So let’s be completely honest here. I’m going to end up comparing Mark of the Nina to Deadlight. Solely on the grounds of them being 2D platform games released this year. It’s a completely unfair comparison – there are precious few similarities between the two games. Mark of the Ninja is a true platformer of the old school, with tons of weapons and abilities and various ways of approaching challenges, and Deadlight is a linear adventure more in the mould of Another World than Bionic Commando. But there’s the important point – they both harken back to a bygone age when all platform games felt a bit like this.
In the role of the eponymous ninja, you’ve got to infiltrate a series of air-vent-riddled buildings in search of targets to kill, chums to rescue or clues to uncover. The story clips along nicely enough, with a particularly strong ending, and the whole thing is presented in an appropriate “Samurai Jack” cartoony style. Gameplay is decidedly stealth-oriented: once you’ve been spotted it’s a mad dash for safety under a hail of gunfire which almost always ends in miniature chunks of ninja decorating the scenery. Sneaking up on enemies is simple enough, and each stealth kill requires you to swipe the mouse either left or right as directed (at random): do it right and it’s a clean kill, get it wrong and your victim will gurgle and shriek as you sluice his gizzard with your sword, probably alerting other soldiers (and returning us to the now-familiar chunky ninja Bolognese tableau). This little trick of requiring a little player input to pull off a clean kill keeps you involved during takedowns.
As you progress, a ton of traditional ninja skills and items are unlocked: smoke bombs, caltrops, cardboard box… you know the drill. Through the use of these items and skills, as well as a couple of different routes through most areas of the maps, there are many different ways to approach the game. I found myself relying on choking smoke bombs that temporarily disable bad guys and mask your movements, allowing you to wang one in, drop down, slay two guards and escape with your grappling hook before the smoke clears, leaving a scene of devastation to freak out the other guards.
And freak them out it does. Leave a dead guard hanging from a chandelier, or simply chuck a lifeless corpse into the midst of a guard tea party, and they’ll all completely lose it and start shooting each other. The use of terror is a viable tactic that adds to the whole ninja feel.
So it’s a bit of a contradiction to say that despite the variety of ways you can play the game, it actually has a tendency to feel a little samey. New mechanics are constantly introduced to give you something to fiddle with, and new enemies are resistant to certain attacks and tactics, but the thing is the game itself is basically a platformer. You jump, climb, dangle and explore but the levels just don’t really feel that unique. That’s not to say they’re not well-designed, because for the most part, they really are – it’s just that after a while the passages, towers and dungeons you’re stalking through all just seem to bleed into one another.
You’ll get through the game in I guess about five or six hours. It’s not a huge undertaking, and I think that lightness underpins the whole thing. The plot isn’t hugely detailed, or even that easy to follow in places. There are a couple of challenges and pickups on each level that might add a little replay value, but this is a weekend distraction rather than something you’re going to remember for years to come.
The music is ace, though. A perfect fit for the feel of the game. Moody and tense, it really adds to the feel of creeping up on a guard and then having to hide the body as quickly as you can. It really does have a nostalgic feel to it, as well – this is how games used to be made back in the early nineties, with one character traversing big 2D levels, going up and down as much as left and right. The ninja is really sticky, too – you can cling to pretty much any surface, and sometimes it’s actually difficult to get him un-stuck if you just need to plummet down a shaft for a bit.
The influence of Klei’s Shank games is visible in the art style and the occasional gouts of blood, and the stealth game that hides behind the old-school presentation is appealing and robust. Extra points are certainly earned for the lovely low price as well – you can buy this for yourself amongst all of your Christmas shopping and not feel guilty.