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‘Mark of the Ninja’ uses Sounds and Sights in Brilliant Ways

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Mark of the Ninja Switch Review

Back in 1964, Ian Fleming released You Only Live Twice. It was his last James Bond book before his death and featured Tiger Tanaka, an ally to Bond and the head of the Japanese secret service who sends his ninja allies to help Agent 007 attack Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his troops. Three years later Roald Dahl adapted it to the big screen, with Sean Connery in the lead and Lewis Gilbert behind the camera. Much like the novel, the film culminated with a spectacular actions setpiece in which 007 and an army of ninjas invade the secret hideout of the mysterious SPECTRE. The film was a box office hit, grossing over $111 million in the worldwide box office and ever since Western fascination with the ninja bloomed with ninjas appearing in television, movies, comics and everything in between.

While the word shinobi appears in the written record as far back as the late 8th century it’s fair to say that American pop culture has contributed to the worldwide ninja-phenomenon on a grand scale and no more so than the in the medium of video games. In the last 35 years, we’ve seen hundreds of ninja-centric gaming titles that have tried to capture the spirit of the ninja – and while some of them are iconic, most are simply forgotten. For every Ninja, Ninja Gaiden or Turtles in Time, there are a dozen or so ninja games that just aren’t worth your hard-earned cash. 2018 however, has seen not one but two hugely successful games with ninjas at the center of each. It wasn’t too long ago Sabotage Studios released The Messenger, a loving tribute to classic 2D side-scrolling action games of yesteryear — namely, the 1980’s Ninja Gaiden series. Fast forward a few months and the Nintendo Switch was blessed with another superb ninja title – the remastered version of Mark of the Ninja, one of the most critically acclaimed games of the last generation. Playing it for the first time, eight years after its initial release, and it is clear why Mark of the Ninja is so critically adored. This side-scrolling action game developed by Canadian developers Klei Entertainment is one of the best stealth games ever made and one of the best indie games I’ve ever played. 

Story

Mark of the Ninja follows the story of a nameless ninja embroiled in a war between the dojo of the Hisomu ninja clan and a ruthless Eastern European plutocrat named Count Karajan. He embarks on a quest with his covert companion, Ora, and seeks revenge on the Count and his army. Before he leaves, our protagonist is bestowed with the titular mark, a tattoo which grants the wearer abnormally heightened reflexes and senses. The catch, however: by bearing the “mark of the Ninja”, the wearer will slowly lose a grasp on his sanity, but it’s a sacrifice he must make in order to save his tribe.

Mark of the Ninja doesn’t feature a story worth writing home about, but for a side-scrolling 2D action platformer, it delivers enough twists and turns to call into question the loyalty of our protagonist’s closest allies while keeping you guessing right till the credits roll. Furthmore, each stage is bookended by a gorgeous animated cutscene that echoes the art style of a classic hand-drawn Saturday morning cartoon and features excellent voice work which goes a long way towards setting the tone and atmosphere of the game.

Mark of the Ninja Review

Sound and Sight

As mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game through and through and it places a heavy focus on the stealth above everything else. Whereas most stealth games nowadays barely feature any stealth, Mark of the Ninja encourages the player to sneak around the environments while performing silent assassinations or hiding in the shadows. Mark of the Ninja’s visuals plays a pivotal role in maneuvering your way across each level as most of your strategy is governed by the light or rather, lack of light. In other words, much like a ninja, you’ll want to move in the shadows and approach enemies undetected in order to execute a “one-hit” kill. To facilitate this, you can extinguish light sources, hide behind objects and pass through narrow grates and shafts.

Sound also plays an important role since your footsteps can give away your character’s location. And if that isn’t clever enough, the sounds of your ninja running are represented visually by way of a translucent blue circle that expands to indicate how far the sound is travelling. Breaking lights, throwing darts or having a dog pick up your scent will alert any guard standing within range. Mark of the Ninja also features a line of sight mechanic, meaning that enemies which would normally be invisible to the character are also invisible to the player, leaving you to rely on sounds to indicate where these enemies are located. The way in which Mark of the Ninja uses sight and sound to enhance the overall experience, is truly remarkable.

Mark of the Ninja Review Switch

Skills

Your ninja, of course, does acquire new skills sets and weapons along the way and to some degree your success will depend considerably on the usage of these gadgets which include distraction items (bamboo darts, flares, smoke bombs, and firecrackers) and attack Items (caltrops, poison-tipped darts). Each of these weapons and skills all have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on your playstyle. Meanwhile, solving various puzzles and finding hidden scrolls will reward you with in-game currency known as “Honour” and throughout the game, your character can unlock several costumes after completing a number of seals in the form of optional goals related to the specialty of that costume. In other words, if you sneak up on enough enemies, you’ll unlock a costume that improves your ninja’s ability to startle your foes (it should be noted, however, that many of these scrolls aren’t easily retrievable and requires passing through various difficult, platforming stages).

While it is great to have such a wide range of tools at your disposal (from grappling hooks to smoke bombs and more) what makes Mark of the Ninja so good is how it encourages players to experiment and more importantly, sit poised while you patiently hide in the shadows and wait for the right moment to attack. It helps that each of Mark of the Ninja’s levels is beautifully designed and filled with various traps, hidden secrets, and clever objectives – from freeing hostages, infiltrating a castle, destroying security systems, avoiding guard dogs, scaling rooftops, surviving poisonous gas attacks and solving puzzles. And if that isn’t enough, every level in Mark of the Ninja features multiple paths to completion and allows you to play how you want to play. In other words, while the game does encourage stealth, it doesn’t force it upon you.

Closing Thoughts

Mark of the Ninja Remastered is a truly amazing stealth game and an excellent re-release that features tight controls, strong art direction, improved graphics, enhanced audio, and a slew of extra content including an entirely new story level, a new character, additional items, as well as the option to enable developer commentary (I highly recommend turning this on).

Mark of the Ninja makes the most of its spare aesthetic, using stylish — and influential — direction, great sound design, and thick atmosphere to weave a thrilling journey. While the ending leaves a lot to be desired, the game still comes highly recommended by this critic. Between Quebec-based Sabotage Studios and Vancouver-based Klei Entertainment, it seems Canadians are the best when making games about covert mercenaries from feudal Japan. I only hope we’ll get more of these games in the near future.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Game Reviews

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.

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Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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