Hands-on at E3 / Mini Ninjas

There was an interesting little trailer for this game a few months back. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought too much about it, except that the team behind the Hitman games over at IO Interactive is churning it out. I always take a liking to the ambition this studio shows. While they may not nail everything and churn out perfect games, they always do succeed in certain elements of design where few others have even tried. Hitman games take an approach to stealth and deception that is so sinister yet so inviting of creativity that it’s impossible to ignore (and yet it is! This is the game series that Jack Thompson should be referring to when tossing around his “murder simulator” terminology). While I didn’t play Kane & Lynch, and the game sounded like a rather generic affair, it did earn accolades for its two well-written protagonists. Both of these games are rooted in gritty, realistic modern day where the player is probably going to be shooting a lot of people.

So what the hell are they doing making a cartoonish and decidedly younger-appealing game like Mini Ninjas? I was intrigued, to say the least. When I saw that this game was on the show floor, I pounced on the opportunity to play it. Not knowing even what kind of game it was, I couldn’t wait to see what this team has been working at for this long.

I wish I could tell you at this point that IO has created something truly charming and special. Something as memorable and creative as any Zelda game, and ironically epic given its diminutive heroes. I really wish I could. Instead, what I experienced was rather basic, generic third person action with a moderately charming visual style. I still want to believe, though, so I’m pulling the “You don’t really see that much of a game at E3” card for this one and my reaction to it.

The story has something to do with an evil demon or warlord or some such who has a strong desire for world domination. He decides to try and achieve this by unleashing some evil that was sealed away for centuries, and using that evil to transform innocent forest animals into mindless soldiers, creating a massive army. A ninja master then sends off his bravest ninjas to go and thwart the efforts. You are not those bravest ninja. You are, in fact, the last ones he sends off when everyone else seems to fail. You are the mini ninjas.

The visual style is very well realized, and may be the strongest point from what I saw. It owes a lot to Samurai Jack, and that’s a good thing. It’s simple, but consistent. There’s no doubt that this is meant to be a far more widely appealing game than anything the studio’s known for to this point, and to that extent, the game certainly is appealing. Also, both the PS3/360 and Wii versions of the game were on display. It’s worth mentioning that while the Wii version is noticeably lower resolution, it still looks just fine, and like little beyond resolution was sacrificed, which was great to see. The visual style, being in a game, also feels like it owes a lot to Mario, though, and that starts to seep into the gameplay.

It’s a third person, free roaming camera game, where instead of stomping or punching enemies, you slice them, smash them with a hammer, or some other thing. You are able to control one of a few ninjas in the game, and gain more, totaling six, as you progress. Three were on display: Hiro the stealthy mini-ninja, Futo the brute, and Suzume, who appears to be a female version of Hiro. It’s a linear game that will lead you through villages, caverns, and the like. You can change characters on the fly should a given scenario call for it. There are spells that each ninja can cast, and these can be used in creative ways. Hiro can manifest within an animal and control it, such as a large beastly bore to do some damage or a small little fox to saunter by with no enemy any mind. Suzume has a flute to entrance enemies and then sneak on past. However, enemies went down so easily that I never really put much care into the stealth elements.

There is also a basic sneak for some ninja so they can blend into tall grass and the like, but again… easy enemies meant quick kills meant time saved not sneaking. Another incentive to fight is the story. By taking down an enemy troop, you set free the possessed animal that was used to… power it? Fuel it? Give it life? I don’t know my ninja mysticism well enough to use the right word, apparently. In all fairness, though, the spells were pretty creative, and more of them like that could make for a game that has more going for it than what I saw. I hope that’s the case.

The fighting itself felt close in feel to a brawler. There is the basic attack, jump, guard, and special attack. I found that by mashing the basic attack I was able to make some good progress, and would occasionally push the guard or special attack to spice things up, even though it didn’t seem like I needed to. I also wasn’t too terribly impressed with my special attacks, barely able to even notice the difference between them and my basic attacks, though I may well have been doing it completely wrong. I also want to pitch in on the Wii version here… the controls are pretty great. The nunchuk will control your sneak, block, and movement, while the wiimote motion handles your special attack. B will make you jump, and A will make you do a basic attack. It works great, and that they don’t heavily rely on motion makes you focus on the controls in your hand and were a friendly reminder that, even without motion, it’s a pretty great and comfortable little setup.

Really, there was just no point in my brief time with this game where I got really excited. The visuals are fun, the fighting works, the spells are neat, the different characters seemed distinct enough, and everything fits well together. It’s just… nothing is sharp or distinct. Nothing grabbed me. Nothing wowed me. It has a personality with its visual style, but I didn’t experience gameplay to match. Hopefully I just missed something that makes it much more worthwhile than what I saw. There’s the matter of the gigantic enemies, which I never crossed paths with, and many other things I’m sure. I want to believe, damnit! Later this year it should be on shelves, and it’s one I want to give a second chance.