Marked by the ninja


— 9:32 PM on November 15, 2012

Lightning pierces the darkness as I dance across empty rooftops. The rumble of thunder follows, briefly masking my impatient footsteps. As I approach the ledge above the courtyard, my pace slows. The pelting rain that fills the night with wet, white noise isn't loud enough to drown out the pitter-patter of racing feet. So I proceed cautiously, slithering up to the edge to observe the guards below. I watch intently as they patrol robotically.

As I memorize their routes, I analyze my options. The path is bathed in the glow of a hanging lamp, so I can't just waltz by without being seen—or without bumping into the armed thugs intent on preventing me from infiltrating their lair. My hands tighten around the grappling hook at my side as I look up to the heavens for salvation, but none reveals itself. Then I see the grate in the courtyard; surely, it leads somewhere unseen.

Moments later, I hurl a dart toward the lamp and leap from my perch. The lamp shatters, distracting the guards as I follow the raindrops and hit the ground. With the beams of the guards' flashlights diverted skyward, I slip silently under the grate and into the tunnel below. Unnoticed, I creep under the guards and wait. Their footsteps echo in my ears, and if I concentrate, I can feel their bodies above me. Before long, the guards return to their marching orders, oblivious to the interloper in their midst.

I consider continuing through the tunnel and bypassing this latest line of defense without bloodshed. These men don't need to die tonight. But they're also not not innocent bystanders like all those independent contractors working on the second Death Star. These are armed henchmen, and their boss is responsible for an attack on my clan. I've left too many bodies in my wake to start showing mercy now. That's not how this ninja rolls.

After backtracking, I hang under the grate and wait for my moment. When the first guard walks overhead, his partner facing the opposite direction, I pull my prey into the underworld with a single, swift motion. He never sees it coming. Confidence coursing through my veins, I return topside for an encore—except my timing is off, and the attack is too brazen. I'm spotted and stop like a deer frozen in headlights. I could fight, I could flee, but I can think only of the intense shame I feel in being detected at all. And so I stand motionless, resigned to my fate as bullets rip through my body. Somehow, this effective suicide feels more honorable than the alternatives or restarting from the last checkpoint.

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies don't usually crop up when I'm playing games, but there's something about Mark of the Ninja that inspires me to pursue perfection. Perhaps that's because Klei Entertainment's latest side-scroller is as closest thing to a perfect game as I've experienced in a very long time.

Klei is the same studio that brought us Shank, and Mark of the Ninja's beautifully painted 2D world has the same artistic vibe. What the graphics lack in fancy 3D effects they more than make up for with style. The cel-shaded environments are a good fit for the two-dimensional landscape, and some of the backdrops are truly gorgeous.

While Shank is a bombastic brawler, Mark of the Ninja is a stealthy crawler. Taking on the opponents who stand in your way is entirely optional; indeed, there's a bonus for completing levels without killing a soul. You're ill-equipped for head-on combat, anyway. Foes must be assassinated surgically or bypassed entirely if you're to have any hope of survival.

I've tried playing the game without resorting to violence, but that's not really my style. I'm a killer at heart, and the game sympathizes. It awards points for taking down enemies silently, plus more for stashing their bodies out of sight. The ability to choose between a range of different character and equipment upgrades allows players to perfectly tune their ninjas to suit their playing styles. While some may prefer to hide in the shadows, my ninja is trained to strike from them.

Enemy encounters play out a lot like puzzles, with multiple routes and inventory items offering distinctly different ways to pass through a given area. The environments are littered with hazards and hiding places. Lights are everywhere, but only some of them can be disabled. Motion detectors and lasers add more variety, making it challenging to navigate some sections even when there's no one around. Amazingly, this 2D platformer feels like less of an on-rails experience than an awful lot of 3D shooters that have a whole other dimension to lean on.

Unlike some platformers, Mark of the Ninja seems to be devoid of annoying jumping puzzles and other sequences that require impossibly perfect timing. The precise, methodical nature of the gameplay does leave me disappointed in the mushy feel of the analog stick on my Xbox 360 game controller, though. Perhaps I'm too spoiled by the feel of the mechanical keyboard and high-end gaming mouse attached to my desktop PC.

While Mark of the Ninja has surprising depth, the accompanying narrative is pretty thin. Not that the game needs a story. The rewarding gameplay is all the motivation I need to keep going. I'm even itching to replay earlier levels now that my ninja has learned new, deadlier tricks. In fact, I'm more excited about doing that than I am about picking up where I left off in Dishonored, in part because Mark of the Ninja plays much better on the big-screen TV in my living room. Later in the evening, which is usually the only time I have to play games, slumping on the couch is a lot more appealing than spending more time in my office.

Like most good games, Mark of the Ninja has kept me up later than I intended on several occasions. I'm not staying up to play just one more level, though; more often than not, I'm trying to perfect a complicated sequence of actions to clear an area while avoiding detection. Mark of the Ninja makes me want to be a better player, as if my contribution to the experience should live up to the game's impeccable design.

If you don't trust my enthusiasm, look no further than Metacritic, which rates Mark of the Ninja an impressive 92. You can grab the game on Steam for just $15, and it's worth every penny in my book. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date with the shadows. My next victim awaits.

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