First Looks// Mini Ninjas the same studio that brought us Hitman and Kane and Lynch

Posted 3 Apr 2009 17:46 by
Games: Mini Ninjas
This is a hands-on from an earlier stage in the development of the game... read the full review later this week...

Ninjas are better than pirates. That’s the scientific fact that we all just have to accept. So popular are they, that they enjoy starring in games on a regular basis – the most notable recently being Ninja Gaiden 2 and Ninja Blade. But I challenge you to find one that looks as cute as Mini Ninjas.

The latest project from IO Interactive, it features a group of cartoony ninjas that has been sent to defeat an evil samurai warlord from turning woodland animals into nasty minions. The amazingly sugar-coated premise is made even more surprising when you consider the game is being developed by the same studio that brought us Hitman and Kane and Lynch.

After seeing a quick preview of some stages and a boss fight, it’s hard to argue with the graphical style here. Everything looks so colourful, and characters are animated in a way that you would expect to see in a Pixar movie. Watching the lead character, (yes, he had to be called...) Hiro, shuffle along tall grass as a small army marches its way past, shouting high-pitched Japanese phrases along the way... that just puts a smile on your face.

This is basically a hack-and-slash game for kids – but like the very best products made for children, it’s clear that Mini Ninjas will find itself a sizeable adult audience that will appreciate it too. When you defeat samurai with your katana, there’s no display of killing or blood. Instead, enemies explode in a puff of smoke, and the creatures that were used to create them come scrambling out. It reminded me a bit of how Sonic the Hedgehog used to be: simple, inoffensive, cute and charming.

While I only saw the first stage or so, there are other elements to the gameplay that can add some real depth if applied cleverly in later levels. Hiro has the ability to learn and cast spells, known as Kuji Magic. One of the tricks that he gets from the start is the power to possess a nearby animal, thus having access to some unique moves. Certain creatures like bears can be used to scare and attack bad guys, while warthogs can ram things and chickens… well, chickens can cluck.

You can switch between different ninjas during play too – Hiro is the main star, but if a little bit of muscle is required there’s Futo, a rather large chunky ninja who relies on a massive wooden hammer to topple his foes. The only other playable character I saw on show was Suzume, a female flute player who has the power to influence enemies and other objects via music. You unlock this captured heroine as you discover some unwitting samurai attempting to shove her cage onto a cart.

There are some unique special moves that each ninja can pull off when they’re in a fix. Hiro can pause time and make a crosshair appear, which you can use to select multiple enemies to automatically attack when you head back into the action. Futo can charge his power and start rolling around the level like a Japanese bowling ball. Meditating when you have a quiet moment enables you to recover health and let the game offer a hint as to where you’re supposed to be heading next.

During the demo, I was shown an area surrounded by a bamboo forest, a village that needed protecting from burning arrows. I saw an infiltration stage that allows you to sneak into a nearby castle in various different ways. There are also secret passageways that deviate from the main goal, although I would like to see later levels be approachable from different branching paths or multiple routes like the castle stage. In the latter area, once you hop over the fortress walls you have the option of tackling the enemies who have been called to alert head-on, or be stealthy and use the stream to avoid being spotted.

The boss fight on show was set in a huge square room with four pillars – the guard being a huge shogun warrior holding a massive sword. Avoiding the swings he takes at you results in the sword being stuck in one of the pillars; from there you can jump on the lodged weapon, fly through a quick timed event and cut the boss’ trousers down. That leaves the behemoth distracted enough to fall right through the floor and explode, rescuing the gorilla that was trapped inside.

The game is excellently stylised, with funny little nuances and character traits that you hardly expect. Anyone who has kids – or perhaps is a kid at heart, like me – will be pleased to know that this doesn’t compromise itself by dumbing down gameplay at all. In the short play I got involved in I saw huge amounts of character and imagination – right down to a huge hat that can either protect your ninja from arrows or can be used as a rudimentary boat. It certainly looks promising and if crazy, cute and colourful get you interested, then you should definitely keep a watchful eye on Mini Ninjas when it arrives later this year.
Games: Mini Ninjas

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