Mark of the Ninja advances 2D art and stealth combat, this is not an optional purchase
Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja is the new 2D stealth game from Klei Interactive, the developer that brought us the exceptional Shank series of games. Nels Anderson wrote a detailed guest post that explained his design ideas behind making stealth work in a 2D setting, but the reality of the game exceeds his own descriptions of the work.
The game takes place in modern times, but there are ninja who exist, can move through the shadows, and kill silently to fulfill their objectives. You’ll gain more powers, abilities, and attacks as you play the game and buy upgrades with the seals you earn as you master each level. There are multiple ways to get through each objective, and the game practically demands multiple plays of each level before you’re able to achieve something close to a perfect run.
Luckily, playing the game itself feels satisfying and right.
How this was achieved
The visual systems in Mark of the Ninja allow you to be precise in your movements, and you’re never surprised by the results of your actions. The concentric rings that emanate from your character show how far the sound you’re making is travelling. There is a visual cone in front of each enemy character that shows exactly how far they can see. You’ll never wonder what you did to cause a character to become alarmed and begin to hunt you; the visuals cut out any room for argument.
If you’re found, and then likely killed, it’s because you messed up. You’ll know if they saw you or heard you, and how to do things differently. It allows for the kind of precision that removes the frustration of many other stealth games, and all of this is possible due to the game’s 2D aesthetic and many clever uses of visual cues. The background will flare when you’re in light, giving you a strong indicator that people can see you. When an enemy moves out of your line of sight, you see an outline at their last known location, and you’ll be able to see the small circles that show you their footsteps as they move.
I talked to Anderson about how hard it is to describe these things to the press, and he also wondered how much people cared about how this stuff works. “Let’s talk about feedback systems and movement through space, does anyone care about that stuff?” he asked. I found his guest post fascinating, but what’s important is that the player, whether they understand why something feels good, knows that it does. Anderson nodded at this explanation. ““You have to touch it. I can’t really explain why a three-frame branch is good and a five-frame branch feels bad. It just is.”
He also described something called the gulf of execution. “There’s a gap always between what the player wants to be able to do and what the character could reasonably do, which is what they’re able to actually do based on their fluency with their controls.” Much work went into making that gulf disappear. “I didn’t want you to think there’s all this shit I should be able to do, and I want to be able to do, I just don’t have the fluency of the controls to do it. In a stealth game that’s especially a big deal.”
So while falling down a shaft you can hold a button to stop time, target multiple power supplies, and then throw three darts to knock out the lasers before you hit them. It feels satisfying, and it’s something a ninja could do, so it’s important Anderson found a way to allow even beginner players to achieve that move. You have the time to stop, see the situation as a ninja, make sure you line up the shots, and then execute. The game is tactical, so these moves don’t make it easier, he’s simply allowing all players to feel like a ninja. The animation itself is top notch, all the characters move and react to each situation fluidly. It looks like an M-rated cartoon.
Stealth is an interesting design challenge, because it’s not easy to create a character that is very powerful in their element, which is hanging upside down from a street light or skulking around the shadows, but vulnerable when spotted or during a one-on-one battle. You need to feel your power when being stealthy, and then your fear when discovered. “The game is saying, don’t take many unnecessary risks, because if you do, things are going to be going badly very quickly,” Anderson said. Normally you’d need to take those risks to master the controls but, by removing the gulf of execution, most players will be able to play in a brutal, expressive way very quickly. Killing becomes an art form, and everyone gets to try their hand at it.
I haven’t finished the game, as I’m taking my time and trying to get as many seals as possible to unlock more attacks. Mark of the Ninja feels like the first stealth game one is able to play surgically; you can see the consequences of your actions before you begin your attack, and the game drip-feeds you new and interesting ways to kill your enemies while the in-mission side goals give you an excuse to do so. You can strike from the shadows and drive enemies crazy with fear, or you can simply slide your sword across their throat as they drown in their own blood. This is a vicious, beautiful way to show violence, and the story itself seems rewarding, even in the early and middle stages.
“We were able to be a little more abstract due to the 2D,” Anderson told me, and it shows. Mark of the Ninja leverages the strengths of 2D design and uses them to solve the problems that trouble most stealth games. The result is a must-play game that should entrance even those skeptical of stealth games. There is a free demo, you have no excuse not to check it out.