A game by Klei Entertainment for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2012.
Mark of the Ninja is not an action game starring a ninja; it is a ninja action game, and this is an important distinction. In most ninja games, the ninja runs out in the open and attacks enemies head-on, essentially substituting a gun with shuriken and/or forcing players to take on enemies up-close with a sword, as seen in the Ninja Gaiden, Shinobi, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Stealth and distraction are more common in 3D games, as seen in the Tenchu and Metal Gear Solid series, as well as the Rocksteady-developed Batman games, but it’s rarely utilized in the 2D format. And even games like Ninja Five-O, which take into account line-of-sight and versatile acrobatics, don’t go so far into immersing the player in the role of a stealthy assassin as Mark of the Ninja.
Here, you take the role of a ninja who has been tasked with saving his clan. In the clan’s last desperate bid for survival, they resort to their most powerful and dangerous techniques. Namely, they select a brave warrior who must be tattooed with marks that give him great power. The downside, however, is that the tattoo ink also slowly poisons him, eventually driving him mad… And so this great power and its curse must be bestowed upon the most honorable of ninja who – after saving the clan – must sacrifice himself lest he turn against them.
From the very start, stealth is emphasized over direct encounters, as the player begins the game with only the ability to temporarily disable enemies and not to kill them. And, even when the player acquires a sword (which occurs early in the game), he does not use it in direct combat; he only unsheathes it when he is delivering a killing strike.
To get around the environment, the ninja sneaks by default, allowing him to move noiselessly and preventing him from falling off ledges. Pressing the RIGHT TRIGGER allows you to run, and you can even run straight up vertical surfaces. However, running makes noise which can alert nearby guards. Everything that is generating noise gives off a grey circle showing how far away the noise can be heard. So, this can be used to determine when a guard will hear your footfalls, and allows you to see the footfalls of guards as they patrol, even when you cannot see them directly. This also gives you the opportunity to create distractions.
The ninja has an unlimited supply of darts, which can be tossed at objects to distract guards. For instance, hitting a gong with a dart will lure the guard’s attention that way and he will eventually move in to investigate. You can also use darts to break certain lights, which will distract guards in a similar fashion. However, breaking lights also helps you to conceal yourself, as guards can see you at a distance when you are standing in the light, but in darkness, they can only see you if you are very close to them (indicated by your character appearing in black and white versus color). This allows you to sneak around and potentially work your way behind your enemy. A yellow ring appears around anything that a guard notices, whether it be a glimpse of your movement, a sound, or a dead body. This allows you to determine where the guard will move, and then get around him or dispose of him as needed.
The ninja is also extremely versatile when it comes to environmental navigation. The ninja can climb most walls, and even move across certain ceilings, and climbable surfaces are indicated by a thin white outline. The control scheme also makes it easy to transition between climbing up a wall and across a ceiling by giving the player the option to slide down, drop down, jump, or transition from one surface to another, based on the context of the environment and the buttons used. A button map appears in the upper right showing which moves are available.
The ninja can also zip to specific grapple points from the ground or in the air, giving the player the ability to line up a better kill, or to avoid patrolling guards altogether. It is actually possible to complete every level without killing a single guard, if you are so inclined, and the player is rewarded for avoiding the enemy as well as stealthily disposing of him.
You have a number of different ways of concealing yourself and getting around the environment unseen. For one, you can hide behind objects and let patrolling guards pass you, which rewards you with some points, and you can dash between one hiding place and the next. Also, there are a number of grates that you can climb through, allowing you to enter ductwork and other passageways that are out of the main path of travel by guards. However, there is a fog of war effect in place which prevents you from seeing anything outside of your immediate area. Instead, you can only see the telltale rings indicating footfalls, and you get a brief silhouette of the last location where an enemy was spotted. However, you can peek out through vents without being seen and you can press yourself up against a doorway to see what is happening on the other side. This lets you get the drop on your enemy, but even after you’ve taken him down, you’re still left with the body.
Bodies can be hidden by dragging them into vents, dropping them down grates, tossing them into dumpsters, or tumbling them down into an area where they cannot be seen by patrolling guards. Sometimes, you can even hide a body by tossing it off of a roof or ledge, as long it is dropped into an inaccessible area. Points are awarded for hiding bodies, and additional points are awarded if you hide them in an undetectable spot along a guard’s patrol route, such as in a dumpster. Bodies can also be used to distract guards and cause them to investigate, or to terrorize them. Guards will panic if they witness a stealth kill, see another guard being killed by a ninja trap, or find a body strung up on a grapple point.
Throughout the game, your performance awards you with upgrade points that can be spent between levels (and at certain locations within the levels), allowing you to become even more versatile. Stealth-based techniques include the ability to kill guards by dropping down on them from above, killing them through doorways, and dragging them down through ledges that you’re hanging under. Killing your enemies in creative ways grants you additional points. You can also purchase more aggressive skills to give yourself more options when taking on enemies in hand-to-hand combat, if you choose.
Additional methods of distraction become available as you play, including noise-makers that lure enemies to specific areas, smoke bombs that hide your presence from guards and laser tripwires, and a flare that distracts guards and blinds those wearing night vision goggles. There are also several items with which you can attack enemies outright, including spike mines that activate like bear traps and hallucinogen laced darts that you can shoot at your enemy to terrorize them, making their attacks less accurate and potentially causing them to harm themselves or other guards.
You also earn new ninja skills with the addition of each tattoo. For starters, you gain the ability to focus, allowing you to stop time at will to line up dart tosses or the deployment of a distraction or attack item. Far Sight allows you to see through walls, which is a way for you to cheat the fog of war and see enemies that are out of your direct line of sight, and also to see how certain switches or tripwires are hooked up so that you can disable them. And the Mark of Serenity allows you to do a short horizontal teleport to avoid obstacles.
Each level has a number of hidden items and secondary objectives, each of which adds to your total point value and gives you additional currency with which to purchase upgrades. Often, secondary objectives involve going unseen or stealth killing certain enemies, further emphasizing that variety of gameplay, although it is certainly possible to beat many guards into submission or avoid them altogether.
Each area also has 3 hidden scrolls, some of which are merely tucked away, but others require you to complete special challenges. For the most part, these challenge areas require that the player determine how to move things around the environment, flip switches, and avoid lasers and other traps as they make their way toward the scroll. Some advanced techniques are required, such as hanging down from a grapple point and using a dart to flip a switch, but there are no enemies to contend with.
As you play, you’ll have to contend with more dangerous enemy types. Basic guards will turn on their flashlights to extend their visual range if they’re investigating something, but they lose interest quickly and return to their previous patrol areas. Eventually you’ll encounter dogs that can smell you whether you are concealed or not, and bark to alert nearby guards. You can’t kill dogs, but you can knock them unconscious to disable them. There are also shielded enemies that can only be attacked from behind – which you should be well accustomed to if you’re taking a purely stealth approach – but they will fire off flares if they hear any noises, lighting up the immediate area. It’s much more difficult to get out of range of a flare than a standard flashlight, and these guards stop to look in every direction before returning to their starting point.
Snipers are usually perched in high areas, aiming their laser sights down at you. Move in front of one, and they can kill you with a single shot, so you have to find a way to work your way around and take them down from behind. Elite guards cannot be killed by a direct attack, and are often more easily avoided than dispatched. However, you can kill them by first stunning them – such as luring them into some electrical lines and activating them – allowing you to kill them like any other enemy. Finally, late in the game, you’ll encounter some superior ninja enemies who can move to almost any point you can, and they can sense you coming up from behind them. This is where you really need to apply those avoidance and distraction techniques, because trying to take them on directly – or even allowing yourself to be spotted and pursued – is not a good idea.
Gameplay is diversified by presenting a number of unique environments, each asking the use of a different set of skills, from moving across wide horizontal expanses, to infiltrating tall towers, to moving indoors and outdoors during a dust storm that simultaneously helps to conceal you and your enemies. Puzzle elements also appear outside of the challenge areas, requiring that you hoist and move blocks, avoid booby traps, disable laser tripwires, block yourself from firing darts, and move quickly across areas with jutting spikes. Most failures in these areas will result in your instant death. However, checkpoints are quite frequent, and you’ll rarely have to repeat more than a few seconds of gameplay.
Players can change things up a bit by altering the way in which the game is played. By meeting certain in-game requirements, new costumes become available. These can be selected at the start of any mission and at certain points within missions. These costumes are geared toward a number of specialties, but each sacrifices something in the bargain. For instance, one of the costumes is geared toward fighting enemies head-on by giving you greater protection, the ability to knock down enemies more quickly, and returning some of your health when you stealth kill an enemy; but wearing this costume does away with your Focus ability, which means that you can no longer stop time.
Other costumes focus more on using items for attacking or distracting enemies, or for terrorizing guards. There’s even a completely stealth-focused costume that lets you run silently and distract guards more easily, but you have no attack items and no sword! This one is definitely recommended for players wishing to attempt the “no kill” score bonus in each level. A new game plus mode also opens at the end of the game, encouraging players to return to the start with all of their gear and upgrades, but with tougher enemies, no noise indicators, and the fog of war affects the area behind you as well.
Cutscenes appear in the same visual style as those of the studio’s previous Shank series, and slowly reveal the story. You have a female companion who accompanies you on most of your missions (although she does not directly interact with enemies or obstacles), and she speaks to you to set up missions and reveal some story elements. Some bits of story and some cutscenes are directly impacted by your actions, most often when you have the choice to kill or spare a key character.
Mark of the Ninja was developed by Klei Entertainment, a studio founded in 2005 by Jamie Cheng. He previously worked on Homeworld 2, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, and The Outfit before founding his own studio out of a desire to work with a smaller group of passionate developers. The studio’s strong art direction comes at the hands of Jeffrey Agala, known for his work on the animated television series Atomic Betty.
Klei Entertainment’s first release was Eets: Hunger, a puzzle game released on the PC in 2006, with an enhanced 120-level version appearing on Xbox Live Arcade in the following year, called Eets: Chowdown. These games star a hungry little dude who wanders through the environment of his own accord, similar to the titular characters in Lemmings. Players must set up a series of objects so that the critter eats his way from one end of the level to the other, jumping from platform to platform, and being flung around by player-activated objects such as belching whales.
Klei Entertainment also provided some development support for the XBLA port of the ninja-themed platformer N+, released in 2008. The award-winning game was originally released as N by Metanet Software as a downloadable PC title in 2006. The game stars an acrobatic ninja who must run through grey environments populated by deadly robots, picking up collectibles and avoiding obstacles along the way.
Klei developed a free-to-play online arena combat game called Sugar Rush, which was set to be published by Nexon, the creators of MapleStory. The game made it to the beta testing stage before Nexon closed their North American publishing headquarters in 2009. The game is no longer available in any format.
In 2010, Klei Entertainment released Shank onto Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and PC, and released a sequel to the game in 2012 on the same platforms. The Shank titles are 2D sidescrolling action games in which the player controls Shank, a muscle-bound, bandanna-wearing, chainsaw-wielding badass who has come to lay down vengeance Desperado-style on a slew of deserving baddies. Shank is able to transition smoothly between a number of different weapon types including long range firearms, close-range knives, and extremely powerful weapons such as the always-gassed chainsaw. A clever combo system allows you to string these attacks together to juggle enemies, stun them to wear down more of their life bars, and to do crowd control when a bunch of bad guys come at you at once.
Klei Entertainment followed up their series of action-based titles with Don’t Starve, a game that is firmly rooted among contemporary crafting and survival games like Minecraft and Terraria. The game begins with one Mr. Wilson P. Higgsbury who finds himself stranded in the woods, tasked with finding some food before night falls. As is typical of the genre, you must gather materials to craft tools that allow you to gather better materials to craft better tools, and so on… with a primary goal of preventing your own starvation.
Craftable tools include such items as an axe, which allows you to cut down large trees – whereas before you could only uproot saplings – and gather logs and pinecones. Pinecones can be planted to grow new trees to give you future resources that may aid in your ongoing survival. Eventually, you can even plot out a few areas dedicated to farming. Logs are required if you plan to build a fire, which will help to keep you safe from various night dwelling predators… just be careful not to accidentally burn the forest down in the process.
A timer in the upper right of the screen shows the time of day with daylight hours dedicated toward foraging and building, and evening hours spent defending your camp. You can use your axe to defend yourself (which will break after repeated use), but you are better off crafting weapons for that task. In addition to the timer, you’ll find meters indicating your hunger level, health, and sanity, all of which must be maintained to ensure your survival.
The game features roguelike elements, including permadeath, so once you’ve been killed or succumbed to starvation, it’s game over. Manage to survive a bit longer, however, and you will eventually open up new crafting options, such as building a refrigerator that lets you store food, and helmets that give you protection against attacks. You can even construct a “meat effigy” that allows you to return to life if you fail.