Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition

Mark of the Ninja is one of my favorite games with a pure emphasis on stealth, if not my all-time favorite among such. I like it more than the Thief games. I wouldn’t call it my favorite game that incorporates stealth mechanics, but it’s still very high praise. Stealth is one of my favorite genres.

There are exceptions, but stealth games tend to sit on one side of a spectrum with survival horror games as their opposite. I don’t mean in terms of mechanics; you often hide from stuff in survival horror. But in stealth games, you are the scary thing that everyone is afraid of. That’s a wonderful feeling. For example, playing Arkham Asylum and hearing a guard’s voice crack as he shouts into the darkness at Batman. That kind of thing is great. Mark of the Ninja is the same, letting you “terrorize” guards, usually by stringing up corpses. They’ll shoot their allies at a sudden sound, and be too distressed to remember to sound the alarm. I think of this as a sign that the developers have the sense of what makes a stealth game great.

Replayability is another cornerstone of the genre, and Mark of the Ninja lets you jump in mission-by-mission, aiming for challenges, collectibles, and high scores. You can replay a mission with new items, or a different outfit, which leads to completely different play styles. I think they should have incorporated speedrun challenges as a record that isn’t factored into the player’s high score, so that there’d be more of a reason to play with the kill-heavy styles: you always get the best scores by ghosting a level, so unless you’re doing a challenge, you tend to always want to pick the outfit that lets you blink around like you’re playing Dishonored, or the outfit that lets you run silently but has no sword. The Special Edition also adds an outfit that lets players silently knock out guards, and getting the ability to take guards out without taking penalties for kills is something that opens up all sorts of strategies. But it also makes the violent styles look even less appealing.

The game has another advantage over many stealth games by being two-dimensional, and being very communicative about where guards are and what they can see. The best stealth games are always really good about telling the player how well-hidden they are, usually with some kind of light meter. Mark of the Ninja gets a pretty good score on this front, but there were still occasional issues with the boundaries of light, and also with not fully understanding when an enemy would see me on top of a light fixture, or with the Sam Fisher cyborg ninjas at the end who could sort of sense what was behind them. This is of course more of a problem in New Game Plus, where the player is significantly blinded and needs direct line of sight on guards. For the most part, my feeling was that New Game Plus adds nothing and makes the mechanics a bit more frustrating. The game is generally on the easy side, so I was willing to go for the gold score medals on each stage in NG+, but since the game checkpoints constantly, it still wasn’t too tough at all. I had more fun and found more replay value just by playing around in old levels with different outfits and without the NG+ vision handicap.

The game was really polished and felt fluid and cool, but I had some occasional small issues. There was a problem with aiming throwing darts, where I’d need to be angling my control stick within a precise degree of the object I was trying to hit. If I could have just toggled between targets, that would’ve been a lot better. It was also a little finicky about whether I could hit lights from the inside of a vent, but no big deal. Sometimes I’d stealth-takedown a guard and the music would heat-up for a half second, and I wouldn’t understand until my score was being tabulated that it had counted as the guard noticing me and sounding an “alarm”. An emotional state of alarm? I don’t know.

The campaign is a good, satisfying length, although I wouldn’t have minded more of it. It might’ve been cool if checkpoints were handled differently: the game is somewhat smart about things like not repeating audio when you get sent back, but it still feels very trial-and-error and brute-forceable in terms of the player taking huge risks in impatiently jumping right over a guard’s head, but only getting sent back about ten seconds when that doesn’t work out. This is better than being forced to replay stuff you don’t want to do again, but it trivializes some of the tough parts. I think instead of the sensory handicap, NG+ should’ve tried fewer checkpoints, and also perhaps requiring the player to manually activate them, to allow for added personal challenges. Maybe allowing checkpointing only in places where you can switch your inventory–the specifics would obviously require some playtesting. I certainly have never complained about a checkpoint right before a trap instantly killed me, but rolling with the punches and being forced to occasionally kill a guard would’ve been good. It also would’ve been cool if alarms going off had a bigger impact on missions, even changing the player’s objectives slightly. That could be a nice ambition for a sequel.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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