What makes a ninja? I’m willing to bet the first thing that sprung to your mind wasn’t ‘bamboo darts’. And yet these splinters of tough grass are the leitmotif of Mark Of The Ninja, your indispensable tool no matter what. Klei Entertainment’s action-stealth game offers a range of garbs to suit certain kinds of playstyles, but whether you’re a fear-inducing, demon-masked terror of the night or a silent, fleet-footed non-aggressor, you’re always supplied with darts.
There’s a reason for this. Look at it from the right distance and Klei’s game is one of elegant, interwoven security systems. Those systems aren’t just mechanical, but are made up of people and environmental hazards as well as out-and-out traps. A lot of the fun is in breaking those defences down to create a gap for you to access the next set of rooms and challenges.
Yes, a sword can rend a guard-shaped opening in a setup, but striking can leave you vulnerable to prying eyes, and not all problems are solvable with a blade. Bamboo darts, meanwhile, are a more subtle tool, causing distractions, pulling guards into traps and breaking electronics from distance, often reducing the gauntlet of lasers, trip alarms and locks barring your way. So why the ode to darts? They’re key to the game’s sublime sense of flow, and this in turn is why Mark Of The Ninja has captivated my attention for so long.
We talk a lot about games providing verbs, but as you become fluent in Mark Of The Ninja’s language of fluid inputs, you gain the ability to string together short sentences with your play, crafting mini action sequences that are all your own. These strings of actions are as satisfying as pulling off any complex fighting game combo, but you’re mixing inputs up on the fly to deftly avoid a laser, shimmy along a beam and then leap into the umbral embrace of a shadowy rock crevice instead of delivering a flaming uppercut. Both leave you elated, because both represent your mastery of a system. It’s the exact opposite of all those action game QTE prompts that insist you sacrifice agency at the altar of cutscene cool.
I’ve become so addicted to this sense of flow when I play that I’ve introduced a new fail condition for myself. Being detected spoils a run, so even though escape is technically possible, it always means a checkpoint restart. Muddling through just isn’t ninja enough, for a start. What’s more, these exacting conditions present a challenge even when your moveset and gadgets have been levelled up to the point where they would otherwise start to erode the game’s difficulty.
It’s not just being detected this philosophy extends to. Presented with a sequence of lasers in an elevator shaft, I’ll dive down, trying to freeze time at exactly the right moment to unleash a spray of bamboo darts rather than pause on the grappling points. If I possibly can, I’ll lob my smoke bombs mid leap, so as to shorten the time between a guard being dazed and defeated. If I can leap over a head and then sink my blade into a chest, I will. What delights me is how often Klei’s game rewards this derring-do, almost goading me to push my limits yet further. It’s not about points, it’s about play, and about toying with these systems.
I find Mark Of The Ninja’s main refrain has now become a pattern of run, climb, scan, wait, strike and disappear, with each new obstacle building on the melody. Picture it like one of those looping pedal guitar songs where each new pass is layered over the others until strange and beautiful new tones emerge from the mix. Darts, however, are the tiny introductory notes that often kick off a crescendo of play, setting the stage for the phrase to follow.
And perhaps that’s apt, because the final thing that makes Mark Of The Ninja’s mercurial gameplay complete for me is the way it represents sound (on a Normal playthrough, at least). Smash a bamboo dart into a gong or light bulb and you’ll see a large blue circle ripple outwards, drawing the interest of any guard within its radius. That interest will be denoted by a smaller yellow circle. While the noise is contained within an entirely arbitrary zone, it makes every situation eminently readable. You often know exactly when you must stop running if you don’t want to be noticed. You can see precisely whether an enemy has taken the tinkling bait of a stoved in bulb. You know a sloppy kill is radiating a warning to neighbouring foes. Being able to read this world at a glance enables you to react in a split-second, and keep your chain of actions flowing.
And that’s the most beguiling thing about this game. While ostensibly about being stealthy, it enables the player to ripple from shadow to shadow rather than merely skulk. And that, surely, is what being a ninja is all about – the hot, tense flurry of movement that’s soon followed by the swift, satisfying kill. Well, that and an infinite supply of bamboo darts.