The simplicity of 2D platformer games must be really liberating for developers, especially small time independent ones. I say this because it seems that I’ve played a lot of games this year that fit into that genre and the amount of innovative game ideas that I’ve seen has really surprised me. These were the titles I grew up on and they were, for the most part, usually a small variation on the original Duke Nukem idea. One thing I didn’t expect was the introduction of stealth based game play something which has traditionally been contained to 3D games. Mark of the Ninja blends stealth along with puzzle solving and platforming to form a pretty unique game experience, one that doesn’t really have anything that I can directly compare it to.
Unlike most ninja games which take place in feudal Japan Mark of the Ninja is set during present day. You, an unnamed ninja, were receiving your first tattoo which would grant you special powers when you passed out. A short while later a fellow ninja, named Ora, wakes you up as the ninja stronghold is under attack by a security agency headed by a man named Karajan. After rescuing your fellow ninjas as well as your master, Azai, you’re then sent on a mission of vengeance against Karajan for the atrocities that he committed against your clan.
Mark of the Ninja has a style to it that’s reminiscent of all those flash animations of yesteryear but there’s a level of refinement about it that many of those lacked. The cut scenes for example feel like they came straight out of a professional animation house and wouldn’t be out of place in any cartoon you’d see on a Saturday morning. There’s also incredible amounts of detail everywhere from the interactive area which is littered with all sorts of things to the backgrounds which are done exceptionally well. This blends exceptionally well with the music and foley which provides a very detailed soundscape to compliment the impressive art work.
Mark of the Ninja is primarily a stealth game and its implementation in the 2D, platformer world is quite an interesting one. For starters unlike most 2D games Mark of the Ninja includes a line of sight mechanic which forms a big part of any stealth game. This means that you’ll spend the vast majority of your time walking between shadows, dodging guards where you can, so you can either sneak up behind guards and dispatch them quickly or just move on leaving them none-the-wiser. If it so pleases you though you can go toe to toe with every guard you meet however and there are some sections which will be far easier (and quicker) should you choose to do that.
Initially you start off with only a few tools at your disposal, namely your sword and bamboo darts that can be used to take out lights and other fixtures. As the game progresses you unlock additional abilities and equipment that allow for a much wider range of actions, enabling you do things like terrify your enemies by laying spike traps or dangling corpses from the room for all to see. All these options will mean that your play through is almost guaranteed to not be the same as anyone else’s as there just so many ways to go about doing the same thing.
Indeed that seems to be the whole point of Mark of the Ninja. Whilst it is primarily a 2D stealth platformer it also has many elements of a puzzler/exploration game as there are many rewards to be found by simply taking the least obvious path. I can’t tell you how many times I found artefacts/scrolls by going in the wrong direction or moving blocks in random ways. If you’re persistent enough too the most laborious of challenges can usually be circumvented by finding a path that leads around it or simply puts you behind the guards that were blocking your path. Mark of the Ninja then is a game that rewards the player for being curious but thankfully forgoes punishing you severely if you don’t.
The upgrade system bears mentioning as how many upgrades you can afford depends directly on: how many challenges you complete, your overall score and how many of the hidden scrolls you uncover. For each of these there are a potential 3 tokens up for grabs giving you a total of nine for each level. These can then be spent on various upgrades that either give you new abilities/equipment or upgrades to the ones you currently have. Depending on what you get this can completely change the way you play the game, especially if you combine these upgrades with one of the costumes which will grant you several benefits (usually at the cost of one particular trait).
This is usually the point where I mention any bugs or glitches that detracted from my game play experience but I’m pleased to report that there doesn’t seem to be any. Sure there were times when my character acted in a way I didn’t expect but its hard for me to blame the game for that as I get the feeling it was more me fat fingering the keys rather than the game engine wigging out on me. I did have some rather awkward checkpoint moments where it’d place me into locations that I hadn’t yet explored when reloading (which was actually great sometimes) putting me in rather precarious situations but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.
The story of Mark of the Ninja is also quite well done, especially considering it forgoes the usual ninja setting and instead brings the whole ninja idea into modern day. Whilst I didn’t really feel the levels of emotions like I did for things like To The Moon it certainly didn’t suffer from issues like poor voice acting, irrational characters or glaring plot holes like plagued other titles I’ve played recently. I will admit that I’m yet to finish it (I believe I’m on the second last mission) so I’m not sure about the ultimate conclusion but from what I’ve heard from my other friends they weren’t disappointed with it, so it has that going for it at least.
Mark of the Ninja effortlessly combines all the best aspects of 2D platformers with stealth game play to form a game that makes you feel like the ultimate ninja whilst still providing an incredibly satisfying challenge. The graphics are superbly done, the sound track excellent and above all the core game play is immensely satisfying. I could go on but really for a game that’s asking price is so low compared to its quality I’d rather just recommend you go out and play it since it’s really worth a play through.
Mark of the Ninja is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $14.99 and an equivalent amount of Xbox points. Game was played on the PC with around 6 hours of total game time and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of games that find success on one platform and then spread to others has trended upwards significantly over the past couple years. If I was to hazard a guess as to why this is I’d have to say that the tooling available is probably the primary reason as many of the games that make the transition are Xbox Live Arcade titles. For that we can thank the Microsoft XNA framework which does a lot of the heavy lifting for the developers meaning that the only thing holding back a cross platform release is reworking the UI/controls for a different platform. That’s still a challenge which is why you don’t see every single XBLA game instantly on the PC but even a modicum of success will usually mean a PC release not long after. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one such title having found wild success late last year and then debuting on the PC this year.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (I’m going to abbreviate this to ITSP from now on) takes place in a far off galaxy in a solar system inhabited with a highly advanced race of aliens. Everything seems peachy until a tangled black mass rockets through their home system, eventually crashing into their sun. Instead of being instantly vaporized however it appears to take over the sun itself, forming a kind of Dyson Sphere around it. Then it launches several other replicants of itself at all the planets in the system that perform much the same function as the original asteroid did. You then take it upon yourself to rid your solar system of this menace, jumping in your hilariously stereotypical UFO and heading out with nothing much more than a scanner and a vendetta.
Right off the bat ITSP sets itself apart from all the other 2D puzzlers I’ve played recently by having some incredible cinematic direction. Whilst games like Unmechanical did the majority of their story telling through the game itself ITSP does quite a bit in some incredibly well directed cutscenes. Indeed the initial plot summary I gave you above all takes place within one such scene and everything about it, from the choice of artwork to the awesomely epic soundtrack, just made it feel like it was ripped directly from a high budget animated movie. That artistic style continues on throughout the game and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about ITSP.
ITSP brands itself as a “multi-directional shooter” however I feel like it’s far more appropriately classified as a 2D puzzler with shooter aspects. While you will spend a good amount of time firing at all the various enemies that will try to get you in all sorts of random ways the majority of your time will be spent solving some kind of puzzle. They’re not mutually exclusive things either as quite often you’ll be force to try and solve some kind of puzzle whilst under fire from all directions making what would be a simple encounter much more challenging. The two core game mechanics blend well together making for both exciting and challenging game play.
Initially you start off with just a few simple tools with which to complete your tasks. The first tool you’re given is a scanner which allows you to investigate objects in ITSP and then get a visual cue as to what you need to do in order to interact with it. This is extremely helpful as if you get stuck on at a particular stage you’re usually only a couple scans from working out what the intended solution is. Of course there are still some puzzles that are non-obvious even with those little clues but suffice to say that it serves well as a built in hint system that doesn’t feel like the answers are being handed to you on a plate.
As you progress on the tools you have at your disposal increase with every passing section leading to more and more complicated puzzles. In all I believe there were a grand total of 8 different tools at your disposal each of them with a unique ability that unlocks another section of the ITSP map. You’ll often find yourself flying past obstacles that you can scan but don’t yet have the tool to access it giving you a kind of foreboding as to what is to come later on.
The puzzles are, for the most part, quite well done as there’s a good balance between challenge and progression. Indeed if you’re struggling with a particular puzzle or boss fight then its usually because you’re not understanding the mechanics properly or you’re going about it in a really odd way. There are some challenges that are far less fun than others (I’m looking at you, rocket in a maze where you can’t hit the walls) but I didn’t often find myself stuck on a particular section for long which made the game feel a lot better paced than some other games in similar genres.
ITSP does have a few glitches that I believe are worth mentioning however. So to the developer’s credit they included a map that helps you navigate your way around ITSP, which is good. However should you go into said map whilst you’re holding something in the claw tool or holding a key down you will drop said object or that key you were holding down will stop working. It’s not game breaking but it is rather annoying when you’re in the later stages of the game where you’re required to drag an item along with you all the time and there’s not a lot of light so you have to keep checking your map to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Yes I know that you can use the power wheel thing to get a direction queue but that has the unfortunate side effect of changing whatever tool you had equipped at the time which can be deadly if you do it at the wrong time.
The physics are also a little wonky for some of the challenges, the most notable being the one above. Again it’s not game breaking but trying to get those damn crystals into the holes (or indeed anything that requires a little precision) is fraught with difficulties. ITSP does have a rudimentary snap-to system which works for something but not others and the crystals in the ice stage appear to be one of the things it doesn’t work for. It might make sense when you’re using a controller however I don’t know anyone who’s played this on the Xbox so I’m not completely sure of that.
The boss fights are equal parts fun and challenging with each of the bosses being unique in their own weird way. The one above was probably the most challenging boss fight of the lot as one mistake or slip up could easily see your ship ruined long before you had enough time to react. They were a very good way to break up the relative monotony of flying around, solving puzzles and looking for hidden stashes and it’s something that a lot of similar games forego because they simply can’t be worked in well. ITSP however does a very good job with them and they were definitely my favourite combat challenge.
ITSP’s story is a simple affair when taken on face value and really I’m not sure if there’s much more depth intended by the developers. Sure there are many themes that you could say are explored (invasion, uprising, etc.) however since there’s no real backstory or explanation behind the vast majority of things that happen within ITSP I can’t say that I was playing it for the plot. Thankfully it doesn’t matter that much as the game play and cinematic quality of ITSP carries it without the need for an in depth storyline.
ITSP was one of those unexpected gems that I came across by chance when I was in a hurried state looking for the next week’s game review. It’s cinematic cut scenes are a joy to watch, it’s game play is fun and varied and there are only a few issues that detract from it overall. Its short length also make for a good Sunday afternoon distraction that doesn’t drag on unnecessarily. If you’re a fan of 2D puzzlers or shooters or just enjoy a well crafted game then I can’t recommend ITSP enough as it really is just damn good fun.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $14.99 and 800 Microsoft points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.6 hours of total game time.