Review

Mark Of The Ninja

Ninja Hidin’

Mark Of The Ninja values stealth over strength.

By Drew Toal • September 7, 2012

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.

Mark Of The Ninja

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.

Mark Of The Ninja

In that way, the game gives a nod to the 1998 game Tenchu: Stealth Assassinsas 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

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.

Mark Of The Ninja
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $15
Rating: M

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  • Bad Horse

    Tenchu was the hardest fucking game mostly because of the camera and draw distance. The only way I ever passed anything was by figuring out ways to clip the camera through objects.

  • Effigy_Power

    Any game that includes complex means of assassination and then allows you to just drop them and try and get through silently and without murder is good in my book. I wish AC would take a few hints from that.

    I understand that the world of AC, be it Crusades, Renaissance or American Revolution, is steeped in violence to begin with, but I would have preferred if Altair/Ezio/Connor would act a bit more rogue-like at times rather than just be a silent killer. As it stands, trying to navigate levels without killing is at worst impossible, at best very hard and yields no rewards.

    I wish AC had taken some hints from Hitman, where achieving your goal without any collateral damage or even the hint of foul play is the ultimate reward. Sure, it doesn’t fit with the actual creed of the assassins, what with everything being permitted, but it would make it a bit easier to swallow that the guys I am routing for are murdering hapless guards and soldiers in droves.

    The mass murder of henchmen is a bit of a weird issue for me anyways. Even the least ambiguous evil-doers aren’t a homogenous group and plenty of German soldiers in WW2 games are not as such Nazis, so we’re gleefully blowing away tons of people while thinking of ourselves as doing a good deed. The notion that every German soldier was in on the final solution is after all a bit hard to believe.

    The same goes for the guards in this game I presume. These are probably guys hired by military sub-contractors, thinking they are providing corporate security or something. Murdering these poor fools without flinching shouldn’t really make us want to identify with our protagonist. As such, the ability to go through the game without spilling blood is something I can happily lend my seal of approval.

    Now excuse me, I need to indiscriminately slaughter trolls in order to use their bones and fangs for crafting.
    What? Oh, it’s okay, they all equally decided to engage in illicit activities.

    PS: Why do I do these on a Friday? This’ll never even make it into Soupy’s eye-space… -_-

    • HobbesMkii

      Yeah, but, in Assassin’s Creed, if you kill one of the punchy beggars, you lose a single block of health. And you only ever have like 20 blocks of health at a time, so…

      • Effigy_Power

        Civilians, fine. But not every Templar/Papal/Crusader/Abstergo/English henchman can be in on the big evil conspiracy. It wouldn’t be much of a conspiracy if it was common knowledge down to the lowest ranks.

        • HobbesMkii

          This kind of reminds me of an episode of the podcast Doug Loves Movies I was listening to where Pete Holmes started going off on how ridiculous very specific parts of The Dark Knight Rises were, such as Bane’s seemingly meticulous planning including a travel budget for side-trips. At which point Bill Burr interrupted to point out (in far less words than I am about to write) that the most ridiculous parts in Batman films were the parts with the guy dressed as a bat.

          I agree with your original point about games that allow you the option to kill, but also allow you not to kill, should you choose that route. But if you’re going to suspend your disbelief for the biggest conceits the game demands of you…

        • Effigy_Power

          Fair enough.

        • Ghostfucker

          Ezio just don’t give a shit. Also, it can be pointed out that in assassin’s creed you’re only manipulating the memories of someone, not actually controlling the person. So Ezio didn’t necessarily kill anyone other than the intended targets in reality. This explanation only works if you accept completely unsatisfying explanations though.

    • stakkalee

      So many of these games encourage some very sociopathic activities.  How many New Vegas Fiends did I kill from a place of concealment with a sniper shot to the head?  How many caves in Skyrim did I leave filled with the rotting bodies of dozens of men and women?  As Ezio I’d kill rooftop guards in passing, simply because I didn’t want to take the time to jump over to a different building.  I’m not “like” that (Really!  I’m not!), but there’s this mix of exhiliration, fatalism and boredom involved – I’m killing these guys because, what?, I’m not going to kill them?  As if.

      Mark of the Ninja seems really cool.  I’ll add it to the list.  The never-ending list…

      • Effigy_Power

        Yeah, considering that you can be a member of one of many groups of less than scrupulous demeanor, the moral high-ground when murdering tons of bandits in Skyrim is a bit on shaky ground.
        And I totally get that boredom point you’re making. “What, am I gonna sneak for 3 minutes to get around this guy, who might have a family and finally provide some income to them, standing here, protecting the perfectly legitimate papal fortress? Eh, easier just to kill him with my crossbow.”
        It’s good I don’t believe in the correlation between violence in media and in real life.

        I think we often have a very strange attitude of judging people in games solely by their allegiance. It’s a bit like beating the snot out of a clerk at a gas-station for causing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

        • The_Misanthrope

          The unfashionable thing with open-world games is for the game to come down on one side or another as being right.  Sure, they tell you that an action is evil, but you rarely get any consequence from it outside some arbitrary infamy or a running score-tally.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if they actually allowed for some direct or indirect consequences down the line for your indiscriminate slaughter?  Perhaps you can’t sleep as well because the ghosts of all the innocents you killed keeps wailing and shaking their chains.  Or you keep seeing your victim’s family begging in the streets?  Or any guards that regularly work with the victim either quit the profession or become even more zealous?

          OK, maybe not *interesting*, but it would temporarily be a nice subversion of usual video game tropes, at least until it becomes commonplace over the average run-time of a game.

        • Ghostfucker

          The idea of ghostly npcs rattling their chains in your character’s sleep would be hilarious. I don’t think it would really work as intended though (did anyone really experience pangs of grief during the fight with the sorrow in MGS3?). Of course, given my own proclivities it’s hardly punishment at all.

    • IntotheNightSky

      I agree, but in defense of the average protagonist, most mooks don’t even think twice before pumping you full of lead. 
       Castle Laws must be really liberal in the Alps and remote tropical islands.

    • James Bunting

      Ooh, yes. Story time.

       

      Between the ages of 19 and 25, I played Neverwinter Nights for
      perhaps 3000 hours. My particular brand of opiate products were these
      multiplayer roleplaying servers where you were expected to stay in character,
      describe the actions your character was taking, and interact both with other
      players and DM-controlled NPCs in order to forward a story, or more accurately,
      a series of vaguely related stories in a never-ending meta-story. At any given
      time, you might be working to undermine a corrupt politician in a port city on
      the brink of war, or maybe you WERE that corrupt politician, or maybe you were
      a druid and wanted to restore a desecrated grove, or maybe you were just a
      random profiteer and wanted to be the richest dwarf on the Sword Coast. And all
      the other players were doing other things too.

       

      Whatever you did, you did through a combination of in-game action
      and cooperative fiction writing on the server’s forums among the other players
      and DMs. This weird community of brilliant rejects helped me get through the
      darkest part of my life. Or maybe they helped me hold myself back. I’m sure
      it’s one and the same.

       

      Anyway, I played a paladin, which meant that my every action was
      more or less about creating a better world. In D&D, paladins are incredibly
      restricted in what they can do. Traditionally, this was pretty judeo-christian:
      no booze, no sex, no killing unless the other guy has a rusty knife to stab at
      you with, never back down against evil, blah blah blah. Personally I think that
      this is woefully outdated, even for a fantasy setting, and I just couldn’t
      stomach it. Absolute, unshakable conviction in one’s own ideas is not “good.”

       

      Plus, the reality of ANY society, real or virtual, is rife with
      shades of gray. Was I supposed to go after the thieves guild? Given that their
      character backgrounds almost inevitably centered around serious privation, and
      given that they tended to create a security force of some sort in the most
      lawless and dangerous areas of the server, would it be better to smite them, or
      leave them alone? Who knew? I didn’t. So I learned, and when I was not sure
      that I was doing the right thing, I did no harm.

       

      Speaking to that philosophy, other paladins were of particular
      concern to my paladin. They just pointed their swords in a given direction,
      shouted the name of their god, and charged. Perfect medieval crusaders, but I’m
      not sure that historical accuracy was the goal; it was more like an inability
      to see the effects of one’s actions in a wide-angle lens, which in my opinion,
      and thus that of my character’s, is truly a sin. So that was an interesting
      study of humanity for me as a player, and a heartbreaking revelation for my
      paladin.

       

      Speaking to your post, Effigy, the “dungeon” areas
      struck me as bizarre invitations to genocide. On these servers, you would
      typically see an assortment of low to high level dungeons populates by goblins,
      orcs, gnolls, ogres, trolls, and giants respectively. Every day, every hour,
      groups of adventurers would wander out of the city in search of these dungeons,
      and they would proceed to butcher every living creature inside for loot and XP.

       

      It’s worth mentioning that tons of the player characters were
      “good-aligned,” and they would make these trips constantly. Your
      character on these servers persisted for months or years (pretty much until you
      decided to permanently kill or retire them), so you would end up having chaste
      monks of the healing goddess with literally thousands of personally committed
      murders under their belt.

       

      So, eventually, because of all the insanity and dissonance between
      creed and deed, I hung up my short swords and ended up being the only pacifist
      paladin on the server, spending most of my “in-game” time working at
      a bakery, speaking to / assisting characters who were troubled, gently
      advocating a better way of living (as determined by my own liberal, somewhat
      relativist agenda) As the player base rotated, most of the players either
      forgot that I was a paladin, or were too new to know in the first place. My
      paladin became a retired, secret superhero, my XP came from role-playing, and I
      went on occasional quests to find great recipes for soul food and dark stout.

       

      All of that made it kind of awesome on those rare occasions when
      murder WAS justified (like if a dragon and his army were breaching the walls),
      and I was allowed to don my armor and join the fray, haloed in shiny paladin
      light. Who is that amazing hero with the holy avenger!?

       

      Also my character was a halfling, and that made it extra cool,
      because I’m sure that’s symbolism or something.

  • George_Liquor

    Hi, I’m Mark, of the Ninjas. Do you have a few minutes to talk about Ninja God?

    • Raging Bear

      The ninja is glad he kept that one souvenir from his trip to Germany before they adopted the euro.

      • Effigy_Power

         Hallo. Ich bin Mark, von den Ninjas. Kann ich bitte meine oekonomische ueberlegenheit wiederhaben?

  • doyourealize

    In response to the interview yesterday I wrote that letting myself die after I got caught in a stealth game was kind of a way of making sure I didn’t kill any innocent henchmen with families. After reading this, though, these Hessians seem a bit different, or at least the reason for needing stealth is different. It’s not about sparing their lives, but saving your own. Can’t wait to try this.