You can click on images to see larger versions.

The release of Mark of the Ninja way back in October was what originally inspired me to do the Indie Platformer Marathon. It reminded me that I’d been collecting quite a lot of cool-looking indie platformers, but hadn’t actually played them yet. So I figured I’d play through a bunch at once, with Mark of the Ninja as the finale. It wasn’t until after the Marathon was underway that I learned that Mark of the Ninja is not actually indie — it’s published by Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft are kind of the opposite of indie. But then I learned that it isn’t that simple. Apparently if you want to release your game on the Xbox 360 (or the upcoming Xbox One), your game must have a publisher. Microsoft does not allow self-published games on their consoles. That means that, since I’ve defined “indie” as “self-published”, there are no indie games on the Xbox. But there is an “Xbox Live Indie Games” service, so what does that mean? Apparently, if you’ve got a game that you self-published, and you want to get it on the Xbox, then you sign a deal with — surprise surprise — Microsoft Studios.

So how much involvement did Microsoft studios really have with Mark of the Ninja? Did they just act as the distributor on Xbox, or were they actually funding (and influencing) development? Developers Klei Entertainment have a strong indie track record, from their early title Eets to their latest title Don’t Starve, but they’re most famous for Shank, which was actually published by Electronic Arts (possibly also as a bid to get on the Xbox). So is Mark of the Ninja actually indie? I don’t know. To be safe, I’ve decided to extend the marathon to one more game (OK, I was actually going to do that anyway, it doesn’t really have anything to do with whether Mark of the Ninja is indie or not), making this the penultimate entry. More importantly, though: who cares? Let’s talk about how excellent Mark of the Ninja is.

As you may have guessed, it’s a game about ninjas. But it’s not about fighting through hordes of enemies, as many other games featuring ninjas are. In fact, the developers were driven to make Mark of the Ninja because they were frustrated that other ninja games were all about action rather than stealth. “Ninjas should be sneaky” is Mark of the Ninja’s credo. But that’s not to say that it isn’t violent; anyone familiar with Klei Entertainment’s Shank knows that the animators do not shy from graphic depictions of violence, and there’s certainly plenty of it here. While it is possible to abstain from killing — there’s even a score bonus for doing so — some instances are unavoidable, and they’re all generally gruesome. Enough so, in fact, that it affected my decisions far more than I expected. While I often try to play stealth games non-lethally, I had decided ahead of time to embrace the role of silent assassin in Mark of the Ninja. Soon I found I was only willing to kill when necessary, even going out of my way to avoid it on several occasions. Thankfully, the game never judged me for killing or not killing. Sure, there’s a score bonus for getting through a level without killing anyone, but there’s also points for each kill, or for completing various special objectives that often involve some imaginative assassinations. There’s no predetermined “good” or “bad” path through the game, it’s simply up to each player how they wish to proceed.

Putting stealth mechanics in a platformer is a relatively new idea, but there have been a couple of examples already. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Trilby: The Art of Stealth (yes, that’s the same Yahtzee who makes Zero Punctuation) and Curve Studios’ Stealth Bastard (now upgraded to its Deluxe version) both succeeded at it, but both ended up feeling rather puzzle-like as a result. Given the slick animated action of Shank, I’d imagined Mark of the Ninja would be a much smoother affair than those games, seeking to truly translate the feel of a classic three-dimensional stealth game into two dimensions. I was right, but it didn’t seem so at first. The ninja’s careful, measured movements felt clunky in the beginning, and interaction with the environment used so many context-sensitive controls that the areas felt like puzzles, with different pieces to interact with. But once I got through the early training sections and into a full mission, I realized that these were not pieces of a puzzle, they were an array of available options. I could use that vent in the floor to duck into a ventilation shaft and sneak into the next room, or I could use it to hide a body. Or I could use my grappling hook to take the high road, moving from grapple point to grapple point above the clueless guards. Or I could stay on the ground level and dispatch the guards one by one when their backs are turned. Or string one up on a lamppost, to terrify other guards and get them to shoot each other in their panic. When I got a feel for controlling the ninja, I found it to be nice middle ground between fluid action and more methodical mantles, grapples, and dashes to cover. Like the best stealth games, I would observe the situation from my hiding spot, hatch a plan, and then execute that plan with premeditated grace.

Unless I completely screwed up, of course, in which case it was time to improvise. Mark of the Ninja has great options for that too. While the ninja will only use his sword when he can kill with a single strike (which means he only uses it for stealth kills, even though some of the stealth kills involve more than one strike), he’s more than happy to engage in some hand-to-hand combat if he’s discovered. There’s also plenty of great ways to make an escape. Simply running often works, especially when one has a good route in mind and employs the grappling hook for assistance. Both stealth and escape can be aided with distraction items such as smoke bombs, and the ninja can also deploy lethal traps or other tricks to get the enemies off the trail. As I played through the missions, higher scores let me unlock new moves and equipment, and special challenges even unlocked other “styles”, which have a big effect on the gameplay. Since I tended towards a stealthy and not overly violent route, I found I’d unlocked the Path of Silence. This allows the ninja to run silently, and carry two distraction items, but he has no sword. Which means no killing. That’s a huge change, and made me quite curious to see how the other styles would play. Klei Entertainment clearly want players to play through the game more than once, to complete the different challenges and unlock new styles to try out. There’s even a “new game plus” mode that’s unlocked after finishing the story (which has an excellent ending, by the way), letting players go through again with all their upgrades intact and with some added difficulty.

I really should not have gotten this far without discussing the visuals, because they’re an integral part of the design. Unlike many platformers, Mark of the Ninja only shows you what your character can see. This means players must pay careful attention and listen for guards and other dangers. But how to tell where sound is coming from, in a platformer? The brilliant answer is to show it visually. Footfalls make visual ripples of sound, so the player always knows where that guard tramping overhead is, and flocks of birds or other loud noises send huge rings outward, alerting enemies to the disturbance. And sound isn’t the only visual trick. The colors of the ninja’s outfit fade away when he is concealed in darkness. Areas outside the ninja’s line of sight become blurred, representing his memory of what is there while clearly distinguishing what is visible and what isn’t. Enemies he’s glimpsed leave red after-images behind, marking their last known location, even while their current movements can be traced by the sound they make. Static screenshots don’t do the visuals justice; one really must see the game in motion to appreciate its beauty.

There’s a lot more to like, too. I loved the subtle way the futuristic setting was handled. It was never brought to the fore, but I found myself increasingly intrigued by the world these ninja live in, often changing my opinion of various characters’ motivations as a result of my musings. The story initially seemed cliched and predictable but redeemed itself with an excellent ending, which I have no desire to spoil. Mostly, though, Mark of the Ninja simply feels great to play. It’s expertly crafted, and deserves to stand alongside other stealth classics, even those with an extra dimension to play with. I was very, very tempted to play through again to complete extra challenges and try some different tactics, but I’m almost done with this Marathon and I need to move on. I’ll be back, though.

If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a stealth game (or even if you haven’t) you should definitely check out Mark of the Ninja. It’s available on Xbox 360 and Steam; there are links to both versions here. I played the PC version, and while it’s clearly designed to be played on a gamepad (and gamepads are supported) I had no issues with the mouse and keyboard controls, and simply stuck to those. You’ll have a great time whichever method you prefer. Happy sneaking!

EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.