Balanced, quality stealth action is difficult to achieve in a game. The best kind of stealth gameplay is that which doesn’t limit the player in terms of mechanics or usability, but instead affords the player ample options to explore and makes engaging in stealth worthwhile. Mark of the Ninja is one game that does just that. It affords the player the opportunity to never play stealthily, but makes doing so exciting and rewarding to the point where it becomes preferable.
In Mark of the Ninja you’ll play as—try not to be too surprised—a ninja. The basic gist of the plot is that your dojo has been attacked by some armed badguys and many of your fellow ninja have either been slaughtered or abducted, and you’re out for revenge. The explanation for your abilities is actually somewhat more interesting and creative than the game simply telling you you’re a ninja, and where the ‘Mark of the Ninja’ bit comes in. The player characters power comes from the special ink used in their tattoo. It’s a supposedly poisonous flower extract, that when injected into the body, causes an individual to gain these quite extraordinary powers. All of this exposition is told through dialogue occurring when you’ve found scrolls hidden throughout each level. It’s similar to the audio logs in something like BioShock, and encourages exploration.
The most successful aspect of Mark of the Ninja is the play. A stealth-action game presented in 2D, the moment-to-moment play in the game is elegant and fluid. Flowing through environments unnoticed by clinging to the ceiling or cowering behind a vase, taking out enemies with quiet-yet-brutal efficiency, and using all of the tools at your disposal creates a great sense of achievement. Those tools extended to items such as throwing darts that can be used to destroy lights so you can move through an area with less chance enemies will notice you, firecrackers that can be thrown to distract an enemy for those same reasons or for the potential to get in close for the kill. Or, if none of those things appeal to you, simply attack the enemies head-on and cut them down. Though the player character is fairly fragile and you can die relatively easily, the frontal assault is still a viable option, in a game that is so clearly focused on its stealth aspects.
The presentation of everything in Mark of the Ninja is stellar. It looks beautiful and has a striking art style, and the music plays well into the tone the game tries to set—with a great quietude and more bombastic sound when each is appropriate. Coupled with the fantastic stealth-action gameplay, and all the variation the player can put on it makes Mark of the Ninja one of the best of its kind.