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Game Reviews

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

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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 the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. 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

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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