Stoned Ruminations: Mark of the Ninja

Before starting a brand new (to me) game, I tend to Google trailers to pick a few interesting videos to get myself psyched up for interesting and well executed mechanics or holy shit moments that lay ahead in said game. Sometimes the interesting videos are official TV commercial style trailers, sometimes they are developer diaries (produced to excess in some cases with way too many whooshing graphics and terrible soundtracks). In this case, the  interesting vid that got me stoked was this one:

I just spent a good minute marveling at how the carbonation is going wild on one side of my poured glass of Pepsi, yet the other 70% of the circumference of the glass is placid. Yay! This means I’m suitably stoned to throw myself into Mark of The Ninja. It was released initially for the Xbox 360 Arcade in September 2012 and then a PC follow-up appeared later in the fall of 2012. Developed by Klei Entertainment who are also responsible for N+, Shank, Shank 2 & Don’t Starve.

Visually, it’s striking from the get-go. 2D sprite animation at it’s best, I believe Ninja Gaiden on the NES wishes it could have looked like this. Stylized and reminiscent of the best of Cartoon Networks evening fare for the pre teens, Samurai Jack would surely feel at home. The main character (I can’t recall his name and it doesn’t matter) bounces around beautifully and the animations for everything look identical to top-notch animated cartoon fare. There are a lot of cutscenes that bear the same high production value. Acting is well done in both those scenes and the main game (mostly in the form of reaction to your heinous stabbings or general guard banter before they notice you).

Where's Waldo ninja?Not only is the game near the pinnacle of what 2D side-scrollers can do in terms of style, but it is so tight mechanically as a stealth game that your mind abstracts it pretty quickly into X’s and O’s as you plan out your assault on each room, hallway or ventilation shaft (central HVAC abounds). Vision cones, light cones, visual cues about how far sound travels, pop up reminders of what button to push in nearly any context and even a reminder of how far away the patrol dogs can smell you from all help to give you the information you need to succeed. There isn’t guesswork involved, you can easily know what result your immediate actions will have thanks to this overlay of info. Similarly, the game does a good job at obscuring information from you when right  Anything not directly in your line of sight is blurred out with static silhouettes left as a reminder of where enemies were last seen. Your only clue about the changing position of unseen guards in that room or behind that wall are little visual pings of sound they might make.

Level design quickly progresses from allowing you to feel like a naughty ninja god capable of anything to disallowing the same behaviors and forcing you to be smart and efficient (ie not killing everyone for no reason). There is a point system that rewards you for nearly every act and while it gives you points for stealthily slicing up flashlight toting rent-a-cops, the point potential for distraction, evasion and never being seen is far higher. The puzzles (layout of guards, lights, lasers, dogs, large potted plants and body dumpsters) get more and more devious, but they don’t require you to be too twitchy. The difficulty balance between puzzle and action execution reminded me of the end of Portal, so it’s by no means a bullet hell or straight action game at all in the first few hours.

mark-of-the-ninja_updgrade-screenYou earn experience points (I’m sure they’re called something else) to unlock new contextual abilities and new toys to help with all your “neenjah…VANISH!” skills. Because Mark of the Ninja dangles a carrot of “C’mon, try to get your score a little higher for that level” in front of you, all of the unlocks will be achievable just through repeated attempts (or failures I guess) of trying to reach shadowy perfection. Clearly, piles and piles of replayability are available for those who become entranced by the tense gameplay.

It’s really hard not to recommend this game to anyone with any love at all for stealth games. I’m not a big fan of first or third person stealth, but in 2D, the awareness of your surroundings really helps you feel in control instead of just surviving. The design, tempo, style and replayability make this an exemplar of what budget games should be.

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