Mark of the Ninja was developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Microsoft Studios. It was released Sept. 7, 2012 for 1200 MSP. A copy was provided for review purposes.

Ninjas have a long and proud tradition in fiction in general and video games specifically. Since Ninja Gaiden, the stealthy Japanese warriors are behind perhaps only Nazis and zombies in gaming ubiquity. Continuing that proud tradition is new release Mark of the Ninja, a stealth platformer which sets you in the shoes of a ninja attempting to save his clan from extinction. Along the way, you’ll sneak, stab and hide your way through a solid adventure. Is it worth your time? Read on and find 0ut:

Here’s what we liked:

Like watching a cartoon – Simply put, Mark of the Ninja‘s art style is absolutely gorgeous. It’s got a look that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon lineup (or, given the game’s extreme violence, perhaps Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim). Ninja seamlessly moves from gameplay to animated cutscene between stages, and although the story isn’t terribly compelling or engaging (more on that later), that doesn’t change the fact that the scenes are stunning to take in.

Keeping it (relatively) fresh – You sneak up to the edge of the roof, and look out to see a brightly lit area crawling with armed guards. What do you do? Short answer – pretty much whatever you want. One of Ninja‘s greatest strengths is that any given challenge has numerous potential solutions. You can knock out the lights to keep you in cover of darkness, toss a noisemaker to lure a guard away from his buddies or toss a smoke bomb to grant you some cover (to name a couple of examples). You can sneak in and take out every guard or, in most cases, bypass them entirely. Heck, a player can even (technically) survive fighting guards head on, though the game stacks the deck heavily against that route. The options aren’t infinite (though there are a ton of options and your charter is very customizable), but they are varied enough that you can change things up fairly regularly. And sometimes, you’ll have to – periodically, the game throws in new enemies or challenges that require a certain tactic to keep you from getting too comfortable. For example, fairly early on in the game you’re faced with guards with patrol dogs, who can sniff you out even in darkness and pinpoint your presence. Some time later is an armored guard who tosses out flares when nervous (say, for example, when the lights go out). It’s not a perfect way to stave off repetition (see below), but it changes things up often enough that it requires you to think and take a different angle than you might otherwise.

Metal Gear Ninja – Mark of the Ninja emphasizes the classic “ninja style” above all else. You’ll rack up a sizable body count over the course of your adventure, but the game demands you do so quietly and efficiently; players will receive points bonuses for evading detection and quiet kills, while being detected and discovered bodies will detract points (heck, you can’t even pull your sword until it’s time for the kill stroke – before that, it’s punches and kicks). At the same time, the game emphasizes intimate, close-up kills – if you want to take out the guard below, you’re going to have to get right up in his face to do it. Additionally, darkness are a huge aspect of the game; not merely to shroud your character in the sweet safety of shadow, but also to further emphasize the need for stealth. Areas not immediately surrounding your character (or illuminated by artificial light) are often covered in darkness and appear out of focus, necessitating the player look before they leap (many times literally). Players are often presented with a big-picture, almost panoramic view of areas they explore, giving the game a decidedly “Metal Gear Solid-meets-Out out of this World and everything’s all ninja” vibe to it.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Uh…why am I doing this, again? – If there are any big black marks on Mark of the Ninja, it’s the game’s story. The player is basically tossed into the shoes of a ninja warrior to fight an evil corporation that…hates ninjas, or something? (It’s not all that clear or coherent, honestly). When you get right down to it, the story is flimsy and little more than a justification for the setting and action (though that’s hardly uncommon in the industry). Granted, this would be far more detrimental if the story was a major selling point a la Bastion or Mass Effect, but it isn’t – if you’re sticking around, it’s for the gameplay, not to see whether the ninja clan is victorious (in the same vein, if the gameplay doesn’t appeal to you, the narrative isn’t going to give you any reason to stick around for more than a level or two). Again, this is a minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.

Sneak, stab, repeat – Again, Mark of the Ninja does a commendable job of keeping gameplay fresh and throwing new wrinkles into the mix to challenge the player. That said, the gameplay between those introductions can lead to some tedium and repetitiveness. It doesn’t help that some levels are longer than feels natural, leading to a big of a slog toward, or that it doesn’t take long at all to discern the best way to tackle those new challenges (you’re not going to spend a terrible amount of time trying to wrap your brain around how to deal with a patrol hound, for instance).

When you get right down to it, Mark of the Ninja won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a pretty great, fairly unique XBLA title, despite a couple of minor flaws.  Some will be turned off by the more meticulous play style, or the cartoony art style. That said, anyone who turns the game down on those qualities will pass up  a really unique title truly worthy of your attention. Do yourself a favor and give the game a shot.

Score: Buy It