For as much as I used to love it, the Stealth genre has really been lacking of late. These days they seem to be full of either sections that are antithetical to stealth (last time I checked turret sections aren’t sneaky) or are so mechanically strict that anything outside a couple prescribed strategies lead to a baffling instant failure. They no longer seem to embrace the sadistic creativity that older games in the genre used to be full of and that’s a genuine pity. Thankfully it seems the folks at Klei entertainment also played a shit ton of Tenchu back when stealth was good and have created a modern masterwork of quiet stealthy goodness in Mark of the Ninja. This game is pure sneaking distillate, now let me tell you why.
Gameplay is the primary thing that makes this game as great as it is mainly because they’ve taken care of the ambiguity problem that has almost always plagued the genre. Everything is made clear with easy to understand and yet non-disruptive visual cues. If you’re hidden in the shadows then your body is in silhouette, all noise that’s made is helpfully shown through circles that emanate from their sources, and your character’s sight line is represented by what he would not have been able to see being blurred out. It all just makes sense, it never feels mechanical but rather just purely organic. What you’re actually doing is very similar to Tenchu but it’s been cleverly adapted to just a 2D plain and honestly the gameplay is better for it. Doing this kind of game in 2D eliminates so many of the variables that in other games turn skillful fun into annoying frustration.
The other half of what makes this game fun is the wide array of options the game gives you to play around with. In addition to upgrading yourself to be able to execute absolutely frightening stealth kills from pretty much any place you can think of (seriously the floors, the walls, the ceiling, you name it and you can kill from it) you also get a variety of helpful items both used to distract and to attack. Noisemakers, smoke bombs, spike traps, hallucinogenic darts, and more are at your disposal and while you can only take a couple items with you at a time you can create some truly devious strategies with them. You can also unlock special costumes that can further enhance your abilities by completing certain goals, all of these costumes have a restriction to go with them and allow you to specialize in a certain style of stealth. Put simply this is a game that allows you to do whatever you want as long as you’re smart enough to figure how best to execute it.
The presentation is also something that really sells this game, it’s very much more of the same Klei style that we’ve seen in the Shank games but that’s not a bad thing. Klei really knows how to do 2D animation and the fluid beauty that made Shank full of frantic excitement imbues this game with quiet suspense. The magnificent use of silhouetting both as an artistic flourish and as an actual gameplay mechanic only highlights how fantastically smooth everything looks and moves. In terms of sound design things seem pretty silent but the sound effects do what they can to impress themselves upon you, mainly the sounds of guys screaming when you murder them, that tends to stick.
It’s not all just the great stuff we expected here though there is also something I wasn’t counting on in the mix, a well crafted story. Not to belittle Klei but the Shank games weren’t exactly literary masterpieces, there was a narrative there for sure but it’s role was purely in service of facilitating the action which is not the case here. The story here is that you are a young disciple of the Hisomu ninja clan who in order to defend your clan from the threat of an evil mercenary group takes on a set of mystical yet inherently dangerous tattoos. They give you abilities beyond that of a normal man but they are also said to cause the bearer to go insane and murder all those around them, ritual suicide is traditionally used to prevent this final and unfortunate outcome. I won’t ruin the story but the game ends with one of the truest morally gray choices I’ve ever seen in a video game, no obvious moral high roads here just actual genuine emotional conflict.
Despite the fact that the last few chapters got a little frustrating (stealth game or no, taking away my weapons and abilities is just annoying) this is still probably the tightest and most enjoyable stealth game I have played in years. It eschews the bullshit attempts other stealth games have made to try and appeal to fans of other genres and just refines exactly what I used to love about the genre. The devious skill required and allowed by the game is what I feel has been missing from the genre in general recently and Mark of the Ninja should be applauded for returning to and refining those roots. For giving me the stealth experience I thought was dead, Mark of the Ninja gets a 5 out of 5 stars. It won’t hold your hand and let you just hack your way out of a bad situation but if you’re willing to do a bit of thinking then Mark of the Ninja will be one of the most engrossing stealth games you’ve ever played.