Mark of the Ninja is a really good game. I'm not saying that because the developer Klei sent me a review copy (although they did. Thanks Klei, you guys are awesome), but because it really is. Mark of the Ninja is about a ninja clan that has survived until modern day, but is suddenly attacked by the forces of a man named Karajan. To protect the clan, an unnamed ninja is given a tattoo using a toxic ink that grants him special powers but will also drive him slowly insane. From there on out, he goes on a globe trotting adventure to assassinate Karajan, only things don't go exactly as planned. The story is really well told, and becomes surprisingly emotional at times. There are a few cutscenes within the game that are beautifully animated, but most of the story is told through gameplay, which as far as I am concerned is the best way to do it. I found the story to be engaging, so I'm going to do my best not to spoil it here.
Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game. Not a game with some stealth elements like the recent Splinter Cell games, or an epic length TV show box set with some stealth game added in like Metal Gear Solid 4, but an actual stealth game. Here stealth is not optional, it is mandatory. You cannot effectively fight your enemies directly. You must sneak past them or kill them from the shadows. Before I continue I should probably mention that Mark of the Ninja is presented as a 2D platformer, and I am now convinced that that might be the best format for stealth games. Unlike most platformers, you cannot actually see everything on the screen. Anything that is not within your character's line of site is blurred, or just vanishes. If a guard walks out of your line of site, he leaves a ghostly red image at the last place you saw him, and visualized sound waves trace his footsteps.
You have to pay attention to everything. Look for the sound waves that show you where guards outside of your line of site are, and pay attention to the environment. Lights are there to be broken, chandeliers can be dropped on guards, and there are even some traps intended for you that you can turn against your enemies. To help you, you are given a variety of ninja tools pulled from every ninja stereotype available that are all useful. Firecrackers, smoke bombs, insects that consume people in several seconds, and even a card board box are all available to help you. These tools allow to do more than just survive though. You can use them to panic guards and enemies, which never gets old.
At times, the game does get unreasonably hard, or at least it seems that way at first. What the game wants you to do is to think like a ninja. Every time I got stuck, I tried to think “what would a ninja do?” It worked almost every single time. I got stuck at one point in particular where there was a small room containing two guards who were facing each other, a light, and my objective. I tried countless variations of breaking the light and killing one of the guards, but I was seen and shot every single time. Then I remembered my smoke bombs. With the room filled with smoke I was able to kill one guard and pull his body back into the vent without the second guard seeing me. I then broke the light making that guard turn around allowing me to kill him and hide his body as well.
Some final notes on mechanics before I wrap this up: the mechanics are tight, and about as close to perfect as they come. You always have to actively choose to drop down through the vent or to jump off of a ledge. You only can fall if you are running. You never accidentally go through a vent or fall off of a building. When you screw up, it's not the controller’s fault, it's yours.
Once you finish the game, you will have access to a new game plus mode that allows you to replay the game with all of the skills and gadgets you have unlocked, but at the cost of making the game much harder. Guards will be more alert, you will be able to see a lot less, and you won't have any visual indication of how much noise you are making. There is also a hidden challenge puzzle in each level that is almost always maddeningly hard. I skipped most of them because I simply did not have time to finish them all in addition to the base game.
I played the PC version of the game, and it worked mostly perfectly. I played with a wired xbox360 pad because games like Mark of the Ninja generally fair better with analogue control, although in this case it wasn't actually used, and the game would probably be perfectly playable with a mouse and keyboard. Performance was completely stable at 1366x768 on my laptop with bloom enabled. I had only one crash, but it just shut the game down instantly, and didn't lock anything up. I didn't lose any progress, and the game did crash again during the entirety of it's nine hour length.
Mark of the Ninja is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft points, and on steam for $15 here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/214560/. I really enjoyed my time with Mark of the Ninja, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something different. Seriously people, BUY THIS. It's worth your time, and Klei deserves the support.