I’m going to recommend playing Mark of the Ninja because it’s a memorable experience that can be bought cheaply. However, before I recommend it, I’m going to list a bunch of problems I encountered, and by the end of this review, you’ll probably think that it’s the worst game ever made. Strangely, this isn’t the case at all; while there’s a terrible middle section of the game and all kinds of weird issues plaguing it throughout, it’s still a game that I enjoyed quite a bit, and the ending was good enough to overcome all of the problems I faced.
The most silent ninja ever
The first thing that I noticed was that the main character doesn’t speak. Like, at all. While older RPGs had the time and supporting characters to get away with silent main characters, this 2D stealth game has something like 5 actual characters in the entire game, only one of whom you spend any appreciable amount of time with. While the main character’s emotions are communicated in animated cutscenes through his facial expressions, during gameplay there’s nothing like that to communicate any sense of emotion. Because of that, I found that I lacked any attachment to the main character and instead grew attached to Ora, his friend who guides him through much of the game. This may have been intentional, but I can’t help but think that the story would have benefited from a main character who could communicate through more than vague expressions.
Buncha cruncha QTEs
One of the biggest problems I had with the game has to do with killing enemies. Since you’re a ninja and this is a stealth game, you’re not able to kill enemies who are aware of your presence. Instead, you have to sneak up on them before finishing them off, which is actually something that I really enjoyed. However, actually executing them plays out through a QTE, and failing to perform this QTE correctly causes you to butcher the silent part of the execution and make a lot of noise, drawing unwanted attention to yourself and the dead body you just created.
The KB&M controls make QTEs suck
How the QTEs work without a controller is like this: you sneak up and left-click (when prompted) to start the QTE, and then it gives you a direction to move the mouse in while left-clicking, as pictured above. The problem with this comes from the fact that it’s possible to have your mouse wander to an edge of the screen; if your mouse cursor is all the way to the right of the screen and the QTE requires you to move it right, then you’re going to fail that QTE and make a lot of noise. Those playing with controllers don’t face this problem, and it feels like sloppy design to not have the mouse register movement in that direction if the cursor is at the edge (or reset its position, or something).
Ninjas are sticky
Those are three words I never thought I’d use together, but there you go: ninjas are indeed sticky. You can crawl up walls and ceilings and generally maneuver in creative ways because of how sticky you are. However, those benefits come with the serious disadvantage of that stickiness making it difficult to move around quickly. If the entire game consisted of silently stalking and dispatching your enemies, that wouldn’t be much of a problem, but there are two “survive for X amount of time” sections where enemies will be actively looking for you, and success at these requires quick movement between hiding spots. Not only are these timed bits the complete opposite of the slower and more methodical majority of the game (making them stand out in a bad way), but the stickiness of the controls makes these sections unnecessarily frustrating.
While the checkpoints are usually well-placed, being spotted by an enemy often results in death, so checkpoints don’t really feel like they fit the game very well. You may only be replaying small chunks of the game when you fail, but these small chunks eventually add up. Worse yet, the checkpoints actually serve to keep you from experimenting with more elaborate solutions to problems, encouraging safe play over more creative (and fun) attempts to progress.
Leveling up is often unnecessary
Mark of the Ninja has an RPG-ish kind of system where doing well (getting lots of points, finding hidden items, etcetera) nets you “seals” that can be used to upgrade your character. However, many of the upgrades come down to your personal taste rather than being more powerful than the stuff you start the game with; upgrading so that you have new takedowns is a good idea because of how much they help later on, but the other upgrades aren’t anywhere near as helpful.
It drags in the middle
While many of the levels are designed well, the middle part of the game (basically everything with a sandstorm) really drags. Not only is it tedious and not very fun, but it’s also a bit of a fetch quest. However, it should be mentioned that this section of the game was over quickly enough, and the end of the game is great enough for me to be able to largely overlook this particular flaw.
There are also large hidden gongs on levels that lead to challenge rooms. While these are interesting at first, they break the pace of the game to the point where I ended up ignoring them, even when I found them.
Ugly blur, but for a good purpose
That purpose being that things outside of your sight are blurred. This makes sense for a stealth game, and it’s used well, forcing you to either peek out or listen for enemies instead of automatically knowing where everyone is. That being said, the blur effect is incredibly ugly. The rest of the graphics are fine, though, if a bit bland; the whole game is wrapped in this slightly-cartoonish aesthetic that uses a lot of black, so there’s not a lot of color to be found here.
Noise is circular
One thing that Mark of the Ninja does very right is represent sound visually with “noise circles.” Because of this, it’s possible to know where enemies are even when you can’t see them. Even better, before you throw a dart to break a light/distract an enemy, you’re able to see the sound it’ll create, allowing you to make smart decisions when you’re deciding on how to lure guards away. Other stealth games can learn a lot from this.
Lots of atmosphere
The music isn’t really music for much of the game, mostly consisting of atmospheric sound. Tense music kicks in at times where it’s appropriate (such as those timed “survive for X amount of time” sections), but it’s not really anything particularly memorable. That being said, the soundtrack fits the darker mood of the game like a glove and allows you to hear footsteps over the background music.
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