Easter Eggs: Mark of the Ninja

By Jonathan Barnes, 4 years ago
Welcome to Easter Eggs, where the TA Team shines the spotlight on games that many gamers might have missed, perhaps hidden away behind the millionth copy of Call of Duty or FIFA. Much like a gamer who finds an Easter Egg hidden away in a game and proceeds to trumpet it from the highest hills and forums, the TA Team is going to be featuring these Easter Egg games on the front page for all to see.
If you listen to the TA Podcast (you do, don't you?), you know I like to say that the best stealth-action games make the player feel like "the finger of God"; a powerful entity that sneaks in, smites an opponent, and leaves without trace or explanation. Good stealth games give all of the tools to achieve this sneaky, powerful goal, but the best stealth games give you all of those same tools, but allow the freedom to NOT use them, making the player more of a benevolent deity that can show mercy and organically sneak through a mission like a phantom, never leaving a trace or clue that you were ever there.

Coming from Klei Entertainment (the developers behind the Shank series), Mark of the Ninja does all of those things and more, creating one of the most successful stealth-action games that provides a throwback to the aesthetics of generations past while taking full advantage of modern consoles and mechanics.

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The Basics

Mark of the Ninja is a 2D stealth-action-platformer that places gamers in the shoes of an unnamed ninja protagonist who is awakened by an attack on his dojo by a heavily-armed insurgency. The first mission, which serves as a tutorial, highlights the importance of moving slowly, sticking to the shadows, keeping quiet (or causing noise in the right places), and stealthily taking out enemies. After this first mission, the ninja takes on the eponymous "Mark of the Ninja" which imbues him with new powers to avenge the attack but will also slowly drive him insane. From there, it's a quest of vengeance, the growth of power, the search for truth, and a descent into madness.

The game's controls are rock solid and allow the ninja to do all kinds of... ninja stuff. Walls can be climbed, ceilings can be crawled across, beams and branches can be dangled from (Spiderman style), vents can be ducked into to make escapes (or hide bodies), and all of it is in service of the game's central mechanic: striking swiftly, silently, and secretly. While the ninja's main weapon is always his sword (or his mind, if you want to be a jerk about it), the unnamed protagonist has a bevy of other tools at his disposal, ranging from bamboo darts (which are great for breaking lights and making noisy distractions), to spike traps, smoke screens, noisemakers, and, yes, flesh-eating insects.

While the story may not warrant much investment, it does pay homage to one of my favorite cult movies of the late 90's. Unfortunately, to say more (or even name the film... check the comments) would be spoiler territory. This story mainly plays out through cutscenes that compare favorably to to the style animated classics like Batman: The Animated Series, voice-overs during gameplay, and collectibles.

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The Hook

A game like few others, Mark of the Ninja does an incredible job of communicating possible strategies and methods through visual cues. Early in the game, Klei highlights the rules of being a ninja and how to follow them: stay in the shadows, stay quiet, and only kill when the result is guaranteed. Following the rules makes you a master ninja, not following those rules usually makes you dead. Fortunately for those who are bit slow on the uptake, a generous checkpoint system keeps failure from being too punitive. The developers then did an incredible job with level design, creating a veritable playground for the ninja that allows for multiple methods of attack and pathways to success. Furthermore, there is an incredible visual language at work in Mark of the Ninja. Without a word, this visual dynamic easily conveys the focus and attention of enemies (allowing you to sneak up on them), lets you know when the ninja is lit or in shadow, and highlights virtually every other situation that would be vital to your ability to sneak around.

In open combat, the ninja is no match for his well-armed enemies and their automatic weapons. With that in mind, all kills need to come from the shadows or be surprise attacks. While this may sound daunting to the uninitiated, it quickly becomes the most wonderful of puzzles. The master ninja can quickly clear an entire screen of enemies with a variety of tools, skills, and strategies. Each level/room features a few "safe spots" where the player can plan their attack and then execute it, allowing for a methodical dissection of every combat scenario.

The stealth-kill system is one of the highlights of the game. As your ninja levels up, he will gain new ways to dispatch enemies. From humble beginnings (you start off by sneaking up and stabbing enemies in the back), you are eventually able to quickly and stealthily execute foes while hidden in a grate, from behind doors, while hanging from branches, from below, from cover, and by the end, you'll truly feel like you can assassinate anyone from anywhere... if you want to. While the game does award points for kills and strategies of all varieties, the largest end-of-level bonus comes from not killing anyone.

To compensate for a ninja who grows in power (through new tattoos), Klei slowly introduces new enemy types that require new techniques to overcome. While the standard guard is easily dispatched, upgraded enemies will require being stunned and more before they're disposed of. By the end of the game, a new kind of technically enhanced enemy makes an appearance. These final enemies present the greatest of challenges, as they're able to move like the ninja, have less-predictable movement patterns, and are much harder to hide from and sneak up on. While initially frustrating, even the toughest enemies can be dealt with if you're patient and embrace the ninja mindset.

Klei has also done a fantastic job of laying out three different kinds of side objectives in each level. Each level contains three haiku scrolls, three level-specific challenges, and three score objectives. While finding the haikus and accomplishing the level-specific challenges are easily doable (especially with guides), the tiered scoring challenges will keep you coming back for more, pushing you to try new strategies and items in order to ratchet up to the top tier.

One of the best parts of Mark of the Ninja is its upgrade system which ties directly into its replayability. As each level's nine challenges slowly get ticked off, new upgrades are unlocked, which allow for better equipment, new kill methods, and different costumes (which also alter abilities). Mark of the Ninja also features a New Game Plus mode that encourages multiple playthroughs and experimentation.

Finally, each level features its own special (and secret) challenge room that puts new ninja skills to the test in a standalone level.

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The Achievements

While the game is easily-completable, it isn't without its fun challenges. Most of the achievements are unlocked through the natural course of play without much fuss and the ones that aren't (like Unstable Footing) are great challenges and tons of fun. The game's toughest achievement, True Ninja, requires you to beat the game on New Game Plus mode, which isn't terribly difficult, but is a little time consuming.

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The Stats

Fewer than 12,000 gamers on site have played Mark of the Ninja with most of our community either having two of the thirty achievements or all thirty in the base game.

Our community gives the game 4.4 out of five stars, while Metacritic has its score at a sterling 90.

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The Price

Currently, the game costs $14.99 (or your regional equivalent). The "Special Edition" DLC, which adds an additional eight achievements, 100G, and a load of great developer commentary, is also available for $4.99 (or your regional equivalent).

As is the case with many Arcade titles, I managed to pick up Mark of the Ninja when it was on sale (for around $5) back in November. For those who are intrigued by the title, let me say that it is absolutely worth the full asking price.
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The Verdict

There are no perfect games, but Klei has crafted one of the most-perfect stealth-action games of the generation. Its 2D presentation and graphic language make the game highly approachable. Its equipment, upgrade system, and path design make it highly replayable. Its achievements encourage varied tactics and experimentation. Finally, its story will compel you to replay it just to re-visit the game with opened eyes... and New Game Plus mode.

Simply put, if you enjoy stealth-action games, or the simple feeling of being sneaky and awesome, Mark of the Ninja should be considered a must-play before you mothball up your 360.

If there's a game you'd like to see featured in Easter Eggs, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.