EXCLUSIVE Gameplay Preview of Mark of the Ninja
The JTM faithful will remember that a couple weeks back we published a Q&A with Nels Anderson, lead designer on Klei’s upcoming XBox Live title Mark of the Ninja. In the days since then, I was able to pay a visit to the Klei offices in Vancouver, where I sat down with designer Jason Dreger and played through the opening levels of the game. The Klei staff were hard at work on the upcoming Don’t Starve, as well as a few top-secret unannounced projects, but the final build of Ninja was complete. Here’s what to expect when the game is released for XBox Live Arcade on September 7th.
Mark of the Ninja begins with an unnamed ninja awaking to find his comrades under attack. Guided by a female ninja named Ora, you work to rescue your fellow ninjas from the attackers, honing your various abilities along the way. Once the compound is secure, you learn that the man behind the assault is named Karajan, and his attack may relate to an ancient ritual by which the ninjas increase their power through special tattoos. The next level (the first true level of the game, following the tutorial) sees the ninja teaming up once more with Ora to take the fight to Karajan, before he can strike again.
A lot of the advance buzz on Ninja has focused on its beautiful art direction, and rightly so. The gameplay and cutscenes are rendered in a hyper-stylized comic book fashion, which makes the atmospheric colouring pop, even with so much of the gameplay involving darkness and shadow. There is so much detail in the level backgrounds that you will want to remind yourself to stop what you’re doing and just enjoy the scenery every once in a while.
The attention to visual detail also fundamentally affects the gameplay. Both designers I spoke with stressed the importance of using visuals to take the guesswork out of stealth. When your character jumps, smashes a streetlight, or disposes of an unwitting guard, the noise that is created is represented by a ring that emanates from your location. Light and shadow are clearly delineated, and guards fields of vision are represented by cones. These visual cues make stealth more strategic than haphazard, because you know exactly what effect your actions will have that could get you discovered. There’s no trial-and-error needed.
A visual cue that hasn’t featured prominently in any of the game’s promotional material is the use of the special ninja senses. As a ninja, you can lean against doors and vents to sense the location of the guards in the room without poking your head around. When you move away, you lose track of them, but ghostly traces of their last locations remain. This is not only a nice visual touch, but also gives you a chance to plan your attack while still keeping the stealth challenging.
The controls handle great, with just a minor unwieldiness to directing the jump mechanic. The level design is a triumph in terms of overcoming the main challenge of creating a game of this nature: 2-D stealth by all accounts shouldn’t work. Yet, somehow it does in Ninja. There’s even usually a few options for how you want to approach each situation.
Another area that Ninja is particularly strong in is removing the frustration from stealth gameplay. I made note of the visual cues before, but there are more ways in which the design proactively removes potential frustrations. Respawn points are generous, without making things too easy. Each enemy is challenging, but you won’t have to kill the same guards more than once. Also, the 2-D presentation keeps the action contained to a manageable space. This means that you won’t have to spend several minutes memorizing a patrol pattern before making your move. Perhaps it was just my impatient style of play, but the gameplay had a pleasingly fast pace to it overall.
Playing the tutorial and Level 1 (of 12), I only got to try a smattering of the various attacks, methods of distractions, and specialized costumes that you accumulate throughout the game. The game has tons of achievements to aim for, and each level is scored based on how stealthy/lethal you were, so there should be lots of replay value for gamers who enjoy chasing that perfect score. Based on what I saw, Mark of the Ninja is definitely a game to check out in September.
Many thanks to Nels Anderson, Jason Dreger, Corey Rollins, and Simon Cameron for inviting JTM in to check out the game.