Within seconds of pressing start, you can tell that Mark of the Ninja is the work of Klei Entertainment, the Canadian indie dev responsible for action brawler Shank. There's the same robust comic book style, with designs and animation reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky. There's the side-scrolling template, with crisp responsive movement. What there isn't, though, is mayhem.
Where Shank stamped its mark with a blood-stained boot, Mark of the Ninja is, by necessity, a far more measured and contemplative experience. It's a stealth game, and one of the finest examples of that genre to see the light of day in a long time.
Ignore the generic title, and skip past the predictable story about an honourable clan at war with a ruthless technologically advanced enemy. Mark of the Ninja's pleasures are in the moment, in the intuitive mastery you have over your environment and in the way Klei gradually expands from a solid gameplay core to introduce a steady stream of new abilities, enemies and ninja tools.
Over a brisk tutorial level, you're introduced to the basic skills you'll be using throughout the generously proportioned story. You can cling to walls, duck into grates and ducts and peek out again without revealing your presence. You can hide behind, or in, certain scenery objects, and press yourself up against a door to get a sense of what's on the other side.
There are echoes here of Klei's work on the XBLA version of N+ but your black clad character strikes a more realistic balance between agility and gravity. You never feel weightless, but are still able to navigate the levels with far more grace than the hapless guards in your path. Avoiding them is entirely possible - every level offers a hefty points bonus for clean runs with no enemy encounters or kills - but the fun really comes from the ever-escalating ways you can toy with your foes.
Your arsenal consists of a sword for stealth kills, and a bulging inventory of cool toys. Of these, the most basic is throwing knives, useful for breaking lights but of no use against guards. For those guys, you need to turn to firecrackers (distract them and nab 'em from behind), smoke bombs (confuse them and nab 'em from behind) or just hide in a cardboard box (and then nab 'em from behind). Those are your weapons of mass distraction, but more entertainment is to be had with your offensive weapons. These include spike mines, skewering enemies who step on them, poison darts that can drive enemies insane and even a swarm of beetles that devour people.
That last one is not only messy but noisy, and sound plays a large part in Mark of the Ninja. Any sound you - or your enemies - make is visualised by ripple-like circles, and it's these that let you gauge some of your sneakier attacks, either by lobbing a distraction within earshot of a guard or ensuring you remain undetected.
"The broad cartoon graphics drop in and out of focus, or fade into line drawings, providing a constant and immediate sense of what is and isn't visible."
It's an elegant feature that is matched by the game's visual style. The broad cartoon graphics drop in and out of focus, or fade into line drawings, providing a constant and immediate sense of what is and isn't visible - either through line of sight, or light and shadow. You may, for example, be able to "see" an enemy's footsteps approaching as a line of small echoes long before they actually appear as a visible character on-screen.
All of these thoughtfully balanced elements come together in levels that reward observant play and daring exploration. There are always multiple ways to approach any given objective, and taking the time to look around and see what options are open to you almost always pays dividends. With the robust stealth system at your back, you can do so in confidence, safe in the knowledge that you're not going to be caught out by anything other than your own bad timing. Whether you're navigating the sort of traps and snares that would make Indiana Jones sweat or plotting how best to get past an inconveniently positioned troop of guards, it's always a pleasurable challenge and rarely a frustrating chore.
What frustrations there are generally come from a control scheme that excels in the big bold strokes of ninja agility but sometimes struggles in close quarters. You're a very sticky ninja, so navigating some of the more claustrophobic corners and crawlspaces can occasionally be clumsy. The game also has problems with its context sensitive controls. Pressing B enables you to pick up a dead guard so you can drag him out of sight, but B is also the button for hiding in cover. Kill a guard in front of a cover spot and it can be a fumble while the game decides which one you should do. Not what you want when his pal is approaching with a machine gun. Such annoyances are rarely fatal, and when they are the sensible checkpointing means you're never punished too harshly.
What impresses most about Mark of the Ninja over its five-hours playing time is how well paced it is. The Shank games suffered from some distracting highs and lows as they navigated a difficulty curve that was more rollercoaster than ski slope. Instead, Mark of the Ninja hits the sweet spot - constantly introducing new features but always tempering your escalating arsenal with tougher enemies and changes to the environment that force you to rethink familiar strategies. Previously reliable perches may crumble, hiding places become booby trapped while the foes ranged against you gradually go from fairly dim rent-a-thugs to night-vision enhanced stalkers who can match your agility.
There's no room for complacency, but nor does the game ever feel like it's putting a brick wall in your path for the sake of longevity. Slow and steady wins the race, and while it's possible to be detected and muff things up, smart play is consistently rewarded. When so many games are content to throw you a handful of toys at the start and then ride the diminishing wave of enjoyment to the end credits, it's a rare treat to find a game that never stops playing around with its core premise, demanding as much, if not more, engagement in the final stages as it did in the first.
The ending to the story fizzles slightly, pulled down by some predictable twists and an abrupt conclusion that isn't really supported by the plot, but Mark of the Ninja's pleasures are mechanical and systemic in nature, found in the minute-by-minute series of interlocking challenges that make up each stage rather than the development of the perfunctory setting.
As the price of digitally released games creeps ever upwards, the question of value becomes harder to answer. Compared to the superficially similar Deadlight, which trod a rather linear path through a few hours of repetitive scrambling and climbing, this is an embarrassment of riches. A game that never rests on its laurels and offers ample replay value, Mark of the Ninja is a much-needed shot in the arm for Live Arcade's lacklustre summer offering.