Mark of the Ninja Preview

There’s a man pointing a gun at me. His entire being flashes red while I stand frozen in the beam of his flashlight. Damn! I wasn’t expecting him to be there right now. So I freeze time.

And I disappear.

“Freakin’ dope” is how Klei developer Christian Sutton describes “Mark of the Ninja,” the studio’s newest production.

And I couldn’t agree more.

Mark of the Ninja is an upcoming stealth/action-platformer that treats the player as a tactician, regardless of play style. Developed by Klei Entertainment over the past 30 months, the game allows one to take an either merciful or merciless (or even mix the two) path through the eight hour main story mode.

Players seeking the most puzzle-filled experience can slip in, around, and out of shadows to peacefully navigate their way around enemies while those looking for immediate action can engage their opponents straight on — fists and feet in a illustrious flurry of animation. Although the latter approach is more for show as the game definitely supports a more technical and thoughtful execution.

Sneaking into building ventilation and grappling from lamppost to lamppost, our character is nothing less than a silent and swift snake, pausing only while I plan the next route around a guard at his station.

In a historically accurate fashion, we’re also fully equipped with several ninja tools. Smoke bombs to distract and escape from enemies. Flashbangs to disorient and draw attention. Combining them leads to fascinating interactions of the AI, such as planting a caltrop under a smoke bomb hides it from a guard searching for me.

Of course, there’s also a work around for those moments where you just can’t find the concealed path through the level and have to execute a Stealth Kill. To perform a Stealth Kill, you approach an opponent from behind, and take your sword through their neck or chest in a smooth swipe of your mouse.

Perhaps what’s most interesting to mention about this game at this moment, is the intended audience.

“This is a family-focused game. We wanted to elicit the nostalgia of sitting on the couch with your kids and slaughtering dudes,” mentioned Sutton.

Much like the early couch co-op console games of old, Mark of the Ninja is light on the narrative but heavy on vermillion flashes of red. Both evading an enemy and silently slaying one rewards the player with the same amount of points, but the latter provides the gratuitous violent feedback that we have come to expect from any game.

It’s worth noting as well, how the cultural figure of the ninja has shifted(not solely due to Mark of the Ninja, but all games featuring a violence-crazed ninja before it e.g. Ninja Gaiden). Where Mark of the Ninja has made strides in conveying the discreet and cautious nature of ninjas, I failed to see it completely surpass the cop out of “ninja as murder machine.”

Unless the game features more exploration of the ninja’s toolset and the versatility of it, this game may as well be about a violent acrobat. Aside from that drawback, it’s still a fun game to play, and it’s evident a lot of the development process went into creating a fluid, yet sturdy, character.

“We wanted to zero in on the play experience, and give the player a system that really feels good to play,” Sutton revealed.

Speaking of the character, the designs within the game are gorgeous. The game’s art direction is as sharp as the katana wielded by our unnamed protagonist. The sleek and hard-edged characters stand in stark contrast to the painted silhouettes of the urban environment.

The artists’ clear and striking style compliments the quick-paced execution scenes and references Saturday morning cartoons such as Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack in its use of lines and animation. A style that no doubt will peak the interest of your inner child’s eye.

Klei is currently working on a collaboration with Telltale Games, as well as a series special with HBO, to further develop The Mark of the Ninja’s storyline. The game will be released for the Xbox 360 this Friday, February 21.

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