Mark of the Ninja
A ninja is powerful yet fragile. Quick but deliberate.
Silent but deadly. No, I'm not talking about farts, I'm talking about ninjas! Think about what makes a ninja a ninja and then cement him into two dimensional side scrolling action and you get yourself a pretty fun idea. Well, this sure as heck isn't any Ninja Gaiden game so maybe it's not quite what you had envisioned. Will you blend with the darkness to strike your foe, or simply fade into obscurity?
Mark's plot is a simple one at first: revenge. You are the chosen one, he who receives the accursed inks to make him the champion of the clan but also condemned to death before you lose all sanity and honor. You find yourself awakened by a warning gong at your clan's dojo, and get to the source of the noise just in time to watch a fellow ninja gunned down by unknown assailants. Before you can deal with this threat, however, you must first find your gear and in turn be taught the basics of the game in a first mission that culminates with the rescue of your clan's Master. From there, you are tasked with a quest to seek and destroy the man behind the attack on your clan - a path that is pretty straightforward until a somewhat intelligent twist later in the game that is then followed by an even better twist at upon arriving at the final level.
Major plot segments are played out in a motion-comic style cutscene between stages (start and end). Details pertaining to the specific stage are often times relayed to you during the mission by a mysterious female ninja who follows you around, or other NPCs within the stage. It's not the longest game - especially if you get good at the mechanics presented or simply aren't the completionist type - but it does offer a New Game + mode to replay the game with harder enemies and more punishing mechanics, with the tradeoff of having access to all your unlocked gear. Certainly, the plot may be more interesting than the gameplay to some, as the plot twists are rather well done and actually can cause some mild thinking, and the urge to play through the game again to see the second of the two possible endings might grip some tightly in it's cloaked fist.
Artistically speaking, the cutscenes I just mentioned share the same style as the game, which is this hand-painted sort of look very reminiscent of a flash-based game someone might make for fun on their own. Alternate costumes can be unlocked by completing in-game challenges (ranging the gamut of completing a section without being seen to causing an enemy to panic after seeing his strung-up friend. It's very violent if you choose to play it in a manner that invokes it as opposed to just trying to sneak by everything in the game, but eventually you will end up killing someone regardless of your playstyle. Although the looks are mildly cartoonish, some of the kills can be downright brutal as well - sometimes a simple stab through the back works, other times impaling a person on a mine of expanding spikes.
As far as the actual gameplay goes, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Having played this on the PC (another of my Humble Bundle purchases), I found some possibly unique issues to plague my playing thanks to some keyboard and mouse hiccups. For the most part, the game has no issues, but on more than one occasion I found myself having to repeat a section of the game when my grappling hook whipped out to something it shouldn't have been targeting and pulled me into an instant-death laser. I also ran into some issues with the killing system, but let me elaborate more on the controls before I get into that so you can better understand what I'm going to complain about, alright? You see, you have a set of gear items that can be quickly selected from 1-4 as you gain them in the game (ranging from smoke bombs to spike mines, throwing darts or light-speed movement). You have the aforementioned grappling hook, and you have your standard movement, crouch, and jump keys. Attacking in this game is geared in a manner that if you don't get a stealth kill you might as well reload from the checkpoint - kicks and punches are the only thing you'll get from mashing the attack key, and it will take a lot of those to stun a person enough to finish them off with your sword.
There-in lies the problem: to pull of a stealth kill, you must be in certain positions relevant to your target (more positions become available as you unlock the appropriate skill, such as from behind closed doors, or hanging from your grapple hook). Again, this makes sense, and to make it easier to know when you are in one of these positions, the game puts a big indicator on the screen to let you know you can attempt your stealth kill. The problem I had happens when I'm sneaking up on an enemy, I click that button after getting the prompt, and instead of initiating the kill as I thought it would, the enemy steps just far enough to cause me to punch the air behind him, creating this comical string of step-miss-step-miss combos that can get you spotted if you are rather unlucky. I can't seriously blame the game entirely, as it must be an issue with the enemy moving out of range of the kill, but if you push a key because it tells you to do something, I expect the key pushed to have that result!
These are actually relatively minor gripes though, as they didn't happen often enough that they ruined the enjoyment of the games sometimes brutal challenge - but they did happen enough for me to take notice. The other main complaint I have (the integration of Quick Time Events in every stealth kill) is much more persistent, but can be disabled through use of one of the unlockable outfits and isn't as much a problem as it is just an inconvenience. If you are like me and strive to kill dang near every enemy in the stage, it means you are going to be flicking that mouse very, very often to complete your goal. It feels unnecessary, and it's only noticeable purpose is to make you create much more noise if you fail. Noise, like light, are the enemy of the Ninja, alerting enemies who hear or see you to that position and causing them to investigate (which can be used to your advantage if they don't witness you relocate from that spot). It helps make stealth feel much more fleshed out than in some other games out there.
All in all, it was a fun game. I can't say that I necessarily felt like a ninja with mystical powers brought on by a super-potent poison being used as ink for my tattoos, but it did do 2-D stealth incredibly well. The fact that sound and lights (including light from lightning) can be used to hinder and help you keeps many options on the table for tackling the many stages included for fun or because of failure. The unlockable costumes are a nice way of mixing things up for more options, although some of the later stages require a move usable only by the second story-based costume. Replay-ability crops up in the form of scoreboards for each level for those who like to have bragging rights or be better than their friends, in addition of course to the New Game + mode. It's worth a try if you are a fan of stealth games - but if you don't like stealth games you may find yourself having a bit less fun playing this (I fall into this category, and honestly although I enjoyed it the sneaking around did start to grind on my gears at times).