One of the surprises at the Eidos booth this year was an entrancing game by the name of Mini Ninjas, developed by IO Interactive. It's not so much the storyline or the characters that draws you in as much as the very essence of the game. The feel of the universe presented is quite simply captivating, and will have you hooked from the moment you dive into the world of ancient shrines and ninja warriors.
The plot isn't anything all that new, but at least it doesn't take itself too seriously. To summarize the comical introduction video, some evil being was long ago cast away from an otherwise cheery land and has come back with a vengeance. He's now using some magic to turn the land's cutesy animals into his warrior slaves (somewhere along this process, bunny rabbits and chickens become katana-wielding sword fighting experts) and the balance of nature is taking a turn for the worst, causing ever-frightful storms and whatnot. Naturally, it's up to the good guys, a clan of ninja who protect the land, to run off and put him back into a metaphorical tin can to be cast away for ever. However, the ninja master's envoys aren't coming back from their quest and he's down to his last three misfits, which is where you come in.
At first glance, the game looks a little bit like a medieval Japanese take on the Mario 64 universe, albeit with much better graphics. The world of Mini Ninjas is very colourful and lively, starting off in a dense jungle where no two locations look the same, and the well-masked boundaries of the maps hide secret paths and surprises, making the exploration part of the game a treat in itself.
You play one of three characters with different abilities and you can magically switch between them at any time: the 'normal' ninja that is both stealthy and a master of the sword; his female equivalent, less strong but more agile; or the big guy who plows right through enemies and hammers them out of existence. Your task is to free as many animals as you can on your way to the evil guy, as you will often encounter caged animals waiting to be turned into evil minions, but defeating minions also frees the animal inside so there's essentially no killing in the game - a mechanic that's been used before (e.g. Sonic the Hedgehog series) to make it more friendly to the younger gamers.
The gameplay mechanics are pretty simple, featuring the usual jump, attack, and misc. action buttons, plus the ability to cast spells such as fireballs and the like. It also has a few new tricks, like pulling out a massive Chinese saucer hat and using it as a boat to cross rivers, and temporarily possessing animals for stealth (rabbits and squirrels) or for charging through enemy lines (boars and pandas). Your hero also has the ability to summon spirits or meditate, which help guide you through the map or uncover secret areas. The game is fairly lenient on play styles, allowing you to hide in tall grass to surprise your enemies from behind, or taking the bold approach and using super ninja moves to defeat a circle of enemies in a flash.
The best part of this game is that it will appeal to all ages for real, not because a marketing campaign is spinning it that way. Younger and casual gamers can hack and slash their way along the beaten path without missing anything in the storyline. More seasoned gamers can take their time exploring secret paths in the jungle that aren't merely afterthoughts: one such path in the demoed level takes you and your poor excuse for a boat through rich landscapes along river rapids down to a hidden temple where you can buy recipes, allowing you to mix together your own potions with plants and other ingredients you collected in the world, adding an almost RPG-esque aspect to the game.
There's tons to do and lots of fun to be had in the gorgeous and captivating world of Mini Ninjas and many areas to explore. The atmosphere of the game will have you hooked into a mystical medieval universe of katanas and magic, and it's sure to appeal to all fans of a good action adventure game.
IO Interactive's Mini Ninjas is scheduled to ship in September 2009 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, and Nintendo DS.