Mark of the Ninja Preview: A new perspective on stealth/action

Klei's follow-up to Shank 2 recalls a 2D Arkham City... with more killing.

It's a lonely life, being a ninja. You need to put aside any notions of honour, glory, and individuality and do your duty without a taking an iota of credit. It doesn't help when you're among the last of your kind living in the modern era. And it's especially discouraging when you're on a suicide mission from which there is no escape.

Shank developer Klei Entertainment's upcoming Mark of the Ninja may retain a similar stylish cartoon aesthetic to its Rambo-esque throwback - all bold angular lines and brights splashes of colour - but this is a much darker tone than the studio's previous offerings.

The lore behind Mark of the Ninja is that in times of crisis, an insulated ninja clan can call upon a champion with great power to save them. This is done by adorning the chosen warrior with tattoos made from a forbidden ink that imbues the wearer with special powers.

"It's definitely nothing like supernatural or magic or whatever," explains lead designer Nels Anderson. "It's like the height of human potential type stuff. Like you were an athlete in like 15 different events."

There's only one problem: the tattoos slowly drive their bearer insane, so when their task is complete, they must take their own life before they become a threat to anyone else.

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Both the scenery and the ninja remain silhouetted when in the dark and in colour when seen.

Much of the story revolves around how this lone figure must deal with this onerous task. It was important to Klei that this wouldn't be seen as a goofy cornball game that adheres to the usual pop culture icons of ninjas, but would rather seriously acknowledge the ninja's plight.

"The kind of stresses that we put on the player, the kind situation that the ninja's in, is to make the ninja feel vulnerable and isolated," says head writer Chris Dahlen, about a protagonist whose role is so thankless that he doesn't even have a name.

"They're doing this for the clan, but the clan isn't helping you. You do have a companion/tutor who's there to help you along, but you do feel like you're on your own and there are some parts of the game where we really put you in very isolated situations where you're far from health and on your own and what that leads to thematically is to make you feel this kind of experience of being someone who has all these skills, but is still very vulnerable and is on this mission that ends with you taking your own life."

"Every act of the game has a purpose. Every world fits really well thematically with what's going on all the way to the ending," says Dahlen, who assures us that "the ending is really fantastic and bold in a lot of ways" and these "hallucinogenic tattoos" will give the game trippy visual qualities that will creep into the artwork as the ink begins to take hold of our ninja.

Despite the introspective angle, Dahlen insists that "it's not exactly a sombre game".

"The ninja's situation is tragic. He's in a difficult situation and our job is to make you feel invested in the tough situation that he's in. And in that sense it's a serious game. And he's not cracking jokes. Yet, at the same time, it is meant to be a fun game. It's an action game with bold colours... The goal was not to make the most depressing game ever. The goal was to invest you in this guy's situation and you need to help him through it."

It's important to Klei that our titular hero isn't seen as this ultimate warrior, but rather a tragic mix of strength and frailty, something reflected in the game's stealth mechanics. "When you're in your element you're obviously strong and powerful, but when you're not, you're exposed and vulnerable," says Anderson.

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Lean against doors or grates to peak inside the room before emerging.

While 2D side-scrolling stealth is starting to emerge with titles like Stealth Bastard, Gunpoint and Monaco, it's still a relatively new genre, and this allows Klei to really get creative with how to portray the character's environmental awareness.

"One of the things we wanted to explore and emphasise design-wise is really making the clarity of those core stealth systems really, really, really important," says Anderson. One of the ways this is accomplished is by making rings of sound spread out to illustrate exactly how much noise is being made.

"Because it's in side-scrolly 2D, it's already a little abstract anyway... Not only is that easier to see and visualise, but it doesn't feel artificial or like this exogenous thing that's kind of been pushed into the game. It feels integrated. It's more of an abstract representation of what in that character's mindset their situational awareness is."

"There's a bit of fog of war now. And it's kind of subtle and it's not like Monaco where parts of it are just sort of blacked out, but you have to deal with that as an informational thing," says Dahlen. "What I do in 3D stealth is I can't see behind me and I'm always just sort of twisting around and feeling neurotic about it. So [here] you can have incomplete information, but still feel in control of what's going on. There isn't this limitation of, 'I'm not looking behind me as often as I should.'"

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Your spidery ninja can scale any surface.

In a lot of ways, Mark of the Ninja feels more like a 2D Arkham game than an early Splinter Cell in that it's fast, aggressive, and you always maintain a lot of control over the situation but still need to play cautiously. You have unlimited shurikens, throwing projectiles is handled by freezing time and selecting a target (or targets), grappable ledges are marked with a hook icon indicating they can be swung to with the press of a button, and there are numerous crawl spaces that can be negotiated.

Even the upgrade tree involves moves like stringing a foe up by a ledge, yanking them through a grate, or letting off smoke bombs. The main difference between the ninja and Bats is that the ninja kills, rather than simply giving everyone concussions and probably serious brain damage. Well, that and he doesn't have bajillions of dollars, cool vehicles and a genius surgeon/butler. (He's old-school like that.)

This freedom allows for all manner of tactical choices. Do you shoot out the lights, alerting the guards to your presence, but expanding your cover of darkness, or do you patiently try to find the right time to get the drop on your prey in a brighter enviornment? Do you hide your fallen foes, or just keep moving? Do you disable traps or find alternate routes around them?

Dying is only a mild setback as checkpoints are liberally spaced at every turn. This makes sense thematically as Dahlen points out "a ninja should not be afraid to die".

Instead the challenge comes from taking on optional objectives (saving kidnapped ninjas, collecting artefacts), or trying to complete each level in different ways.

"There are three kinds of modes," Dahlen notes. "You can be stealthy and try not to get caught as you ghost your way through each level. You can be speedy and you're rewarded for some of the goals you achieve by moving really quickly or hitting certain things within a time limit. Or you can be a killer - which happens to be the way I play, because I like to be thorough - where you're sneaking up on people one after another and then killing them.

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Go ninja, go ninja, go!

"You unlock seals as rewards and if you earn enough seals you can unlock different outfits that support each of those playstyles. You might have one that will make you run without making noise at all, where normally you'd make a lot of noise if you're running. But it has different disadvantages. And that way you can kind of customise your style for how you want to deal with each level.

"If you're kind of a sloppy casual player, you'll still be able to finish the levels, but there are a lot of incentives for doing it well and that's what leads you into trying to master these skills."

"It's about affording people more choice," Anderson adds. "If you want to go through the entire game without killing anybody, you can."

Based on my half hour playtime with Mark of the Ninja it seems clever, stylish and the controls are silky smooth. It's shaping up to be one of the most interesting games on the immediate horizon and, thankfully, we won't have to wait long to play it as Klei revealed to us that it will be out on 7th September exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade. Being an actual ninja may be a drag, but I for one can't wait to continue playing as one.

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