When you think of developer IO Interactive, you think of Hitman. You don't think of super cute cel-shaded cartoon kid ninjas. Perhaps that will change though this September, when Mini Ninjas, which features super cute cel-shaded kid ninjas, is released.
It really couldn't be more different. Hitman is a violent and realistic game in which you play an assassin. Mini Ninjas looks like a Cartoon Network show. And there's definitely no blood. Clearly, IO fancied a change.
Still, here it is. There's a demo out on Xbox LIVE and PC tomorrow and on PSN on Thursday, but we had the opportunity to get some hands on with a preview build to see if the game's shaping up to be worth your attention.
Mini Ninja's plot is classic cartoon fare. An Evil Samurai Warlord has returned to wreak havoc on the world, turning innocent little animals into demon samurai warriors. To do this he's had to use forbidden Kuji magic, upsetting the balance of nature and causing widespread storms. The Ninja Master notices this disturbance and sends his ninjas off to solve the mystery. None return. Desperate, he sends his last few remaining ninjas left off in a desperate attempt to find out what's going on. This is where you, and little Hiro, Futo and Suzume come in.
Hiro is your basic sword-wielding all rounder. He's only 11 but is incredibly skilful with Kuji magic, rivalled only by the Evil Samurai Master himself. He's got exploration-based spells, including "Detect Kuji Shrine", which sends spirits scurrying off to lead him to... you guessed it, Kuji Shrines, where new spells are learned; and "Spirit Form", which allows him to jump into the body of animals and control them; and offensive spells, including Fireball and Lightning, both aimed with a targeting reticule.
12-year-old Futo is the tank - a great big hulk of a ninja. He's slower than the others but packs a meaner punch. He also carries a hammer, which helps him dish out damage to multiple enemies at once. Futo's your best bet when you go up against the larger enemy samurai - he can stun them with his hammer, then, via a quick time event, leap on their backs for a powerful blow.
Last but not least is the girl of the group Suzume, aged 13. She's super fast but weak, as are most girls in games. Her weapon is a flute, which doubles as a stick, but she mixes things up with kicks just for good measure. Mini Ninjas lets you change character at will (by pressing LB on the Xbox 360 version then selecting the ninja from a radial menu), so you're able to quickly change up who you want to lead the charge and adapt to the enemies you're facing. And, if you're thinking three Mini Ninjas aren't enough, given our preview build's got empty spaces in the character radial menu, we suspect more playable ninjas will be unlocked as you work through the game.
The opening level, called "Leaving Home", slowly introduces you to everything from basic exploration to combat, and charges you with defending a burning village from invading demon samurai. The left thumb stick moves your ninja about the world and the right thumb stick rotates the camera - classic 3D adventuring fare. Holding the Left Trigger makes your ninja crouch - if you do so in bushes and on rooftops you'll turn invisible. In fact, from what we've played of the game, it seems that you're able to sneak past many of the enemies in true ninja style.
When you do have to get your hands dirty with combat, mixing up normal attacks and Block Breakers with sporadic blocking and dodging is usually enough to get the job done. As you defeat enemies they turn back into the animals they were transformed from, and occasionally spill out red spheres. These spheres are consumed when activating Power Attacks. Each mini ninja has a signature power attack: Hiro leaps into the air, slows down time and queues up enemies with a reticule, before flying through the air one hit killing the enemies in the order selected. As you gain experience and level up, you're able to cue up more enemies.
Futo, on the other hand, transforms into a ball which you're able to control, smashing into enemy after enemy. Suzanne plays her flute, forcing enemies to dance along to her mesmerising tune. They're then stunned, sitting ducks for one hit kills.
Once you've sorted out all the village attackers, "Earth Castle" awaits in level two. It's night time and pouring with rain. The level has a greater focus on sneaking about. You can go in all shuriken blazing, but the much smarter move is to tight rope your way across the rooftops to the castle tower, avoiding the evil samurai horde below. Inside, a boss battle with a giant demon ninja, hilariously called the "Boss Lumbering Fool", waits. Here Mini Ninjas goes all God of War. The idea is to trick the giant into sticking his giant sword in a pillar. Once done, you've got a few seconds to jump on the sword and trigger a quick time event. Mash the face buttons in time with the on screen instructions and you'll clamber towards his face, knocking him through the floor to the platform below. This needs to be done three times before he explodes in a beam of magic.
From what we've played Mini Ninja's main appeal will come from its charm. The lovely art style and super cute ninjas are sure to win over the hearts of many gamers, and there are some lovely small details (like Suzume spinning her flute like a rotor blade when paddling on water in her ninja hat) that are impossible not to admire. It might, however, struggle to convince gamers used to the likes of Hitman, or indeed any above-average third-person adventure, to shell out their hard-earned cash. The controls are clunky, especially when using spells and items. You need to equip them in the game's main menu, then press and hold RB to open a radial menu and select the spell or item you want with the thumb stick before you can use it in-game with the right trigger - why not just assign them to the d-pad? And the camera currently seems prone to the odd fit, annoyingly getting stuck in walls when you're trying to skulk about in the shadows.
IO's clearly aiming to attract a much broader audience with Mini Ninjas than Hitman. Indeed, it may be the case that the game will pass under your average Hitman fan's radar unnoticed. But that doesn't mean Mini Ninjas won't turn out to be a compelling game in its own right. We're looking forward to seeing more of what the Mini Ninjas have up their sleeves.
Mini Ninjas is due out on September 11 on Wii DS, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.