Review | Mini Ninjas
Format: Xbox360/PS3/Wii/PC/DS | Genre: Action-adventure | Publisher: Eidos | Developer: Io Interactive | Release date: 11/09/09 | £29.99-£49.99
By Lewis Denby
Times are a-troubled in this stylised depiction of ancient Japan.
An evil warlord has set about creating a vicious army, enchanting various woodland creatures and turning them into mindless samurai warriors. Mini ninja after mini ninja has been dispatched to quell the disturbance, but none have returned. So it’s up to you, Hiro the hero, to venture forth and put a stop to the warlord, rescuing your pals along the way.
Mini Ninjas is an absolutely adorable game. And, as such, a hugely disappointing one. It regularly reaches the upper echelons of cute. The very concept of the combat – that, when you beat the living daylights out of an enemy, it peacefully returns to its innocent animal state – is fabulous. It’s occasionally enormously beautiful, with stunning, authentic environments painted in delicate cartoon shades. You get the impression it doesn’t realise how brilliant it almost was.
You’ve seven ninjas to control, in total. Two are available from the start of your journey; you unlock the rest by rescuing them from bamboo cages throughout the game. It’s never fully explained why, but you can flip between them with a couple of button presses, removing your current character from the world and instantly spawning another. Each has a marvelous skill set. Hiro’s a master of the sword. Futo’s a big strong man with an enormous hammer. There’s a ninja who thinks she’s a tiger and can sprint long distances. There’s another who plays the flute to mesmerise enemies, and another who spins a spear to take out multiple baddies at once.
There are seven, and I used three. Only two are ever really necessary – you could happily brawl your way through the whole game as just Hiro and Futo, the two with whom you begin. That’s a theme that runs through Mini Ninjas: it provides an abundance of clever characters, tools, spells and abilities, yet never demands you do much more than hit a single button over and over again. Despite the aesthetic, this is very much a hack-and-slash game, and it sticks to that formula with miserable rigidity.
It starts differently. An opening training section glistens with refreshing tranquility and playful personality. It’s immediately reminiscent of the Zelda series, particularly The Wind Waker, with its masterful art direction and irrefutable sense of charm. Early parts of the game tease with open areas, multiple routes around levels and exciting gameplay options. It just can’t capitalise on any of its brilliant ideas.
One spell, acquired at the start, lets you possess a nearby animal, temporarily assuming its form. The moment you realise you can do this is utterly wonderful, and handling the cuddly creatures is a joy. As a panda, you can forcefully plonk yourself down to daze and confuse your opponents. As a rabbit, you can try your hand at sneaking past. Yet you’re almost always detected, unreasonably, meaning it rarely makes much sense to even try. Cloaking yourself in long grass is a much more effective sneaking method, but bypassing combat at all makes little sense in terms of progression. Levelling up and gaining access to new abilities means collecting experience orbs, usually left in the wake of defeated enemies. Mini Ninjas offers no reward for stealthy competence, so it’s a tactic you quickly learn to ignore.
There’s an abundance of moments in the game’s first half that come seriously close to raising the family-orientated adventure bar. At first glance, Mini Ninjas is a game for kids. But it’s also extremely adept at evoking that sense of childlike glee, no matter how many years you’ve been around. There’s a whimsical quality to many of the environments, with pointy mountains dotting the horizon, character design that purrs with warmth, and a giddy soundtrack that adapts brilliantly to the context of play. It also toys plenty with the concept of growing up. Hiro’s the last ninja that would usually be trusted to save the world, the opening narration tells us. By the end, he’s a master swordsman who’s travelled every corner of the land.
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