After a game like the hyper-violent Shank, where do you go as a developer? It's a question Klei Entertainment struggled with for some time. Like most studios, Klei wanted to be known as more than a one-trick pony. They wanted to be known for more than just Venture Bros. meets '80s action flicks. That's how Mark of the Ninja was born, out of a desire to do something totally different.
The brutal combos and twitch gameplay of Shank has been replaced with methodical, thought-based gameplay. Mark of the Ninja isn't about rushing into a room and murdering every living thing in site. Instead, it's about surveying your surrounding, becoming one with the ninja and striking when the time is right. And "when the time is right" is completely dictated by the player.
We got a chance to go hands on with the first level of the game, one that saw us saving a few of our ninja cohorts and sensei. For a 2D side-scroller, Mark of the Ninja is shockingly open. The game world is an oyster, and the player can choose how they want to crack it. Fancy bursting through the front door, taking out the lights with a few well-placed darts and then systematically taking out the various guards on patrol? Cool, sounds like a plan. Or, you can crawl through vents, swing from perk point to perk point with your trusty grappling claw and then pounce on your prey when they're looking the other way. Mark of the Ninja's flow is completely contrary to everything you'd find in Shank.
That said, Mark of the Ninja shares a lot of similarities with Shank from a visual standpoint. The graphics powering the game are the same slick animations Shank used to wriggle eyes at early conventions. This includes the cutscenes as well, rocking the same animated cartoon style found in Klei's previous game.
However, not everything is the same visually. Because Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game at heart, there is a lot of shadowplay to be found. In fact, shadows play a large role in the gameplay as well; they're not just there for aesthetics. Sticking to them keeps you out of your enemies' line of sight (obviously), giving you the advantage in combat (also obvious). You can hide behind plants, in doorways and basically anywhere a shadow looms. It's not absolutely necessary to stick to the shadows, but its benefits are exponential as long as you have patience.
Due to Marks of the Ninja's willingness to let players choose their own path in how they progress, the experience is a much longer one if you're willing to be patient. Klei has not yet pegged down an official number for how long Mark of the Ninja is — the game is still in development, mind you — but we were told that gamers who love to take full advantage of stealth gameplay will find an experience longer than your standard Xbox Live Arcade title. Basically, Mark of the Ninja is what you make of it. And it's that sense of freedom that's both exciting from a gamer standpoint and Klei as an evolution of their studio.
Mark of the Ninja is planned to launch for Xbox Live Arcade this summer.
This article originally published as part of our PAX East hub coverage. Head over to the site to read more articles from our weekend in Boston.