'Mark of the Ninja' fulfills promise of stealth and happiness

ssloan@herald-leader.comJanuary 10, 2013 

Mark of the Ninja is a downloadable side-scroller with great stealth action.

PHOTO COURTESY KLEI ENTERTAINMENT

It's been a long time since I really loved a stealth ninja game.

Sure, I loved the Ninja Gaiden series reboot over the past decade, but while Ryu Hayabusa is a lot of things, a stealthy ninja is not one of them.

I have to go as far back as the late 1990s series Tenchu: Stealth Assassins to find a series I loved that really emphasized stealth. It's that quality that's at the core of ninjutsu, if my decades of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was adequate teaching.

So imagine my surprise when the downloadable Xbox Live Arcade game Mark of the Ninja took over my life for a couple of recent weeks.

The side-scrolling game from Klei Entertainment is a hidden gem among last year's downloadable titles. And it's designed in such a way that it encourages you to play just like a ninja would in real life.

As you progress, you get points for hiding bodies and executing one-strike kills. If you start running, the sound you create alerts nearby enemies to your presence. And even though it's a side-scroller, you can see what is in your line of sight.

The game tells the tale of a ninja selected to save his kidnapped master from the clutches of evil. Sure, it's a bit cliché, but not everything can be perfect. Your strength and abilities are boosted by a tattoo you've received that uses ink from a special flower of sorts. Of course, there's a downside. It'll cause you to go insane, and like those who came before, you receive the tattoo only after declaring you'll kill yourself before going bonkers.

The developers have created all sorts of interesting ways to stealth kill your enemies. You can dangle from lamp posts or emerge quickly from a vent. They also have done a magnificent job of offering a number of upgrades such as unique moves, distraction items like firecrackers and one-time weapons such as poisonous bugs that eat enemies.

They also did a great job, almost too good at times, of creating difficult enemies.

The best part, though, is that the point system is set up to reward you for being stealthy and bypassing enemies if you can.

Of course, there are a few problems. One of the upgrades you can receive is teleportation, and that can make otherwise strong obstacles too easy to pass.

Also, the plot isn't as in-depth as you might like. It never feels as if you really get inside your character's head, which would be interesting given your slow turn toward insanity. With the game's great depth, too, the developers certainly had the time to offer that perspective.

But for $15, this game offers an unparalleled experience compared to most of its arcade brethren. It's well worth the price and makes you wonder what the developers could do with an even larger budget.

Scott Sloan: ssloan@herald-leader.com, (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz.

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