I don’t care to take sides in this ongoing pop-culture kerfuffle between pirates and ninjas. One is a deadly group of silent assassins, master of their environment, and an array of diversionary tools and finely-edged weapons. The other is known as a bunch of scurvy-ridden drunks who, instead of getting real jobs, sail around on dilapidated rafts looking for STDs and buried treasure. It’s about as useful a comparison as asking who would win in a fight between Mixed Martial Arts practitioner Anderson Silva and Toddlers & Tiaras’ scrappy youngster Honey Boo Boo.
Actually, that would be a pay-per-view gold mine. But a more reasonable matchup would pit ninjas against a highly trained group of well-financed paramilitaries. Mark Of The Ninja, despite its rather generic title, is an unusual game that throws you into the middle of such a war.
Your character wakes up in the middle of an attack by a shadowy group called Hessian. These guys—thankfully not German, near as I can tell—must be decently skilled to get the drop on a whole ninja clan, and most of your ninja comrades have already been killed or captured. You’ve managed to evade either fate, but seemingly only by chance. The only other ninja at liberty—a woman played by Jeannie Elias, who also voiced Mass Effect 2’s Kasumi Goto—helps teach you the ropes, even as you liberate your clan. She’s sort of Liam Neeson to your Christian Bale.
This side-scrolling platformer is a bit disorienting at first. It’s very dark. Not “dark” in the manner of Darth Vader’s dream journal, but quite literally. Your own figure is barely discernible, and the only light comes from overhead lamps and guard flashlights. Once you acclimate, the dimness becomes an ally. As you climb walls and duck through grates and vents, it becomes apparent that you won’t last very long against these armed assailants in open combat. Instead you must get close, undetected, and silently dispatch unwary bad guys.
In that way, the game gives a nod to the 1998 game Tenchu: Stealth Assassins—as Mark designer Nels Anderson noted in an interview. The emphasis is on stealth, not battle. And it’s not always as simple as waiting for the guard to turn his back and gifting him with a Colombian necktie. If you make too much noise or expose yourself in the light, guards become wary, and your chance of evading detection declines precipitously. Guard dogs can sniff you out, too, as you stalk enemies while hiding in a shrubbery.
But there are plenty of ways to skin a Hessian. From Bionic Commando-esque grapple points, for instance, you can slowly lower yourself—inverted, Spider-Man-style—and string up passing enemies, leaving them there as a warning to others. Visible corpses alert guards, but they can also be used as bait. Fling a dead body at a target, and they may be immobilized with terror long enough to take them out, too. Conversely, it’s possible to complete levels without killing anyone at all. That the game allows you so much agency in negotiating it is one of its greatest strengths.
Mark Of The Ninja is a game that rewards patience and an understanding of how its world works. If you’re discovered, you have to fight it out conventionally, hacking and slashing away. When that happens, though, I can’t help but feel great shame—a pitifully mediocre ninja hardly worthy of the name. When the Hessians see me, I prefer to just docilely submit to the hail of gunfire and try again, this time doing it right.
This approach is in keeping with the messianic fatalism that pervades the game. Your character is tasked with saving the clan, but to do so, he must make use of his magical tattoos. These, you’re told through cartoony cutscenes, are made with ink from a special flower, which imbues the tattooed with great abilities. The downside seems to be that it also drives one to madness and death. On second thought, maybe being a rum-soaked pirate isn’t so bad after all.