E3 2012: Mark of the Ninja

First: Unwinnable columnist Chris Dahlen wrote Mark of the Ninja. Second: Chris asked me once, out of the blue, to bend my freelance librarian skills toward finding him some historical books on ninja. I thought it was weird (who wants to read about ninja that can’t, like, fly?), but, you know, it’s Dahlen. So I did.

But I’m not here to tell you about the story, the bit that I indirectly helped with – though, kudos for having a woman guiding your character not from inside your ear but alongside and ahead of you. She knows what’s up and can move through the space as easily as (or, depending on how bad you are at platforming, better than) you.

It’s a 2D stealth platformer assassin-‘em-up, which isn’t exactly a type of game overflowing with examples. When someone behind me asks Jamie Cheng, Klei’s founder and CEO, why there aren’t more games like this, his response is to the point: “Because they’re really hard to make.”

It looks beautiful. In addition to Cheng, Aaron Bouthillier, the project’s lead animator, was demoing the game. Bouthillier won the Canadian Game Development Awards Animator of the Year award for his work on Klei’s 2010 release, Shank. Ninja uses Shank’s engine, so it benefits from the smooth play that the company honed with Shank and its sequel.

Bouthillier explained the animating process to me – something about hand-drawn roughs and Flash – but I have to apologize to the nice man: I was too transfixed by the smoothness of the animation, the lushness of the backgrounds, to really pay attention.

Ninja is a conscious departure from the run-and-gun-and-punch combat of Shank: in Ninja, combat is noisy, brief, and usually ends with your death. Instead, you want to survey the situation, distract guards, and maybe insta-stealth kill them. If you are spotted, the responsiveness of movement, your grappling hook, and ability to climb up walls makes escaping the much more enjoyable, and practical, response.

Though ostensibly you will be able to get through the entire game only killing your assassination targets, I *kind of* killed everyone in my path during my playthrough. I blame it on the ultraviolence of all those other E3 games.

If 2D stealth is really hard to make, Klei has done a wonderful job of making it look easy. An elegant series of feedback systems feels like your character’s way of sharing his enhanced ninja senses with you, you normal human on a couch. When hidden, he becomes a silhouette with red highlights (which makes him easy to track against the dark backgrounds). Sound becomes visual: a circle shows you how far noise travels. If something catches a guard’s attention, a pulsing yellow circle will indicate that’s where they’re looking. And if you lose sight of someone, a light red ghost of their image will remain in the last position you saw them (though, if you’re close enough, you may still “see” their footsteps).

Pull the left trigger to stop time and aim your bamboo knives at targets. They won’t do damage, but they can be used to ring bells, bang gongs, and cut ropes holding up chandeliers or hostage ninjas. Whenever you pick a target, a circle will appear on screen telling you how much noise your distraction will cause – this is crucial for planning your stealthy way through the levels.

When your guide is teaching you to run (you pull the right trigger), you dash past a group of birds resting on a rooftop about halfway up the screen. As the circles from your footsteps touch the birds, they are spooked by the sound and take off, one after another. Sound circles explode from each bird as they take off.

This hint of promised mechanical complexity is the kind of thing that makes you trust that Klei knows what they’re doing, and gets you excited to see what else they’ve come up with . It’s a great moment. And I hope the game is filled with them.

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Brian Taylor could never be a real ninja assassin because he’d be too tempted to tweet everything that popped into his head when he was on assignment. Follow him @BrianMTaylor. Mark of the Ninja will be released on Xbox Live Arcade later this year.

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