When I review a game that’s cheap and already critically acclaimed, there’s a challenge of finding some way to talk about it that hasn’t already been mentioned. In some cases, the solution comes easier than others – with Limbo, I could go against the grain and complain about how the game isn’t as well-storied as people were saying. The trick comes when the game is very good, and legitimately praised for being very good. Thus is the situation with Mark of the Ninja.
Mark, at the simplest, is a 2D side-scrolling stealth-and-exploration based stealth game. That simple a description seems almost unreasonable to offer when the game itself is a deep affair, but most of the time when you talk about a game, the things that stand out at you are individual moments where you were either extremely happy or extremely annoyed. That’s not the kind of game Mark is, though. Mark is not a game defined by giggly bright moments where you kick things off other things, or intense controller-snapping frustration ala Hotline Miami – it’s a game where you are rewarded for being methodical, patient, and aware of your surroundings.
I say patient, which may undersell things. The game tells you in a loading screen tip that you’ll be rewarded for being both patient and daring, but my experience at it indicates that the moments to run are rare and few, with the game far more carefully tuned for someone who wants to double check the information they have. And information you have in spades. The stealth genre is a fascinating beast because for the most part the idea – subtly and skillfully moving from point A to point B avoiding notice from guards C through E, in case you get F’d – seems one we’d have explored well. But Mark brings to the table a host of good, robust mechanics that both enable the player to behave stealthily.
Stealth games are more often memorable for what they do wrong rather than what they do right. Let’s do a quick little rundown of things that Assassin’s Creed 2 had going on that didn’t help its stealth element:
- When you broke stealth, you were presented with a relatively easy, repetitive combat to avoid it.
- Killing everything rewarded you more than just killing your target.
- Between the task of assassinations, you had a huge variety of non-assassination things to do.
- An upgrade system which added nothing tangible to the character.
- Your arsenal of tools was enormous and redundant.
None of these are the case for Mark. If you get rumbled by two guys at once, you are in trouble, and your options are run and die. As the game advances, it introduces harder and harder threats, but since you’re never going to confront them directly (unless you’re mental), the game makes their kills a matter of ingenuity.
There’s also nothing in this game aside from stealthing around. It’s a pure experience like that. There’s no hacking minigame, there’s no lockpicking game, there’s nothing but the pure mechanics of getting around undetected. Any mission where you’re not shanking dudes, or using mobility tools to get to places that give you an advantage in later shanking dudes, you’re clearly playing something else.
The upgrade system adds different ways to shank dudes, and you earn the upgrades not by grinding your way through bad guys, but rather through cleverly overcoming challenges the game presents you, like ‘retrieve this item without ever being detected.’ Rather than make some arbitary value of yours bigger, each upgrade changes the ways you can interact with the game, and I enjoyed that a lot more. Particularly cool were the hangman’s noose and bat’s prey kills.
Really, there’s just not that much to say. Without giving a masterclass on stealth in videogames – a class I am not qualified to teach, let me tell you – Mark‘s mechanics doesn’t deserve exploration. A cheap game with a strong design, a great aesthetic, a fantastic pacing and a decent plot, Mark of the Ninja is remarkable not necessarily for what it does right, insomuch as it’s astounding that everyone else seems to do it wrong.
Buy it if:
- You like stealth games, at all.
- You enjoyed Art of Theft, Thief, or the early levels of Assassin’s Creed.
- You like a game with a lot of replay value.
- When a game gives you a challenge that you immediately fail on your first try, your reaction is to grit your teeth and growl “This will not beat me.”
Avoid it if:
- You do not like stealth games, at all.
- You enjoyed the last levels of Assassin’s Creed or Velvet Assassin.
- Reloading gets on your nerves and you’re a completionist.
- You are so against quick-time events that you can’t handle them, even when implemented well.