Size Matters Not
After nearly a decade of video game development, IO Interactive has made a name for themselves with a handful of successful titles. Perhaps best known for their Hitman series, in which you take control of Agent 47 and complete numerous assassination missions, IO Interactive has seemingly had a tendency to cater more towards mature gamers. In fact, except for Freedom Fighters, which was released in 2003 and rated T, every game they’ve released has been deemed too graphic for audiences under the age of seventeen. This makes their recent release, Mini Ninjas, more than a bit of an oddity.
With a rating of E10+ Mini Ninjas is a drastic departure from what you’d expect from the company. Instead of playing as the likes of a highly trained killer or murderous mercenary, Mini Ninjas actually puts you in control of a ragtag group of children ninjas on a quest to restore peace to their once serene homeland. As a group they were trained by the Ninja Master, each specializing in their own styles and weapons until a great evil began to threaten the land. One by one they were sent out to investigate this disturbance, never to be heard from again, until only two of the students remained.
At the start of the game you are able to control either Hiro (the main character) or his friend Futo (a hulking ninja who wields a large hammer). Hiro is much quicker and more agile than Futo, but Futo is a stronger character who is better suited to fighting larger, tougher enemies. As you play through the game, you’ll eventually find and save all of the other previously sent out ninjas, which will add them to your stable of playable characters. Players can quickly switch between any of the ninjas using a ninja selection wheel, allowing the use of the most appropriate ninja for each type of enemy and/or situation.
Still, no matter which character you use the game’s combat feels fairly similar. Hitting an enemy with a sword is not unlike hitting them with a hammer, a flute, claws, a spear, etc. Only Futo with his massive hammer and Shun with his bow and arrows feel truly distinctive, and in Futo’s case that isn’t exactly a compliment, given that he feels quite a bit clumsier than the others. With only two attack buttons that can be pressed multiple times or in alternating fashions to create combos, your range of attacks can also feel somewhat limited. However, as the game progresses you’ll also discover multiple items and Kuji spells that help to spice things up a bit.
During the course of your adventure, you’ll come across the ninja staples you’d expect such as throwing stars that stun enemies and smoke bombs to help you to escape/hide. While these items are fairly easy to find and attain, you’ll actually have to do some hunting to uncover new spells to add to your repertoire. To gain a new spell, you’ll need to find shrines that are hidden throughout the game’s levels and present the proper offering to activate them. Every shrine requires a white flower, usually hidden somewhere nearby, in order to decipher its wisdom. None of these spells are absolutely necessary to proceed through the game, but they are often incredibly useful against larger groups of enemies and also help to focus the player on what I thought was the best part of Mini Ninjas: the exploration of its levels.
Almost every level in the game is filled to the brim with things to discover. Aside from the spell shrines, you can also discover hidden money to buy recipes, caged animals to set free, statues, and various plants and fungi. While the statues don’t really help the player in any real way, everything else provides some sort of gameplay benefit. After recipes have been purchased, your collected vegetation can be used to make all manner of potions to heal yourself or refill your spell casting energy.
Caged animals can also be inhabited by Hiro in order to make all of the other hidden items easier to find. When in control of these animals, every hidden object in the level will be highlighted by a pillar of blue smoke, making them more visible, although some are still incredibly well hidden and difficult to find even with this help.
You’ll notice that I stated that Hiro can inhabit these animals even though you’ll have the option to play as any ninja that you’ve already freed. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a mistake on my part but one that rests solely on IO Interactive. While it has been incorporated into the game’s storyline that Hiro is the only ninja besides the Ninja Master that can use magic, it winds up making gameplay a lot more cumbersome than it needed to be. Because of this mechanic, any time you want to take advantage of a powerful spell in combat or need animal assistance to find hidden items, you’re forced to switch from whichever ninja you’re currently using to Hiro. Even though switching between ninjas is relatively simple, you may find yourself quickly growing tired of the constant need to become Hiro and the delay associated with this change to the point where you’ll just play through the majority of the title as the main character. This just seemed like a bad decision altogether, since it essentially continually discouraged the use of any of the other characters.
However, besides this slight issue Mini Ninjas is a fun and enjoyable game. The visual style is fairly cartoony but is perfect for the audience it is targeting and has nice cuteness at every turn. Although you’ll spend much of your time in the game swinging weapons at enemies, the violence is very tame, especially considering that most of the enemies you’ll face look like enlarged Jawas wearing samurai outfits that once defeated turn into a harmless little animals, similar to the enemies in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. It’s amazing to me that a company so well known for making games with mature themes and abundant violence made Mini Ninjas, but I suppose a good game is a good game no matter its ESRB rating or a player’s preconceptions. If you’re looking for a good-spirited hack and slash/exploration game or just something to have a fun time playing with a younger gamer, then be sure to give Mini Ninjas a try.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
Mini Ninjas has a good, cartoony visual style that is sure to appeal to the younger gamers, but it won’t blow anyone away. 3.5 Control
The lack of a double jump can be troublesome, the manual camera is sometimes a problem, and combat will feel clunky with some characters (mostly Futo), but everything else is solid. 3.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music fits the game nicely as does the often comedic voice work, although it is a tad on the stereotypical side. 3.8 Play Value
The adventure itself is pretty short (roughly five to seven hours), but if you’re into collecting all of the game’s hidden and mostly useful items, you’ll likely find a few more hours of fun. 3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.