As frustrating as they can get, I love stealth-based videogames. It probably all began, to no one’s surprise, with Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation 1 back in the late 1990s. As Solid Snake, a real grunt of a guy, you had to sneak through a nuclear weapons storage facility on Shadow Moses Island, which has been attacked and overtaken by a group of terrorists known as FOXHOUND. The terrorists have taken two hostages: DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker. For me, gameplay was fundamentally different than anything else I had thus experienced on my PlayStation 1 and SNES before it. Your goal was to avoid detection, as much as possible. And when you did, after much crawling under things, pressing your body against walls, and creeping down the line under a cardboard box, you truly felt like king of the castle.
Other games did this as well. Tenchu, which holds the honor of being the first 3D stealth game, lets you run along rooftops and use a grappling hook to get around enemies. With the use of certain Plasmids, one could totally be a sneaky sneakster in BioShock–though not for all scenarios. And from what I’ve dabbled in with Lone Survivor, hiding from freaky monsters is vital to surviving and up to you to do. Some games though, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Hitman: Blood Money (for the Ps2), were more punishing and less fun.
Mark of the Ninja blows them all away–not with its story, mind you, but how it implements and improves upon the many elements that make up a stealth game. Namely, sound. Everything you do makes a sound, from running to landing on the ground, and the volume of that is measured in a blue ring that you can see right on the screen. If a guard is within the blue ring, he will hear you. Simple as that, but the clear and conciseness of it all works marvelously. Stealth kills are quickly successful if a short button prompt press is won. Cones of vision come right off a guard’s face, leaving behind the map as a constant picture-within-picture mandatory check. You can also easily tell when you are visible and not, depending on whether you, the ninja, is colored in or all in black. And lastly, movement. This ninja is fast and silent, and it shows when you move from one side of the screen to the other so fluidly and without detection.
There are 12 levels in Mark of the Ninja and…no, wait. I guess I should mention the reason why you are going through these levels. Again, the story was a letdown, especially since it did eventually build to a great mystery. Alas, a mystery left for you to unravel in your spare time. Anyways, you are a ninja of the Hisomu Clan, awaken by a mysterious female ninja after learning that the clan village was just attacked by an organization called Hessian Services. Your body is covered in crazy tattoos that are twofold: they give you power, and they also might make you crazy and commit suicide. As you learn more about the attack, friends become enemies, and you then begin a quest for truth. It’s all kinds of mediocre, but towards the middle the story does intensify, and the ending, which is a choice-based thing a la Bastion, did make me pause and actually think before picking. Unfortunately, unlike that previously mentioned game, your choice leads to nothing. Just credits. I was hoping for more confirmation in the end, whether the ninja was crazy or not, but I guess it’s not an answer easily said.
Regardless, the levels are a blast. Each is a puzzle itself, in that you can get through them all without being detected, without killing anyone, or doing a bit of both. There are nine upgrade points to be earned in each level: three are findable scrolls, three are score-based, and three are special challenges to do. I’m currently replaying many of them to find everything, and it is still immensely enjoyable. Two nitpicks are that laser puzzles are annoying, and that some areas are really dark, forcing you to up the gamma on your TV screen.
After beating the Mark of the Ninja, you unlock New Game+, but I don’t think it is something I’ll be able to do. Not now, maybe not ever. Firstly, the sound ring is removed, something which I rely on a lot. Enemies are tougher, too, and there’s a third change that I can’t remember, but it’s probably a doozy. Either way, for $15, this is a great game for fans of stealth, with plenty of things to do once the disappointing story is told. Also, some great and creative Achievements, like freaking out a guard to kill another guard or throwing three different items at once or making a stealth kill from inside a box. Really good stuff.