Out of the Shadows

Mark of the Ninja puts you in the shoes (or footy pajamas) of a nameless ninja who has been chosen by his respective clan to be their hero in this dire time of need. As part of this process, he has been given special tattoos that grant him peak human abilities (think Captain America’s Super-Soldier serum) so that he can run faster, leap higher, and detect things that no ordinary man would notice. There is a price though. As time goes on, the ninja’s new power will slowly start to drive him mad and so he must complete his mission before he loses his humanity and his clan’s hope for survival is lost along with it.

Although the art scheme and side-scrolling game play will immediately be recognizable to many as Mark of the Ninja is done by the same team who did Shank and Shank 2, this project is more than just a departure for Klei Entertainment from that over-the-top run and gun style, it’s a whole new way of life.

“The genesis of the game really came out of the fact that as an archetype, especially for a stealth game, the fictional construct of the ninja is so rich. But there aren’t actually any ninja games about being a ninja. There’s Tenchu, which came out 14 years ago, and that’s it. A lot of the other ninja games are crazy, over the top action, very much like Shank. And that’s fine and those games are good in their regard, but we thought it was just like a squandered opportunity to not have a stealth game that is actually about being a ninja because you get so much for free from that archetype. You don’t need to explain a lot. You say ‘ninja’ and people immediately understand it and then you can just focus on layering all kinds of nuance, and atmosphere, and themes, and other stuff on top of it,” says Nels Anderson, Klei Entertainment’s Lead Designer on Mark of the Ninja.

And they definitely stuck to their guns with the stealth aspect. I was able to play the tutorial level and was amazed at how many options I had for dispatching potential foes as I hid in bushes, hung from tree branches, smashed lights with ninja daggers, leapt to rooftops with a grappling hook, and crawled through vents in order to ambush and take out some unknown mercenary force who were invading our dojo. The real difficulty of the game seems to come in just making up your mind and choosing a method to take down a foe, not actually figuring out what the method was. And should my choice fail and I was spotted, the advantage was quickly lost and more often than not I was cut down, as ninja stars will typically lose to automatic rifle fire.

The most impressive part of the Mark of the Ninja though may have been how easy it was to lay out those possible paths to my end goal once I got used to the controls due to the feedback I got as a player.

“We wanted all the stealth mechanics to be very, very clear. So, the game isn’t about figuring out what’s going on. ‘Am I concealed? Did that enemy detect this?’ and we didn’t want some awkward analog mechanic or something like that. We wanted to make sure it was obvious. Not ham-fisted beat you over the head obvious. But very clear, very usable, so your surroundings become another tool you have in your arsenal. So the character himself, his appearance completely changes. When you’re in light, when you’re exposed, you can see the colors and detail of the character, but when you’re in darkness, he’s all black with white outlines and red highlights. So you know, just from looking at your character that you’re concealed and safe or vulnerable and exposed and need to get somewhere else,” mentioned Anderson.  

Being able to “see” through doors, see how far the sound of my footsteps would echo, and the clear differences laid out between being in shadow and being in the light made the game play that much more enjoyable.

All in all, it was great that I truly felt like a ninja, more so than in any other game I’ve played in a very long time, as Mark of the Ninja seems to have found that sweet spot of giving you just enough action and just enough puzzle-like challenge and exploration as you figure out enemy positions and work to remove them or avoid them altogether. I am definitely looking forward to tossing some more smoke bombs and shuriken when Mark of the Ninja is released this summer on XBLA.