Stealth games are really about a guy trapped in a temporal loop, forced to repeat his actions until he can shake off the mysterious clumsiness that has overridden years of tip-toeing experience. "Why would I just roll into that spotlight like an idiot?" wonders the grizzled agent, now on his fifth run through a secret terrorist compound. "Crap, landing on that grate was much louder than I thought." Cue alarms and a return to the last save point.

Mark of the Ninja makes it awfully hard to be an oaf dressed in black. No, it hasn't been streamlined to the point of auto-play, and the inherent challenge of avoiding detection hasn't been crushed into a pulp to please the plebes. Rather, developer Klei Entertainment has flattened the genre into a legible, two-dimensional blueprint. That's why things are more likely to go according to plan. You can literally see the bits and bobs that compose this quietly ticking clock. Your ninja's footsteps send out sonar-like pulses across the screen – if they touch a guard, it means he can hear you. If you land within the projected reach of a dog's snout, it can smell you. If you're in the light, you can be seen. There are no gradients of shadow (you're either in light or in darkness), and no question about what your agile character can climb, crawl through, or use as a predatory perch. You sit in this game like it's a throne, not a bean bag.

The embellished 2D presentation allows Mark of the Ninja to communicate with complete clarity, but the info dump isn't enough to get you through the game's intricate levels unseen and unscathed. Sensing the path of least resistance is a skill that grows the more you play, and mastering your items – whether to draw guards away or lure them closer to your sword – lets you suss out a personal style of stealth. New skills can also be unlocked and paired with your persona, whether that's a merciful ghost or a solemn killer who strings up his victims to induce panic in others. (And yes, hiding corpses is almost as fun as creating them.)

Though Mark of the Ninja's informative design makes it easy to obtain that perfect stealth run, there's still a healthy amount of fear throughout. You'll still hold your breath as you peer through vents, fiddle with locks, shatter lights, freeze in the face of motion detectors and dangle from the ceiling like some kind of amazing, fantastical man who exhibits spider-like traits. You'll feel confident and in lockstep with your avatar because you understand how the game reacts when you poke your nose in, not because you're being handed victory on a platter.

If you prefer an even stricter challenge, you can unlock a special costume (one of several styles) that softens your steps, grants you an extra distraction item and – this is important – deletes your sword entirely. The nature of most games means pacifism is a neat novelty, but playing Mark of the Ninja with no means of murder amplifies its intensity and ultimate reward. If you find pleasure in reading and deciphering a game under duress, you're going to love finding and exploiting all the cues buried inside the graphics and audio. Klei even messes with nature to give you the upper hand – in Mark of the Ninja, the thunder comes before the lighting, just so you can hide before you're unwittingly illuminated.

Ironically, the faults that I could find with Mark of the Ninja seem to be tied to its brilliant success as a stealth game. The 2D backgrounds seem to fade away in memory, not because they're poorly made but because playing the game requires such intense scrutiny of individual rooms and your movements. You spend so much time staring through a magnifying lens, never blinking, that you don't even notice the big picture.

The same effect influences some of the later levels in Mark of the Ninja, which feel like they sprawl and stretch too far. You don't glance at your watch in impatience – rather, you succumb to a kind of exhaustion from concentration and stress, especially as the challenge creeps up and the goons grow more attentive.

There are worse complaints to lob at a stealth game, and none of them are strong enough to shove Mark of the Ninja out of the spotlight. It's an elegant, communicative work that appears translucent amongst games that are criticized for being opaque. And though 2D stealth has been around since the days of Big Boss, the designers at Klei have reverse-engineered the rules of more recent classics like No One Lives Forever, Thief: The Dark Project and Metal Gear Solid (which even lends its famously flimsy form of concealment).

I don't expect Klei's effort to instill patience in players who prefer to dash, slash and just get on with it, but it should be educational for those who wobble their way through tactical espionage action, feeling like they aren't quite playing the right way. Mark of the Ninja shines a light on the stealth genre, revealing the qualities you knew were there but couldn't quite see.


This review is based on the final version of Mark of the Ninja, provided by Klei Entertainment and available for 1200 MSP ($15) on Xbox Live Marketplace.

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