Too many reviews read like somebody trying to judge a meal by tasting each ingredient separately, chopping the game up into categories like "gameplay" and "graphics". This isn't just a reductive way of assessing great artworks, brothers and sisters - more importantly, it isn't ninja. Does the true ninja give individual reckoning to every bamboo leaf that stirs as he sweeps through the midnight forest? Or every dog that flinches from his shadow, or every stroke of his blade through the throat of a sleeping daimyo? No, for all these elements are subsumed within the beautiful, lethal action of his being. Also, what's "gameplay" when it's at home?
And how do you go about teasing apart a game like the masterful Mark of the Ninja? A game that looks intimidatingly complex on paper, with its different AI states, last known position silhouettes and inventive plethora of kills, but collapses down like an exquisite trap, slid under Xbox Live Arcade's door while everybody was preoccupied building silly over-compensatory castles in Minecraft. This isn't just Klei's finest work - it's one of the finest stealth games we've played, filching the best of Splinter Cell, Tenchu and Batman: Arkham Asylum and blurring those inspirations seamlessly on a 2D plane.
That's "stealth game" in the proper sense, by the way. Not "stealth" as in "start every ten minute extravaganza of face-murdering with a completely gratuitous backstab" or "stand here in this broom cupboard till the man with the glowing earpiece says you're OK to move on". This is a stealth game where swords are exclusively for assassinations, where you'll spend well over half the time glued to a wall, ceiling or grapple point, eyeing an approaching jugular, where a flash of lightning can expose your presence to a sniper and where flight is always, always preferable to duking it out.
The aesthetic is recognisably cut from the same, gore-smeared cloth as Shank (the two games share an engine), but where Shank's cartoon bloodlust felt a bit for-the-sake-of-it, Mark of the Ninja's visuals are a deft articulation of the premise. Each environment is steeped in fog of war, a thick foliage of many-angled shadows sliced into coloured patches by ceiling lamps, searchlights and rifle-mounted torches. You're better equipped to navigate the murk than your enemies, but it's advisable to tread carefully, pinning down all the threats before making a move. Visibility is strongly dependent on context - a guard on the other side of a wall grate appears as a child's sketch in red crayon, developing solid outlines when you push back the grill for a closer look.
Sound adds another layer to this enticing mix, manifest to heightened ninja senses as an expanding yellow ring. Sprint up a wall, and your footfalls will blossom behind you like ripples from a skimming stone. Coupled with the ability to predict the bubble's diameter when you're deliberately noisy, the effect makes it easy to play tricks on the AI, luring dumb grunts off-beat in order to yank them down or string them up. There's scope for some incredibly sick behaviour, if you're so minded - dangle a corpse by the neck rather than hiding it, and investigating comrades may shoot each other in their terror.
Next to the devilish joys of entrapping human beings, getting through laser fences and past motion sensors sounds a little lock-and-key. But incorporating these static fixtures into your dealings with the AI helps change the pace later into the game, once the thrill of slaughtering men like cattle has worn soft. Some of the best scenarios see you scurrying around mobile packing crates to avoid lasers and the infra-red detectors of stationary guards. There are also hidden challenge rooms which offer comparatively workmanlike, single-solution environmental puzzles, with no NPCs on show to spoil the brain-tickling.