Thanks to Steam, I have a lot more access to indie games, which was how I discovered and fell in love with Primordia. Around the same time, I came across another independently-produced gem: Mark of the Ninja, by Klei Entertainment.
Mark of the Ninja is a stealth-based side-scrolling platformer game, and while it’s been a long time since I’ve played a side-scrolling game (I think it was Super Mario Bros.), I’ve never played a stealth game before. But this was a great first experience in the stealth genre. You play as a ninja whose mission is to save Master Azai, defend the honor of your clan, and earn new tattoos that bring you closer to the ideal of the shinobi. To succeed, you must use stealth to outwit, elude, and kill every guard who stands in your path. If they spot you, you’re dead. If they don’t, they’re dead thanks to a one-hit-kill sword.
Visually, this game is impressive. The settings are appropriately dark and evocative of traditional Japanese architecture, mixed with modern lighting and ventilation shafts. Traditional calligraphy is also nicely rendered in the fully-animated cutscenes, lending a mythical air to the ninja clan’s history and current objectives (and also looks a lot like Samurai Jack, come to think of it).
For the most part, the gameplay is very enjoyable and creative. Since it combines a stealth game with a side-scrolling platformer, you can move around by jumping to different levels on the screen using a grappling hook and light-footed jumps into vents. The game also immerses you in the art of ninja tactics: taking cover in doorways and behind plants when guards pass, disposing of bodies to avoid raising an alarm, and throwing darts to create distractions. The gameplay also allows for line-of-sight targeting, meaning that your ninja can peek into other rooms or below floors to see where the enemy guards are, what distractions are available, and how best to time your attacks without being spotted.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the emphasis on stealth can be frustrating when the setting or the enemy guards aren’t cooperative. If you’re spotted and face-to-face with a lone guard, you can’t just kill him and then hide the body. Most likely, you’ll end up hitting him a lot and get shot dead. And sometimes the guards won’t be in earshot of a distraction, making it hard to find a way to get behind them for the kill. While this does force the player to think more creatively about how to clear out an area, it can also be an irritation when you just want to advance to the next level already.
Still, on the whole, I found Mark of the Ninja to be a great initiation to the stealth genre and a nice change of pace from the usual fighting games. While I didn’t always appreciate the in-game puzzles like I would in Portal or Primordia, not to mention the lack of a strong story, its ethos and ingenuity are still incredibly fun and engaging.
Bibliography: Mark of the Ninja. Developed by Klei Entertainment. Published by Microsoft Studios. Platforms: Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows. Released on September 7, 2012 (Xbox) and October 16, 2012 (Windows).