[Note: The Backloggery Game Club game of May is Mark of the Ninja, a downloadable game by Klei Entertainment. They were first put on the map for a game called Shank, a dark and brutal brawler, and after Shank 2, Klei decided to try a new IP with this game. It’s not another brawler, to be sure; instead, you play the role of a ninja, and all the stealth and killing that comes with that.
I myself wasn’t sure about the game–I didn’t enjoy Shank too much, and only got Mark of the Ninja on a sale. The little that my boyfriend played, he was a little put off by the fact that there was a huge no-kill bonus, seemingly odd in a game that practically begs you to kill. So, going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Oh, and this post will be long, detailed, and filled with tons of spoilers… read at your own risk! If you want a more typical review, you can go here.]
When I first booted up the game, the level select screen gave me a less that descriptive explanation… “You must save Azai!” Having no clue who this Azai is, I enter the level and am awakened by a female ninja. Some manner of people are attacking their home and killing everyone, and for some reason or another this mysterious sleeping ninja is the solution to all the problems. I’m more or less perplexed as to what’s going on, but I figured it would be explained soon enough.
As I make my way through the first level, I’m taught a lot of the basics that will serve me throughout the rest of the game. Learn how to hide and be silent, how to execute a stealth kill, how to distract by messing with lights and scenery, and so on. While I assumed you get fancy new tricks later in the game, these basics are essential for getting through the game, even when you have everything at your disposal. They’re just that important, and teaching them straight-away is the best way for them to actually stick.
On the level itself, it’s fairly easy, though I bumble about a lot. I got detected and killed a couple times, but for the most part I was getting through the level without too many mess-ups. I wouldn’t say I was enjoying myself too much, but it wasn’t a chore to play, either. I noticed collectibles like the scrolls and the side-missions that gets you an extra honor, but I mainly ignored them–if I found a scroll or succeeded at a sub-mission, that was great, but I didn’t go out of my way to do so. I didn’t want to risk getting frustrated.
Eventually, I stumble into Azai, my master, and learn a bit about what’s going on. Karashan’s troops have attacked our ninja clan, presumably to obtain their secrets. The most coveted of these secrets are the tattoos that adorn the main character’s body–these tattoos are made with a special ink that imbues the marked with special powers, but eventually turns them insane. The task is clear: Wreak havoc and revenge on Karashan, then return to the clan and sacrifice yourself for the good of the clan. It’s a bit grim, but there’s nothing else that can be done.
The second set of levels brings us to a new area, where Karashan is hiding out. He is quite a pompous and evil man, as the cutscenes show us… selling off precious body armor just for a little taste of wine. It’s sad, since it makes it easier to kill all of his troops.
The second level itself doesn’t have much going on of note–I’m taught new ways to dodge troops and kill them, as well as other basic functions. It’s easy to see that this is a another level to help me ease into the gameplay, which honestly was something I needed.
The third level, however, brings me something very interesting… the ability to buy new skills and items. The system uses ‘honor’ to allow you to buy these upgrades, and you earn honor by finding Scrolls of Wisdom, completing sub goals, and by getting a high score. Also, completing certain types of sub-goals makes progress to earning new outfits. I had no clue what these outfits do, but I thought it was a great incentive to finish the sub-goals and find out what they looked like, at least.
So, just like that, I went from not caring about the sub-goals to trying to unlock everyone I could. The sub-goals were actually very interesting and introduced to me new ways to play… like giving me an incentive to get through a heavily guarded area unseen, or using a new move to terrorize the guards. I still didn’t go out of my way to collect Scrolls of Wisdom, but I still managed to find one or two per level; and with consistently getting two honor (out of three) in the score department, I was able to afford a fair amount of upgrades. The various ways to kill were always first on my list, since they allowed me far more variety when it came to how to get around a map (trust me, being able to kill a guard while dangling from a grappling point, or through a doorway are extremely helpful). I tried new distraction items, but in terms of making guards turn away or get in a better position, I found the good ol’ darts and shooting out lights the best option.
One of the great things about this game, in my opinion, is how many options you have and how the game makes you use them. Between the varying enemies and scenarios, and the sub-goals, you’ll find ways to get through Karashan’s troops that you didn’t even think was possible. It makes for a very fun venture, and almost puzzle-like in its nature… do you want to kill those guys, or sneak past them? Or, perhaps kill one in a gruesome manner that terrifies his buddies? Better yet, why not separate them, and take them out quietly, one by one? The sheer amount of options available conforms to any play style, and it makes for a whole ton of fun.
Eventually, I get through the second set of levels, and Karashan gets away. I feel a little bad for Commander Kelly, actually… the man tries to lure you out of hiding, taunting you to ‘fight like a man’, which is a bit ironic seeing as has snipers and a riot shield on his side. The female ninja responds with ‘he must think we’re like the honorable samurai… he must not know the way of the ninja’. And with that, I slowly took out his snipers, and dropped a chandelier on the Commander’s head.
If you’ll allow me a quick interlude, I find it a little odd that the female ninja is even still with me. It was made somewhat clear that this main character has abilities above and beyond the other disciples, so I find it impressive that she can even keep up. Also, the fact that she seems to talk in my head is another odd bit, though it could be that I just can’t see her every time she talks. I figured there was some in-game explanation to give us a ‘suspense of disbelief’… maybe she’s the right hand woman of Azai, sent to make sure you don’t go insane in the middle of the mission, or perhaps she has the tattoos and that’s why she can keep up, or something else. I don’t think too much of it at the time.
In between these sets of stages, the main character gets a bit of a rest. We are introduced to the tattoo artist, who mentions something of interest: ‘I’ve never really seen anyone go insane, but then again they don’t usually live long enough to find out’. Seems like foreshadowing for later on, yet at the same time it really could mean nothing. Mark of the Ninja does a great job of making nothing seem concrete–what you’re told, what you find out, what you see, nothing seems to be completely ‘right’. For a game that’s main emphasis is not the story, these segments are remarkably well done.
The third set of stages takes me to a modern day castle, and with it some new situations to get through. Now, there’s poison gas laden in the vents, making it so I can’t hide out in them long before choking and dying, and new enemies with gas masks and night vision goggles to spot me easily. It forces me to change my tactics, and sometimes be a little more risky in my strategy.
I also notice a little change in my companion’s tone. She almost sounds bitter about the situation, acting as if it seems worthless that our tattooed ninja should sacrifice himself after avenging the clan. Some of the Scrolls I find seem to put truth to her musings, as well: One in the final level in the set specially states that the tattoos can only be given to disciples, not masters, because then the masters can control and manipulate them. Another one states, ‘what’s the difference between being mad and being dangerous?’… the game really wants you to know that not everything is as it said.
On a gameplay standpoint, it’s around this time that I start unlocking alternate costumes. They actually have varying powers, which makes traipsing through the levels more interesting. For example, one outfit terrifies enemies whenever they see a dead body, but you can’t hold any distraction items. Another one makes it far easier to sneak around, but you can’t carry a sword. It’s yet another way that Klei decided to change up your options a bit, and it’s rather fun to experiment with the new outfits and see your new options and limitations.
Okay, so, after running through the castle, I finally get to Karashan. I almost feel a little bad for him–he cowers in his tiny shelter, screaming at his men to protect him while trying to barter with me to stop the inevitable. I finally get the door open, and the poor man, shaking in utter fear, holds a gun up but was unable to shoot. And with that… well, the mission was complete.
When I return to Azai, something is definitely up. Karashan’s unit’s body armor and technology is here, as well as a writing by Azai stating that the clan must adapt to survive. My female companion seems concerned (whether for the main character or the clan, it’s hard to tell), and carries worry in her voice: “M-maybe you shouldn’t kill yourself just yet… at least until we figure out what’s going on!” It doesn’t take long, though: Soon we reach Azai, praising me on the success of my mission, and offering the ancestral sword to commit suicide with. However, there are also some strange ninjas, garbed in body armor and high-tech gear. My character is clearly not happy with this, and decides to… well, not kill himself and leave. Off to the desert I go, to find the ink master and perhaps figure out what’s going on and what to do.
While it was hinted at, this is the first time in the narrative that shows you that something deeper was going on here. Sure, Karashan wasn’t the best fellow, but did he and his troops really even attack us first? Was the mission really for revenge, or was it a ruse to obtain Karashan’s technology and money? Maybe Azai was trying to make a deal that went sour, or perhaps a group of ninjas got caught trying to steal some of the armor. It raises a lot of questions and suspicions in the player’s mind, and these feelings don’t go away over time. It’s a sign of some powerful storytelling.
So, the desert stages in themselves are interesting. In the first you find the ink master (I can’t remember his name) under the hostage of bandits wanting to get the legendary tattoos and powers themselves. After freeing him, he gives our ‘hero’ the final tattoo, but as soon as he finishes, the bandits bust in, giving us no time to grab our weapons. The unfortunate ink master dies, and I give him a proper funeral at the behest of my female companion.
Before continuing, though, I want to bring up something the ink master said… after freeing him, he points to a batch of dead and rotting plants, saying that the plants the ink came from had been dead for years, and that ‘surely Azai knew that’. If he did, did he procure the body armor and technology in lieu of the powerful tattoos, so that if the clan is threatened again they can survive… or was it simply a selfish ambition?
The rest of the desert levels involve sneaking through the bandits and other threats and getting out of the desert. It’s pretty hard, since without your sword you cannot do any stealth kills, having to rely on the environment to sneak around and kill threats. I died a lot during these part, and also was detected quite a bit–a lot of the areas were almost puzzle like in how to get through without being killed. It was interesting, but I preferred having the option to actually kill my foes.
However, the final tattoo gave me a new power. It’s best described as a short teleport, the character moves in the blink of an eye to a location not too far away. You can’t spam it or anything, but it’s essential to get past the traps and enemies in these levels without too much difficulty. In fact, it’s sometimes next to impossible to get past the stalkers without clever use of this move.
Speaking of the stalkers, they are ROUGH. The stalkers are actually the ninjas in body armor and the other high-tech stuff from Karashan. They can jump, move fast, enter vents, and even notice you when you’re sneaking up on them. I find trying to get past the stalkers more annoying than anything, especially since they seem damn near impossible to kill. I found it easy for them to step on bombs and kill themselves, but other than that I couldn’t seem to find a way past them… and sometimes even using my new ability would get me caught. It never got frustrating, but I was upset with my general lack of skill and grace trying to get past them.
Around this time I stopped caring about the sub-goals again. I had already unlocked all the alternate outfits, so the only reason to try them now was for honor. However, I had most of the skills I wanted, and the extra I bought with the honor I earned for grabbing random Scrolls and for score-related rewards. Not that the sub-goals are worthless (I still tried for a few, but I didn’t get upset if I messed up), but I was at a point where I was having enough trouble simply getting through the area.
After escaping the bandit’s hideout, the game returns once again to the ninja base. We have to sneak it, which shouldn’t be difficult… but is that Karashan’s troops in the corridors? My companion ninja speaks up: “Are the hallucinations getting worse?” I didn’t know the character was hallucinating in the first place… but it starts to become obvious here. These imaginary troops are quite real to our tattooed ninja, and can still kill, but practically disappear when killed. Also, shadows begin to create faces and the general vibe is that yes, you are going insane. It brings up yet another question in my mind, though… when did these hallucinations even start? And how did she know about them? Perhaps I was killing a bunch of air and she got concerned.
This aspect also carries over into the gameplay in a neat way: At one point there was an area with both imaginary soldiers and stalkers. I killed an imaginary solider, which made another soldier freak out, but the stalker wasn’t affected by the killing or the other soldier’s frantic shots. It makes complete sense, seeing as the soldier are, in fact, not real… but it’s not something games always make the distinction with.
And then, I get to the end. Despite this being detailed and very spoiler filled to this point, I’m not going to talk about it here. Why? It’s something that’s worth truly experiencing. Everything comes to a head at this point… some questions answered, a lot more asked, and a decision to be made. It’s just so…. POWERFUL, and something that will probably stick with me for a long time. Everything, from the presentation to the music to the steady slow walk was just so perfect. I can’t bring myself to spoil what is the best ending I’ve seen in good while.
For something I didn’t know what to expect, Mark of the Ninja was a fantastic experience. It took a genre I’m always iffy about, made it a ton of fun, and even expanded on elements (such as the story) that I low expectations for. For all its gore, it’s still so… fitting, and graceful even.
Go. Go play it. Now.