Reason #127 why Valve is such an amazing company - Steam Sales! I am literally amazed at how Valve is able to work with some developers and publishers to offer great games for such a low price. It's like going to one of those bargain outlet stores like Ollie's or T.J. Max and finding neat stuff for dirt cheap. Unfortunately, that works both ways because sometimes you have to sift through a lot of junk to find a real gem. Anyway, during Steam's winter sales that occurred prior to Christmas and ending in January, I managed to pick up a few independent games using a Steam gift card I received - otherwise I probably would not have purchased these games. I had heard a little bit about a particular game (the one I plan to discuss in this blog) and seeing it on sale for Wal-Mart prices (the everyday low price of...), I snatched it up fearing Valve or the developer might realize they made an error and change it to a higher price.

I'm surprised even today you can purchase the game (legally) for $15.00 USD (that's U.S. dollars, in case you didn't know) but when I bought (or stole) it, it was on sale for $7.50. Yes, that's right...for the price of a supersized extra value meal from a fast food restaurant of your choice, I purchased a game that...dare I say...was one of the best games I've played in recent memory. I'm not suggesting it's necessarily Game of the Year material, like The Walking Dead managed to achieve in some venues. But I will say I'm scratching my head when I consider that I spent several times less on this game than I did on some of the others I played last year, and I played this game for several hours longer.

Consider this...

I bought Black Ops II the day it released for, what...$60 bucks? I played the single player game and finished it in roughly 12-15 hours. For the most part, I enjoyed it. I wasn't one of the grievers who complained, "More of the same".  I have never touched the multiplayer component of the game. I don't regret the purchase, but I've not thought about it again since I finished it.

I bought this game for $7.50 on sale. I have spent close to 40 hours before completing the primary quest, but really it can be beaten in far less time. I'd say if you rushed through it, 10-15 hours...maybe even less. But I didn't want to rush through it. I wanted to master it. It's one of the few games in recent memory where I wanted to beat every level and earn every achievement, and for the most part...that's exactly what I've done. There were times I'd finish the entire level, only to discover I didn't find everything I could have or I didn't score high enough to get all the achievements, so I'd start the level over and try it again. And again. And again.

So, what is this mystery game?

It's called Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja is a side-scrolling action stealth video game developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Microsoft Studios. It was announced on February 28, 2012 and later released for the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade on September 7, 2012. A Microsoft Windows version was released on October 16, 2012. It follows the story of a nameless ninja in the present day, and features a themed conflict between ancient ninja tradition and modern technology. Cutscenes for the game are rendered in Saturday morning cartoon animation style.

The game received critical acclaim from reviewers. Aggregate scores for the game hold in the 90% range at websites GameRankings and Metacritic, and it received four perfect scores from media outlets. Reviewers praised the game's visual and audio atmosphere, strong gameplay and new take on the stealth video game genre, criticizing minor gameplay frustrations surrounding the control scheme and difficult puzzles.

You can read officials reviews or Wikipedia pages about the game if you're interested, but I'm going to share why I liked the game as much as I did.

First, the in-game cut-scenes are described as using a "Saturday morning cartoon animation". You can call it what you want, but whatever it is, it's brilliant. The artwork throughout the game is amazing and there were times I found myself staring at the backgrounds in the various levels, and the amount of detail in them...mesmerized by their splendor.

Since my younger years when my best friend and I would stay up all night on the weekends watching old black and white Japanese fighting films, the kind with the horrible dubbed voice over's, I've always been fascinated with the ninja...and  I was especially captivated by the story in Mark of the Ninja. It's refreshing to play a game where you're not saving the entire universe from insurmountable odds, but instead something a little more grounded and believable. This game weaves an epic tale that has you racing to the end to discover the grand finale.

Since I already admitted my fascination with the ninja, let me also tell you I've read and watched dozens of shows about them, including one particularly interesting one on the Discovery channel that showed off some of their improvised gear made from seemingly innocent materials and tools, including shoes that allow you to walk on water and the equivalent of pipe bombs made out of bamboo. Well in the game, in addition to your standard equipment of sword and grappling hook, Mark of the Ninja has some fairly innovative gear for you to use (some of it unlocked at higher levels) including smoke bombs, claw traps, and these insects that will devour their prey, leaving no evidence behind...brilliant.

Many gamers and even a few of the professional journalists have gone on record suggesting Mark of the Ninja redefines the standards for a stealth game. Stealth is definitely a key element of this game, and in some cases...most cases...remaining undetected and avoiding enemies at all cost is mandatory. Trying to play a game where you creep through the entire level with no contact is extremely difficult...and not as boring as it might sound. Hanging on to the ceiling, darting into empty closets and hiding in dumpsters as unsuspecting foot soldiers pass by is extremely rewarding. Sometimes you get careless and think you can pull off a quick move and sneak by undetected, only to have the beam of light from the soldier's flashlight cross over you, alerting him to your presence.

I've already touched on the achievements and how I was compelled to get them all in this game, which is sort of odd for me. Well, in the PC version there are 30 achievements - some are easier to get than others, requiring nothing more than completing levels. Some are clever, like getting a kill while hiding in a cardboard box (sound familiar) or killing a guard by getting other guards to shoot them. Some are challenging, like completing a level without alerting (or killing) any guards. At the time of this posting, I have 2 left to get...I have to frighten a guard and have him fall to his death, and finish the game in the "New Game Plus" mode, which sounds like it's just a bit harder than normal mode. In addition to the achievements, each level (of which there is 12 + 1 final level) has 3 scrolls and 3 seals for you to discover and/or unlock. Mark of the Ninja implements all of the achievements and accomplishments into the story very well. It's a natural fit.

The controls seamlessly integrate support for the Xbox 360 controller. Remember, I'm playing on the PC, so the game automatically detected I was using a controller vice the keyboard + mouse. The default button layout was more than adequate for playing this game and the mechanics behind the game were solid. The entire experience exhibited the highest level of quality and workmanship and is as close to being perfect as any game I've played...and is fun doing it.

The game also contains a strong element of platforming complemented by an equal dose of puzzles. I didn't find any of them overly challenging, but there were definitely some moments where I played the same part over and over as I tried to perform a certain function while remaining undetected (or not getting myself killed).

And finally, the ending...

You know, we talk about games like Mass Effect, and here lately The Walking Dead, and how they force you to make hard choices, often determining the fate of you or someone close to you. Nobody seems to mention the ending to Mark of the Ninja (maybe that's because so few gamers actually finish the games they play) but my personal thought on the matter is it was one of the most gripping and difficult decisions I've ever had to make in a game before.

I literally walked back and forth between the two options for several minutes contemplating my decision. Unlike some games where the decision is made in a split second, this game gives you all of the time in the world to consider the depth of your choice. I felt like I knew which one was right; it was the harder choice to make. I didn't feel right about the other choice even though it was the obvious one. In the end, I went with my instinct, and was still surprised with the outcome. Of course I reloaded and tried the other option, and think I got it right the first time. It was certainly tense, and one of the hardest choices I've had to make in a game. It really tugged at my heartstrings. It was an amazing feat by the game and its developers.

(Never one to pass up on mentioning Team Fortress 2)

In closing, I couldn't be more pleased with the game and give it my highest recommendation. I don't normally play games like this, and still liked it enough to endorse it that strongly. It's a remarkable achievement in gaming at an unbeatable price, even at $15 bucks. In terms of stealth games, it sets the bar much higher than it's ever been before, while at the same time telling a fascinating story using a captivating medium.  Check it out here.