Klei Entertainment's road to Mark of the Ninja was bumpy at best, mostly paved by the game's artistic predecessor Shank. Shank's graphic novel-inspired style might have shown well and proved artistic merit, but the actual mechanics failed to justify playing it for any extended length of time, a fault that Mark of the Ninja thankfully did not inherit.
Mark of the Ninja forgoes Shank's side-scrolling, beat em' up monotony for a brand of stealth-action that has players controlling an unnamed ninja assassin whose clan has just been attacked by militaristic thugs. Players armed with ninja tools and skills progress (surreptitiously or otherwise) through linear environments filled security lasers, guards, nasally-gifted attack dogs, and a plethora of other obstacles standing between them and their ultimate goal: vengeance against those who have assaulted the clan.
The heart of Mark of the Ninja's intelligent stealth designs lie in an important decision from Klei that's made obvious early within the game: players ought to feel aware and capable of making intelligent decisions on their own, rather than simply being artificially shrouded in confusing, obtuse systems. Fans of Splinter Cell: Conviction will remember this sort of fluidity: players are given devices that range from smoke bombs to insects that noisily devour enemies within their path, but ultimately Mark of the Ninja's campaign can be accomplished using a variety of different play styles that don't limit the player to aggravation as he or she waits to recognize AI routines to progress inch by inch.
Klei accomplishes informing the player through a series of visual cues that allow the player to be aware of what the AI knows at any given time: sound is visually displayed through circles that emanate from the sound source, the color on uniforms will only appear in lighted areas, and guards' flashlights have been designed so the player knows exactly how far the enemies can see in the dark. Klei spared no expense to make certain the player remains informed--the controller inputs (which will occasionally vary depending on the action you're performing a la Assassin's Creed) even appear in the upper-right of the screen at all times. These systems, coupled with the game's robust upgrade mechanic, make Mark of the Ninja one of the most accessible stealth games to come out in recent memory. Even I, someone who has had a long history detesting the stealth genre, quickly became a natural at the game's swift, murderous pace.
Mark of the Ninja is a game where players will spend most of their time shrouded in darkness, paying most of their attention to the audio cues on the screen informing them of the AI's location and awareness. This doesn't mean we shouldn't feel blessed for Klei's attention to specific style and detail. The player acquires a number of different ninja suits that are possess their own unique abilities and striking design when revealed in the light. Assassination animations are vicious, with some of the best involving the main character stringing up the corpse of his victim to many of the lampposts that are found throughout the level. It may be easy to skip past some of the game's visual accomplishments in later levels once you've adapted to the game's naturally hasty pace, but it never stops making an effort to look attractive while hosting a series of brutal, flashy assassinations.
Similar to its main character, Mark of the Ninja is unwillingly cursed from the get-go. Klei chose accessibility and intelligent design over substantial challenge, and veteran stealth players will feel this the instant they jump into the fluid, easily mastered assassination system (system meaning the game prompts you for a quick-time-event each time you attempt to kill an unknowing opponent). Roadblocks in the form of advanced, more durable enemies appear, but even these are quickly mastered by the aforementioned array of combat and distraction upgrades. Thankfully, Mark of the Ninja is compelling for how smoothly it handles the genre's strengths, not how it shoulders its burdens. Forgoing obstinate difficulty for flexible gameplay is a great decision on Klei's part, though I understand that adept stealth players may even be disappointed by the game's post-campaign offerings. Mark of the Ninja's New Game Plus involves stripping the game of the audio cues and other systems I have previously complimented, but unfortunately allows you to bring all of your upgrades which, thanks to late-game equipment handed to you by the story, fails to truly become the obstacle stealth fans may be seeking from the game.
Additionally, the game's checkpoint system managed to fail quite spectacularly on me throughout the majority of the campaign, even going so far as to lock up the game and send me back half a level's worth of progress. I found myself dragging dead bodies throughout many parts of the game (doing so disables motion-detecting traps and lasers) and died a few times during my progress, only to respawn moments later and find that the bodies had suddenly vanished. Many of the checkpoints are well-placed, but none of them seem to truly checkpoint your actual progress, a key point to remember for those of you who also enjoy employing elaborate, foolish escapades in avoiding detection. A foible such as this is nothing to harp on, but I found it reoccurring often enough to have a few thoughts on the matter.
Mark of the Ninja is a small, downloadable victory for Klei Entertainment. Stealth games have struggled to keep up with the industry's intense emphasis on action, and thankfully Klei averted their gaze from the choice of pandering to an alternative audience. Instead, Mark of the Ninja causes the player to feel resourceful, intelligent, and capable of making independent decisions. It empowers rather than limits, a sentiment that I think will and should echo throughout this aging, oft-stagnant genre.