When I first walked into the Edinburgh Corn Exchange to prepare for a long day of interviews and conference sessions, everything looked almost as I had imagined. There was a reception desk where I was to pick up my press pass, a door into the Baron Suite, where the conference sections were held, and double doors leading into the public play area, where the public can come in to enjoy demonstrations of the latest games.

Click to enlarge. Photograph courtesy of Dana Beaton.

There was only one thing that caught my eye and struck me as being absolutely out of place. That was a giant, inflatable, chibi samurai. Part of the marketing campaign for the upcoming multi-platform action game Mini Ninjas, the samurai literally towered to the ceiling and became quite the centre of attention. I was quite excited to play Mini Ninjas after seeing that figure, and I’m glad I took the opportunity to enjoy one of the most interesting looking games coming out soon.

Players start out as Hiro, a small, young ninja, and must restore tranquillity to he world and defeat the evil Samurai Warlord. Innocent forest animals have been transformed into skilled warriors too, and are now henchmen of the warlord. Predictably, the samurai must be defeated to release the beasts from the spell, so you’ll soon be looking at the interesting sight of a horde of samurai fighting a short ninja while a couple of rabbits and foxes bound away.

There’s a good difficulty curve throughout the first level. A handful of samurai can be defeated by mashing the X and Y buttons, X being a strike with the sword and Y being a punch or kick. It’s only later that things become more interesting, when archers and other warrior types are introduced. As well as using the environment to your advantage, you can call use a power called Spirit Form to possess animals and use them to defeat enemies.

You can possess all kinds of animals, from boars to pandas, and it’s one of the unique features that breaks the button-mashing mode for a moment and makes the gameplay more strategic. Your ninja also has a few skills of its own: if you happen to fall into a body of water, Hiro can use his hat as a boat and paddle to shore.

If possessing animals isn’t enough, you can also switch between two other ninja, a large man with a mallet called Futo who is powerful but slow, and a small girl called Suzanne who can move fast but is pretty pathetic when it comes to combat. Switching between ninja is almost simultaneous, and the change is made by simply holding down the left trigger and flicking the control stick in a different direction. There’s no real interruption in gameplay to make the switch, so changing to a more powerful character in the heat of combat is really not a problem. There will be six playable characters in the retail game, we hear, so it looks like there’ll be plenty of different ways to play.

All in all, Mini Ninjas looks very promising. A great visual style combined with some odd concepts and smooth gameplay make for a good experience. While I can see the game becoming a bit repetitive if the environments don’t vary enough or not enough skills are introduced, we’ll have to wait until closer to release to see just how the experience lasts as a retail game.