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TVG attempts to banish the forces of darkness from a once tranquil land in Mini Ninjas. Just a normal day at the office really...
- Well mixed gameplay.
- Beautiful visuals.
- Loveable characters & story.
- No co-op multiplayer.
- Not for stealth purists.
- Needs more content.
IO Interactive's Mini Ninjas is not unlike Ubisoft Montreal's Naruto games. Both are Western developed games taking on veritably Eastern subject material and nailing it with aplomb in the process. There are elements of mystical exploration to both titles, surrounded by adorable visuals and a storyline that blends the forces of darkness and light in ways that only Star Wars and Japanese folk tales can muster. While Mini Ninjas might not quite have the wide variety of gameplay styles that Naruto: Rise of a Ninja/The Broken Bond both achieve, it is nonetheless a fearsome hack 'n slash for both hardened gamers and casual players alike.
If you're not duking it out against corrupted samurai enemies in Mini Ninjas, then you're mixing potions to cast powerful spells against them, or employing stealth tactics to edge your way around the bad guys without them noticing. This, coupled with well engineered boss battles that formidably punctuate the game, provides more than enough variation to keep it trundling along at a comfortable pace that refuses to become monotonous or repetitive. Although a straightforward combat system - that's similar in style to Eidos' recent Batman: Arkham Asylum title - forms the game's core, it's actually the alternative gameplay options that keep Mini Ninja's appeal alive.
A variety of different characters are gradually unlocked as you progress through the game, all with their own specific perks (be it Futo's strength or Susume's enchanting flute song that bewilders enemies). Without a doubt though, the game's eponymous protagonist Hiro is the star of the show. Only he can dish out vital spells and magic that advance the gameplay from competent hack 'n slash action to a mash-up of combat options that throw up entertaining strategies for you to consider while engaging the enemy. Whether you decide to enter the body of a bear with Hiro's spirit world magic to swiftly dispatch a mini-boss, or pick flowers from the game world to mix potions that give Hiro additional special powers, Hiro's inventory continually throws up new options of attack.
The stealth, while simplistic, is nonetheless engaging. It is, most importantly where stealth is concerned, not broken by the AI. There's even a Trophy/Achievement for completing a level without being seen; a clear indication that Mini Ninjas' stealth offers far more than meets the eye (and it does). Supplemental features, such as dazzling attacks instigated by holding down the triangle button (where the PS3 version is concerned), allow you to take out multiple enemies in one go, meaning that you can pick off stragglers with stealth kills and then go in for a climactic finishing move. Alternatively, ranged attacks with fireballs and Shuriken progress combat beyond standard melee attacks (square for a straightforward blow, triangle to stun, and L2 to block) which, while intuitively implemented, would not have been strong enough to carry the game by themselves.
Boss battles are strong across the board, incorporating God of War-esque quick-time events with flashy cinematic flourishes and a strong dose of humour administered by the resulting finishing moves (e.g. smacking the bum of a 20-metre tall demon samurai). It's this light heartedness that provides Mini Ninjas with much of its charm, whether you're following fireflies into a secret area of the game world to uncover a new spell at a forgotten Kuji shrine (having harvested an all important Anemone plant as an offering beforehand), or simply admiring Hiro's bizarre running style that makes him look a bit like a duck that's just got a big shock. This is perhaps fitting, as the game is amply populated by these kinds of cutesy animals (which Hiro can embody whenever he choses), particularly when you create more of said animals by killing enemies who promptly turn into either a fox, frog, bunny rabbit, bear, or wild boar etc.
Mini Ninjas is nothing if not suitably crazy for a Japanese story, a point that's well illustrated by the heart warming visuals throughout. Graphics that are certainly of the cel-shaded style (even though they incorporate a touch more texture in the environments than a cel-shaded game traditionally would) were certainly the right choice here, providing the right ambience for IO to dictate mood with sun-set or stormy backdrops in levels where the action is supposed to be serene of frenetic respectively. Artful touches such as clouds of floating dandelion seeds above congregations of the plant in a field can be found throughout Mini Ninjas' game world, which is another welcome similarity to the Canadian Naruto games.
We can't help but feel that IO Interactive has missed a trick here though. With so many playable characters being introduced in the game, it's perhaps slightly surprising that you can only play with one at a time. Whenever you select a new character, the previous character simply disappears in a poof of smoke until you're ready to play as them again, instead of remaining in the game as a party member that's temporarily controlled by the AI. Perhaps IO tried this and it left the gameplay unbalanced, or maybe the developer simply couldn't get the AI to work sufficiently well in that context (a problem that has plagued many similar games). Either way, it has left Mini Ninjas without an all important option of co-op multiplayer, which would have been perfect for a game that fits the casual and family gaming mould so snugly.
Nonetheless, the single-player campaign's length can certainly rival most other 'action/adventure' titles on the market, although the enjoyment that most players will find through the gameplay is significantly above average. This is evident as much in the big things as the little ones, such as the charming sounds that enemies make while they march or decide to attack you en masse. Although hard to describe here, they have the humour and production quality that's more common of a Pixar production than it is a game.