Mark of the Ninja, from Klei Entertainment, features a hefty amount of symbolism. In the game, the nameless ninja protagonist receives a tattoo of a red dragon using special toxin laden tattoo ink, or sumi ink as it is referred to in Japan, which grants him supernatural powers, such as the ability to stop time when throwing bamboo darts. Whenever a new piece is added to the tattoo the ninja gains another power.
Traditional Japanese tattoos which depict images taken from myth or stories are known as Irezumi. In Japanese culture, dragons are known as protectors, and also as a symbol of the paranormal. Dragon tattoos also signify protection, as well as being a symbol for raw power. Also, Japanese culture sees red as a color symbolizing reproduction, or birth. The red dragon tattoo could signify the ninja’s rebirth as a super powered protector of his clan.
I have chosen to focus mainly on Japanese culture when looking at the symbolism of the tattoo because the dragon in the tattoo has three claws, signifying it as a Japanese Dragon, compared to the four or five claws of dragons in other Asian cultures. Side note: Japanese culture believes all dragons originated in Japan, and as they moved away they grew more claws.
The power from the magical tattoo comes at a price; it is said to drive whoever receives it insane. In order to protect the world, and the clan, from a super-powered mad-man, any who are chosen for the tattoo must commit seppuku once their mission to protect the clan is complete.
The final power-granting tattoo is of a black panther. To borrow from Western lore this time; in Pagan cultures the panther is seen as a way to help people understand darkness and death, allowing people to harness their powers. In Christianity, a black panther is said to help keep Satan, or the diabolical dragon, away; so perhaps this final tattoo is meant to help protect the ninja from the madness that gaining the final understanding of powers over death induces.
Alongside all this symbolism and history is an amazing stealth game. The Mark of the Ninja begins with the protagonist waking up to an attack on his clan. Luckily for him and his clan, he has just received the power-granting tattoo. Once he sneakily deals with the intruders, he is tasked with eliminating all remnants of the group who attacked his clan. The game is broken down into five levels, with most levels containing multiple missions. The main plot follows the tattooed ninja in his attempts to ensure the clan is safe, all culminating with a satisfying ending.
Mark of the Ninja’s character design is reminiscent of recent super hero cartoons, though in kill animations the enemies gush blood in a way more akin to Anime’s like Ninja Scroll. The game takes place in mostly 2-D, with the only exception being the 3-D backgrounds.
The gameplay focuses on sneaking past enemies. Checkpoints are frequent, which allows for some experimentation in how to deal with a room without a harsh penalty for failing. Hand to hand combat is possible, though recklessly dangerous. When close enough to an enemy, a stealth kill using a sword can be done by hitting the buttons prompted on screen. Bodies of slain enemies need to be hidden; if another enemy comes across a body he will raise the alarm. The alarm summons all the guards in the area to help search for whoever killed their comrade.
In darkness, enemies’ line of site is depicted by a cone projecting from their faces. If under a light, the guards can see the ninja regardless of how far they are from him. Most lights can be broken with a bamboo dart. Guards also have flashlights on their machine guns, allowing for a thorough search. Hiding spots like doorways, vents, and potted plants are littered around each level. To aid in sneaking around, the area of how far a noise will travel is depicted by bubbles.
The protagonist has a sufficient arsenal consisting of both attack items, like ravenous bugs that devour a body, and distraction items, like, in a nod to another great stealth game, a cardboard box. There are four different distraction and attack items. One attack item and one distraction item can be carried during each mission. Items can be swapped before each mission, and there are also a few spots during missions that allow for items to be exchanged.
Items are unlocked using medals obtained by accomplishing goals. Medals can also be used to unlock techniques and buffs. Buffs include things like reduced noise from running, and increased armor. Medal goals consist of things like scoring enough points, collecting back-story laden haiku’s, and completing three unique objectives in each mission. The unique objectives have a nice variety to them; ranging from going through an area without being detected, to being smelled by all the dogs in an area. A total of nine medals can be earned during each mission.
Six different outfits can be unlocked which grant abilities or buffs during missions. One outfit increases defense and knockback, as well as making stealth kills regenerate health, but time no longer stops when throwing bamboo darts. Another eliminates the noise caused by running, and two distraction items can be carried, but at the cost of a sword and an attack item. These outfits are a nice way to change up the gameplay.
I am not usually a stealth game fan, but I thoroughly enjoyed Mark of the Ninja. The symbolism helped to make the story more fascinating to me, but the fun gameplay is what will leave a lasting impression.