Though you would have seen some of the biggest upcoming titles at PAX, it is often the smaller titles that serve as the most welcome surprises.  For me, this was no truer than it was when I played Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja.  Another 2D sidescroller from the team behind the Shank franchise, Mark of the Ninja puts stealth gameplay on the 2D plane while still delivering the expected level of gore and an unexpected amount of depth.

The level I demoed at PAX was an early introduction to the title, but I finished the mission excited to continue onto whatever followed.  Mark, in some sense, is quite different from Klei’s previous Xbox Live Arcade offerings.  Whereas the Shank games were all about mayhem and violence, Mark can be played without eviscerating every foe you face.  Players can navigate levels avoiding enemies or taking them out in the shadows with a wide array of stealthy weaponry.

My demo only included a few of the weapons that will be in the full arsenal that players will unlock as they progress, but the promise these inclusions showed bodes extremely well for the final product.  Players will of course have a standard blade to do battle with, but I also had the opportunity to try out the game’s dart weaponry.  Need to confuse an enemy? Target him unexpectedly with a quick dart and go in for the kill.  Similarly, you can knock out a light in the environment so that enemies lose their sight, allowing you to pick them off as you please.  Either method was satisfying, and with a few brutal kill moves thrown in, expect to break out of the dark from time to time.

He doesn't know it yet, but this guy is in for a world of hurt.

Alternatively, slinking around the security without making a peep can be just as thrilling.  As mentioned, the darts can be used to knock out lights, and instead of killing you can simply make your way past the guards.  Objects are also strewn about a level that players can disappear into the shadow of, permitting enemies to walk by them without any sort of engagement.

In addition to the violence, or the nonviolence if that is the route players take, there is a fair amount of platforming involved in order to traverse levels.  Mark’s ninja protagonist is as agile as you would hope for someone in this line of work, and he can easily scale the sides of buildings to find alternate routes and avoid the spotlight.  Air ducts will sometimes impede the ninja’s progress, and players can easily slip by them.

Avoid the light and you'll have no issue taking down your foes.

Yet these metal grates will also block the player’s view from what lies beyond in some rooms, and instead of merely smashing it open recklessly players can lean against them and check for any threats.  With this knowledge, the game allows players to either move forward directly or find another path to progress.  It’s a small inclusion but it helps encourage traversal rather than charging forward without exploring the game’s every corner.

And players will want to indulge in that exploration, as Mark of the Ninja is gorgeous.  The art style, reminiscent of Shank, may predominantly use darker locations and completely blackened locations, but what is illuminated demonstrates a beautiful 2D environment with equally impressive backgrounds.  While still images may hint at the beauty, the game is a joy to watch in motion throughout the enticing gameplay experience.

Mark of the Ninja releases today, September 7 (our review will be up shortly), and while I only demoed one level, I came away impressed enough to know that I want to see the rest of the title.  Klei is promising more complex levels as the story progresses and the snippets of narrative on display suggested an intriguing tale.  If you have been lacking some solid 2D platforming with a great art style in your life, Mark of the Ninja is one that will sneak up and surprise you.