Mini Ninjas Preview (PS3)

Danish developer IO Interactive is better known for their grisly and cinematically violent titles such as the much maligned Kane and Lynch: Dead Men and the uniformly brilliant Hitman series. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the team’s next project is a light-hearted, bright and bouncy affair starring a cast of super-deformed ninja characters with helium-pitched voices. A surprise undoubtedly, but an incredibly welcome one at that, Mini Ninjas is a sweet and charming game utterly bereft of the bitterly hard-edged tone that has previously served as IO’s calling card since the first Hitman game back in 2000.

Opening with a clichéd voiceover of the typical, wizened Japanese sensei, Mini Ninjas’ story is relayed through Okami-esque, sepia-toned scrolls drawn in blotted ink and watercolour brushstrokes. The evil samurai warlord has returned to the land, turning fluffy, innocent animals into an army of malevolent (but equally cute) samurai warriors, so with his sworn oath to preserve the balance of nature, the Ninja Master sends out his best ninjas to set things straight, until there are only two left. Enter Hiro and his buddy Futo, the aforementioned last two ninjas who are sent out to locate their missing friends and restore the delicate balance of nature by slicing up the yellow-eyed samurai clan, returning them to their original animal forms in a puff of black smoke without a drop of the red stuff spilled.

This is when you meet Suzume, the first of the captive ninjas who becomes playable when freed.
There are some gorgeous weather effects in Mini Ninjas.

While Mini Ninjas marks a massive tonal shift for IO, the game itself is still a deep and full-bodied experience, featuring the ability to level up Hiro’s magic and other attributes as well as perpetuating the bald headed spirit of Agent 47 in its fully fledged stealth mechanic. Crouching in the grass, a gauge pops up in the top right-hand corner of the screen to let you know whether you’re visible or not. Hiro can then shimmy silently through the undergrowth before outflanking and pouncing upon haplessly unaware foes. If however you’d sooner confront enemies head on, you can switch to the hammer wielding Futo on the fly by pressing the right bumper. Futo is a big bruiser, who can swing his mallet into the bad guys, sending them barrelling into one another. He can also execute a roll attack to deal with multiple enemies at once. Later on we come across the first of the captive ninjas Suzume, who when freed also becomes playable. Her special ability is a sweet little flute playing move, which sends foes into a hypnotised jig, leaving them vulnerable to a good pasting.

Exploration is actively encouraged in Mini Ninjas as there are numerous collectibles to uncover and magical shrines to locate that imbue Hiro with new magic ‘Kuji’ spells and abilities. We were shown one such special ability, which enables Hiro to temporarily freeze time, bringing up a crosshair that you can use to target multiple foes. Having locked onto your enemies, you can then activate the move and Hiro will dart between each foe, vanquishing them at speed. There are several other playable ninjas to locate and liberate each with their own unique abilities, so switching between them for specific moments will all become part of your strategy. Hiro has other special abilities, the best and most entertaining of which allows the diminutive one to travel the spirit plain and seize control of any animals in the immediate vicinity. During our hands-off demo, we see Hiro possess a chicken that’s able to sniff out collectibles and a big bear that can bat enemies aside with its paws. Leaving a single enemy left to fend for himself, he does the sensible thing and runs screaming as Hiro still in bear form, gives chase and finishes him off, turning him into a cute, furry fox.

Everything about Mini Ninjas screams quality, although it has to be said, the enemies appear to be a tad samey at present.
Venturing into the forest can yield hidden rewards. Keep a lookout for dancing fireflies.

Moving on to a later level wherein Hiro must infiltrate the evil warlord’s castle stronghold, we see more of the game’s stealth as he crouches amongst the bushes laying in wait as the samurai army marches by. Squatting and meditating brings up an arrow, which helpfully points you in the right direction should you get lost at any point, which in this case guides Hiro towards the castle gates. A quick switch between Suzume and Futo to hypnotise and subsequently plough through the larger club wielding enemies is indicative of the kinds of options you’ll have when playing through Mini Ninjas’ levels. Before making his way inside the castle to face a towering boss, we see Hiro use his hat as a makeshift boat, paddling across the castle’s moat to avoid confrontation. Essentially a much larger version of the basic samurai grunt, we’re then shown the Earth boss who behind a frowning mask, the same glowing yellow eyes stare out at you. Defeating him requires some agile leaping about to lure him into swinging his sword and lodging it into the scenery. Doing so activates a God of War style QTE where Hiro runs up the sword, struggles with the boss and then cuts his belt, causing his trousers to fall down in a befittingly comic fashion.

Mini Ninjas can’t fail to raise a smile, the achingly beautiful art style conjuring up gloriously vibrant visuals and quirky, lovable squeaky voiced characters that are all incredibly well-realised. IO have confounded expectations of what their next project would be, producing something that’s accessible enough for the sprogs, yet deep and involving enough for even the most seasoned gamer.


By reddevilnb1 (SI Newbie) on Apr 09, 2009
this looks life a fun game
By tzwicky (I just got here) on Apr 09, 2009
Hard to take this preview seriously when the very first fact stated is wrong. IO is from Denmark - NOT Sweden. And no Denmark isn´t the capital of Sweden either.
By stuntkid (SI Elite) on Apr 09, 2009
Kind of reminds me of the Crash Bandicoot games. OH that nostalgic feeling. Might have to dig out the PS1.
By Richie82 (SI Member) on Apr 09, 2009
OK - busted. You are indeed correct. IO are Danish. And I'm not stupid. Just because one fact was wrongly stated, doesn't mean you should discard the entire preview, tzwicky.
By Gjuma (SI Newbie) on Apr 10, 2009
Hey it looks pretty cool with the chibi looks.
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Apr 10, 2009
HAHA this looks CUTE!!!!!
So many games about ninjas :3
i bet Ninjas are going to be reborn into the Next generation of Society!!
maybe High-tech Ninjas like in TMNT? :P
*throws the 3-ball catch thingamagig that well ... catches people now with electric 200 Volts of power*
batteries not included
By phil9452 (SI Newbie) on Apr 13, 2009
Looks like iNinja!