Klei Entertainment is getting increasingly adept at transplanting 3D action game mechanics into 2D sidescrollers. First came the Shank games, which took the combo-building, foe-juggling systems of Devil May Cry and flattened them into a tableau of cartoony ultraviolence. Mark Of The Ninja does something similar, but its inspiration is the deliberate hunting found in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Metal Gear Solid.
Like the Arkham games, this is a stealth title that casts you as a predator. Your ninja is fleet-footed and more than capable of skulking in the shadows, vaulting through levels, and hanging from ceilings. Your quarry, meanwhile, is delightfully stupid – guards will abandon their posts to investigate the slightest hint of a masked, sword-wielding assassin, and are also cursed with the extreme myopia that plagued Shadow Moses’ defenders. Mark Of The Ninja’s blackly comic heart, meanwhile, is situated at the point where the expansive toolset and your dumbly responsive victims intersect.
While objectives steer you through the levels (which, like Ninja Gaiden, offer a hi-tech take on a world full of shuriken and cherry blossom), the real challenge never changes: make it to your goal unseen, optionally leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. Stealth kills are your most potent weapons, and this world is full of carefully placed pools of shadow, hidden perches, and inviting vents to lurk in before executing one. Other toys – smoke bombs, snare traps, throwing darts, noisemakers – allow for playful experimentation with enemies and improvised solutions, and as Mark Of The Ninja’s pulpy story builds to a climax, guards steadily build up their repertoire of tricks and defences, too.
A single burst of machine-gun fire can kill you, but Mark Of The Ninja makes you as powerful as you are vulnerable. In fact, the game might be too easy if it weren’t for the steady drip feed of optional objectives (hide six bodies, make it through a checkpoint without being spotted) and platforming challenges (see ‘Jump ninja’) to test your ever-increasing range of skills. That said, the focus is definitely on the pleasure of slowly executing every last one of a room’s defenders, or luring them into shooting each other out of panicked terror.
Klei’s Saturday morning cartoon style visuals intersect smoothly with your ninja’s slinky animation and flowing moves, and the range of visual effects (position-betraying lightning strikes, a blurred fog of war-style filter on activity beyond your sight line) folds neatly back into the game’s light-and-shadow based stealth systems. The result is a slick and striking game, one with presentation worthy of the potent and flexible set of powers at its core.