Ninjas. Besides zombies, arguably no character type has been featured as prominently or as often in video games as the honorable ninja. They've been leading characters, sidekicks and nameless cannon fodder to be disposed of, but rarely have ninjas been depicted in a way befitting their silent-but-deadly legacy.
"Mark of the Ninja" aims to change all of that.
Developed by Klei Entertainment, the studio behind the popular "Shank" series, "Mark of the Ninja" is focused squarely on stealth. Hiding in the shadows and using the darkness to your advantage in order to elude enemies is paramount to your survival. That's not to say your Ninja is helpless - drawing your blade on an unsuspecting guard triggers a zoomed-in camera that showcases your brutal kill - but there's no such thing as taking a head-on approach in "Mark of the Ninja."
Like a true ninja, you must use stealth to navigate each stage and avoid detection. In addition to simply hiding and waiting to strike, players gain access to a number of skills and tools to aid them on their quest. You can throw spikes to shatter lights, use noisemakers to lure guards into traps and throw smoke pellets to bypass alarms. One of the coolest moves available sees you descending upon an enemy and stringing them up like Batman in "Arkham Asylum" in order to terrorize their comrades.
Excellent level design allows for multiple routes through each 2D stage and plenty of hidden relics are scattered about that boost your final score. While "Mark of the Ninja" is story-driven (and clocks in at around 10 hours depending on your skill and patience), the real allure is battling for position on the leaderboards. The scoring system is outstanding and encourages stealth - you earn points for remaining undetected in the presence of a guard, as well as disposing of bodies - but doesn't punish for killing those who stand in your way. Setting off alarms will cost you big points, however, and I found myself replaying levels in search of that perfect ninja-like run.
Visually "Mark of the Ninja" is stunning and shares a similar art style to Klei's other franchise, "Shank." The cutscenes are gorgeous and the voiceovers well done, but it would have been nice to see a few more kill animations mixed in.
I found little to gripe about in "Mark of the Ninja" other than the sometimes awkward checkpoint system. During a couple of timed objectives I got caught up in an oddly-placed checkpoint and had no choice but to restart the level and begin anew. Other than that minor annoyance, "Mark of the Ninja" is a near-flawless stealth gaming experience.
In what has been a solid summer of Xbox Live Arcade releases, "Mark of the Ninja" stands as one of the year's best. It's deliberate pace and rather unforgiving difficulty may not appeal to everyone, but those looking for an excellent stealth adventure should look no further than this.
"Mark of the Ninja"
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Available for: Xbox Live Arcade ($15)
Rating: M for mature