or kill them before they call for backup. I mean, you might as well just tempt a British royal guard while you're at it! Oh... did I forget to mention that you don't have much health? Did I also forget to mention that, unlike in Whose Line Is It Anyway, the points do kind of matter if you want to unlock everything?

Might as well talk about points, unlockables and all that jazz right now – there are a few things you can do to acquire points. You mainly get points from killing guards, but you can also get points for having them walk past you without you getting noticed, distracting them with noise and hiding their bodies. Just get the button prompt for killing right, because screwing that up means you'll get less points and they'll scream, and since they scream really loudly, you'll have guards around them rousing suspicion, so... don't fuck it up. Getting as many points as possible is great because at the end of each level, you'll be given between one and three honors based on your score. You'll also get points if you scour each level for artefacts and haikus – each haiku collected gives you an honor, by the way. But the third is obtained through a special course where you'll use the ancient ninja arts of climbing walls, pushing blocks, pulling levers and teleportation in order to navigate through lasers and open doors to the end point. They're not as tedious as they sound; they're actually rather cool brain teasers, testing you on how much you've actually learned from that point in the game. Would love to have some with enemies in them to really test ones' skill, but whatever. The third and final way to acquire honors is through mission specific challenges. From getting to an objective as quickly as possible to killing certain guards to restricting the usage of certain items, it really forces you to think outside the circle, especially since some of them force you to use methods that go against your usual stuff. If any of them sound tough, don't worry – the sections and even levels are designed in a way that'll help you (not coddle you, not spoonfeed you; just help you) accomplish each mission and checkpoints, like I said, are pretty forgiving so if you screw up, you can just reset to the last checkpoint and rethink your approach.

“What are these honors you speak of???” - they're currency for upgrades. But if I'm being honest, they range from worthless, to “why don't I have this already” to “oh wow at least this makes sense being an upgrade”. Like how Spec Ops: The Line, Tomb Raider 2013 and The Last Of Us shoehorned multiplayer because the developers thought every game needed it, not even Klei Entertainment is immune to shoehorning elements and making it clear that they're, indeed, shoehorning elements into a game. Not every game needs an upgrade system. Okay, cool, so I can buy a cardboard box and then buy an upgrade that lets me kill from insi-- umm why the fuck can't I do that with my purchase of a cardboard box? Better yet, a lot of methods of assassination have to be unlocked. Methods such as killing while dangling from your chain, to killing from a ledge up above, to killing through doors, to killing through shaft openings – wow what the goddamn shit guys, I should have this crap from the start! This isn't a question of making the game easier; it's a question of making the game more what it is, which is a test of your instincts. When you're dangling from a chain, you're running the risk of exposing yourself to a guard whose gun has a torch. When killing from above, you run the risk of being seen by other guards who may be nearby. Oh, and what kind of master ninja has to learn methods of assassination? Did Master Azai arbitrarily restrict us to only being allowed to stab enemies in the back until we become honorable enough to earn the right to use the other methods of assassination?

I'm sorry for railing on that for so long, but when a game gets damn near everything else right only to have something so jaw droppingly baffling, I can't help myself. Oh and defense upgrades are worthless, especially if you play the New Game+ mode where one hit kills you anyway. The lighter footsteps barely matter because you hardly ever need to drop from really high edges or run at the risk of enemies detecting you. The other upgrades though, like quieter spike traps, more lethal jacks and tranquillizer darts, remote noise making mines and flares and other such items, are worth it. I just get the feeling that they added in the rest or this feature in general because everybody else was. Don't forget X ray vision, Klei; I hear that's a hot feature to include in stealth games. But like I said, this seems like a sore spot in an otherwise fantastic game because not only does every design element congeal into a cohesive and immersing experience that forces you to use your instincts properly, but its deceptively simple design also allows Klei to focus on what makes it feel like a legit stealth game.

The presentation helps it feel like a stealth game – it's easy to tell when you're in the light and when you're in the darkness. In the dark, you're basically an outline, giving the feeling of being hidden in the dark, silent as a mouse with the visibility of somebody's imaginary friend... kind of like a ninja; but in the light, you're in color, giving you the feeling of being exposed to your enemies if any happen to be around. Then you get to the killing, and boy oh boy, I think Klei's animators went above and beyond on this one as each of the animations look pretty fucking brutal. Okay, so on one hand, you have a back stab. On the other, you stab their back, rush right in front of them and slice them up their abdomen. Want more hands? Try stabbing their brain from their chin! Hey, we can go further if you want – let's include the chain by having it wrapped around their necks... after getting stabbed, of course. Look, the point is that these over the top, verging on performing riverdance on their nutsacks style killings are very well animated, with fluid transitioning between frames to give off the feel of a quick, brutal slaying. In general, the game's pretty easy on the eyes with its clean tablet drawn Adult Swim Flash cartoon look. Special props go towards the last level's imagery – fuck, it looks impressive with just the right scenery and colors to give off the impression that it's trying to give!

As for the sound design... well, the voice acting won't be winning any awards, but the soundtrack works pretty well with the rest of the game. The sneakier sections have this quiet sort of Japanese folk music in the background – that, or some quiet symphonics. Each of these songs also give you that feeling of being watched, or the possibility of getting spotted and killed. Then you eventually got spotted (or you're in one of those moments where you have to escape from a building) and the music picks up with either these loud tribal drums or this intense violin track that inspires you to either kick ass or get out of there. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot to really say about the soundtrack because despite its limited quantity, it's something of a forgettable affair. But man, I swear, the last level was where Klei really pull out all the stops because the sound design there is just fucking brilliant! Like the visuals, it really gives off just the right feeling and given the amount of weight that particular part has, you bet your ass it's a damn good final level!

One question you'd probably be asking yourself throughout this review is “why are you gushing so much, it just sounds like you enjoy the novelty of a sidescrolling stealth game that reminds you of old school stealth games” - it's the fact that what it does right, it does fucking right! Oh sure, the story's a drag until the end and half the “upgrades” seem like filler, but then you get into actually playing the game and it pulls out all the stops. Its brand of stealth is not only something I miss, but it's also very well done with some deceptively simple techniques and multitude of options at your disposal, as well as some well designed levels that let you fully immerse yourself into the game. That's what stealth is all about; immersion. Allowing you to get into hiding in the darkness, only killing your prey when they don't see it coming and stalking through fortresses as if you were never really there. That, my friends, is a true ninja. Look, I love Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi too, but sometimes, you have to remind yourself that ninjas are the assassins of the night, not John Rambo in a robe or tights with a sword. Mark Of The Ninja does just that, and then some.

9/10 (Fucking Awesome)

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