I recently sat down to clear out my Steam backlog when I was looking for a platformer to play and decided Mark of the Ninja. The premise sounded interesting. Stealth platformer, scoring, plenty of upgrades…it got my attention. Sadly after the first mission when I began figuring out the game I realized it wasn’t as hot as I thought. I’m surprised given this game was well received on launch. But I have a few theories for why and those will be obvious later on.
Game play is in the initial stages fun, and I found myself enjoying a few of the upgrade skills. If you’re looking for a way around a ‘problem’ you’ll often find an alternate path. Consider this a plus. Most of the time it was obvious there was another course of action and the unnamed protagonist’s companion even gives you the heads up about that a time or two throughout the game. I like when games give you multiple paths to the same goal. Giving the player options helps a player flesh out their own style while polishing their own use of certain game mechanics. The problem I had was when I got past the first few stages, I noticed some of the flaws.
The game scores you at the end of each stage, running the player though a breakdown of their score. You get bonuses for not killing enemies, for not raising alarms, and multipliers for going undetected and likewise distracting enemies. Of course the bonus for not killing enemies seems large at first but there have been discussions about the math. The “no killing” bonus is about five thousand points, but there is the potential to get about at minimum, one thousand points per kill. Of course killing enemies leaves their bodies to be discovered by other enemies or that would be the case if not for the fact that the player has places to hide the bodies. Closets, dumpsters, vents, shafts, and off the map.
And so I did the math. Assuming you kill and hide the bodies without getting detected means at minimum you score about six hundred fifty points per kill. I could easily break the previously mentioned bonus in eight kills. If there were less than five enemies in each stage this would make the pure stealth of no killing the more viable option for getting a high score. But that I’ve never had that as the case. To make a point, in one stage I easily encountered more than twenty enemies. And when you add in the three tiers of score milestones to reach in every stage, the final one being quite high, then there’s really no point to even try for ‘no killing’ save for the achievement “Ghost”. This means there’s more incentive to kill everything that moves, man or beast. And the score goals I mentioned, you need to reach them in order to have the points you need for upgrades. And some upgrades are only revealed when you achieve certain challenges that require you to kill enemies. And this isn’t counting one stage where it is nearly impossible to get said “no killing” bonus simply because enemies are so incompetent.
Speaking of incompetent enemies, I could easily pick off one enemy from a pair or so and the others wouldn’t even realize the poor sap was missing, unless I left the victim in plain sight. If I left them hanging out for someone to find the poor sap could get spooked and fire their gun off on their own allies, giving my score a nice friendly fire bonus. That aside I would often get a kill from a group, and just the right place, where his bud or buddies would return to mere seconds later and not even realize one of their own was gone. I have seen more competence from the minions of Garlic Jr. I remember myself saying “It’s a good thing you guys are incompetent…” more than once.
This brings us to the plot. The Reader’s Digest version: Clan is attacked, members are killed, save the ninja president, fight back, hint of plot twist, kill evil businessman, plot twist, another plot twist, you’re crazy but you’re not wrong, ending choice. The plot was enjoyable until it decided to blue ball me over the finale. I’m not saying there wasn’t one, but the way dialogue is delivered I was often assuming the stage I’m on is the last one. “This is your final mission…” and then another stage later “This is your final mission…”. I had been on this dance roughly five times, asking myself each time is it really the end? This annoyed me because there were times when I thought I could just do one more stage, watch the ending, and put the game down. But no, my ending was in another stage. As for the plot points I enjoyed before the constant bait and switch of the finale? Let’s just say there are moments when a villain or two shouts out “He’s just one man!” Clearly these villains never saw a single ninja movie, ever. Saying “He’s just one ninja…” or “He’s just one man…” is a surefire way to raise that villain’s death flag. At one point after a boss shouted over the intercom I would reply back “…every time you say that, one of your minions will die.” I found moments like these in game to be fun. Sad thing is, evil businessman knew the ninja was pursuing him and he didn’t think to call for his escape helicopter to be ready when he reached his castle? I appreciated the option to disable his chopper and escape without killing the pilot, but this seemed like a plot device to allow for “no killing”. The endings, however short, really leave you with a feeling reminiscent of the ending of an episode of Samurai Jack. I couldn’t help feeling like there was no better choice after seeing both. I won’t spoil them, because I think the game deserves a full play through.
Sound and artwork. Whoever was responsible for the sound staging throughout the levels really deserves some points for making the ambient sound and music change depending on if you were inside our outside and how far away you were from the source of the sound. There was something similar with visuals as well, the player being unable to see anything that was not in line of sight. This made early playing of the game one of careful peeking through vents, and around ledge corners. Of course there were visual indicators to show the sound of foot steps from enemy movement. These were places where things were done well. Music in game however annoyed me early game to the point I set it to the lowest setting, tuning it out and forgetting about it until the very last stage. So perhaps better mixing of the music with ambient soundscapes would have improved that part of the experience overall. Because that music at the ending really supported the impact of the ending stage. One of the flaws in the art that comes to mind is the changes to the protagonist when you choose a “path” for the nameless. These different paths offer the player a little more variety, but the outfit changes offer little more than a recolor. I suppose that had something to do with the game’s six month development cycle.
I found one glitch in the game that didn’t necessarily break the game, but it allowed me to complete an objective in a challenge map despite otherwise dying to a laser trap after getting the scroll. The glitch involves the map being counted as cleared the moment you get the scroll. The game breaking bug I found was coincidentally in an escort objective where you have to discreetly follow a target until they reach a certain part of the map. I lost him right after the game auto-saved my progress for the game and I found myself in an infinite loop of “objective failed” and reloading into my auto-save, rinse and repeat. The only way to get around this was to restart the stage, and I add here that was not desirable at all. It would have been great to restart from where the escort objective starts, and would save many players from that infinite loop.
Overall I liked this game more than I expected but the flaws prevent me from giving this game the 9/10 score others have awarded Mark of the Ninja. The level design started simple, allowing players the chance to learn how to play on the basic. Slowly introducing newer or advanced mechanics in later stages, prompting the player to get better as the difficulty increases. The hidden challenge maps were something of a love and hate for me, given that they could be done in multiple ways, and often if you played them enough times you could find shortcuts to finish them quickly. The two bugs I found were not enough to call the game a broken mess, but I’m certain it’d be much worse without any play testing. The art was a plus, and gave me bit of nostalgia here and there. The overall sound design was a plus if not for the music needing some work. The plot had good points but left me wondering when it was going to end. When I’m trying to get a feel for where I am in the game this can be a bit of a pain so that is a minus. I think with a longer development cycle the game might have been improved slightly. It’s worth playing, and if you like 2D platformers, this will belong in your library. If you like stealth games, get it on sale.
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