What would you call a classic adventure/action/platformer button-mashing ninja game created with childlike wonder in mind? Yeah, I'd called it Mini Ninjas, too. Despite the simple name, simple gameplay, simple objectives and simple graphics, Io Interactive's new title is brilliant, for the most part. Imagine this gentle, elegant, playful, funny and, yes, adorable title from the studio that brought us the controversially violent, amoral Kane & Lynch and several games in the Hitman franchise. These mature-oriented games have their fans, certainly, but I think Io may have found its true calling in, my stars, entertainment fun for the whole family. Perhaps they just needed some therapeutic decompression after envisioning all those scenes of bloody slaughter and total carnage. In any event, these Danes have a bona fide ESRB-rated "E" winner on their resumes, and they deserve every accolade for it.
The premise, as befits ninja games of any ilk, is fairly uncomplicated and accustomed. The setting: a feudal Japan where an evil old warlord has turned hordes of the formerly benevolent creatures of the forest into legions of sinister samurai warriors ensnared by wicked magic, compelled to do their master's bidding. At first, as most often, you'll play as a novice ninja named Hiro — OK, don't beat us over the head with it, now. Hiro's mission is to ultimately defeat the warlord. Along the way, you must knock off as many samurai as possible, returning them to their natural existences as benign frogs, rabbits, bears, deer or what have you. You'll also need to find and free the crack ninjas who've gone before you yet failed to defeat the warlord in his Fortress of Doom.
Once liberated, you can play as any of these … ah, well, ahem, team ninja. Each has his or her particular, valuable skills, and in some parts of the game, you'll be required to take on specific roles to dispatch sub-bosses and top bosses in their own exclusive stages. Generally speaking, although it's fun to rotate between characters and put their individual abilities to the test, Hiro is the all-around most useful ninja. Only Hiro can use Kuji magic — special spells of attack, defense and general wizardry — and the list is expanded by taking scrolls from Kuji shrines scattered through the game's levels. (Indeed, one of Hiro's Kuji abilities is a spell that aids him in locating more Kuji shrines.)
One of the highlights of Mini Ninjas is that there are about a hundred ways to play the game, though not too often is any one of them better than any other. This is often a complaint of gamers, that there are so many ways to play or infinite weapons from which to choose, but any given role or implement is about as good as any other. True, sometimes it's a drag, but in Mini Ninjas, it works and is a delight. As Hiro, you can cast a spell allowing possession of the forest beasts, using them to discover well-hidden ingredients of potions and other special treasures. With the same magic, you can occupy the forms of tougher customers, like bears, in order to attack your enemies in new and interesting ways. Ninja Shun is a talented archer. Futo, Hiro's best friend from his home village, and therefore playable along with Hiro almost from the start of the game, is thick of skull but stout of heart, and he wields a mighty hammer handy against the big guys you'll run up against. Kunoichi is an artful acrobat, performing combat stunts with sublime grace. Suzume's special attack mesmerizes enemies with her flute. All the ninjas have unique, powerful special attacks, too, available when you collect red orbs after defeating enemies. Progressing through the story and via combat success, you may also level-up your ninja characters. Certain attributes, such as the health meter, are static across characters, no matter who you're playing. If you get down on your last legs as Shun, switching to Futo might give you a slight advantage in power attacks, but his health status will remain in the same sorry state until replenished.
As you play, you'll pick up weapons and useful items for doing things like making potions of healing. All these bits and pieces are kept handy in your inventory under the Select button on the PS3 controller. From the inventory screen, you can choose to use some items right there, say gulp down a ginseng potion, or assign weapons or spells to one of the two handy in-game select wheels accessed by pressing the L1 or R1 controller shoulder buttons. In the wheels, you quickly make selections with the analog stick and then release the shoulder button. One wheel holds your current favorite inventory items, while the other wheel allows you to choose between unlocked and contextually available playable characters. Sometimes, particularly in boss fights, only one character is playable so all the wheel segments are empty. The whole thing smacks quite a bit of the tried-and-true inventory system from Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank franchise. Insomniac should take this as a pat on the back because the system is quite refined and translates well to Mini Ninjas' gameplay. It's a good thing, too, because switching between characters does not switch between unique inventory wheels. Inventory wheels, like health meters, are static across characters. Especially since only Hiro has that Kuji magic mastery, you'll be doing a lot of inventory swapping, and anything but a smooth, familiar application for managing items would greatly frustrate gameplay.
The control scheme is quite fine, but, of course, this game is to a great degree a button-masher; achieving quality basic controls in button-mashing is usually just a matter of implementing rapid in-game response to the mashing of those buttons. Io Interactive has include some SixAxis control but in such a way that it's there as a feature, not an annoyance. For example, shaking health-restoring apples off orchard trees is an easy button-hold and controller shake, while balanced walks across lantern strings are executed with the far more accurate and accessible analog sticks. There are numerous Quick Time Events (QTEs) — pressing certain buttons as their icons are displayed on-screen — throughout the adventure, especially during sub-boss and boss fights. I'm not the biggest fan of QTEs, but in a game in the style of Mini Ninjas, they're completely acceptable. However, some of the button presses require repeatedly and rapidly pressing the same button again and again, a simple feat of coordination that may prove a little difficult for the youngest players. General gameplay, though I can't stress enough how uncomplicated, is a very solid experience. My only minor complaint is that even with appropriate hinting, a couple of the tricks to certain boss fights aren't so readily obvious. Older gamers will figure them out in due time; again, the youngest players may need some extra guidance from a gaming parent or older sibling.
Where Mini Ninjas truly shines is in its overall presentation. The simple animations and effects hardly tax the PS3's raw power, but the art direction yields a highly stylized visual treat as lovely as some of the best animated films. Realism is not the point here, so don't expect it. The musical score is thoroughly appropriate to the material. Audio is crystal clear, both in sound effects and for the in-game utterances of the playable characters and various enemies. There's engaging detail, too: Friend and foe alike chatter away. The cut scenes between levels and significant story progression are gorgeous, and the voice acting is superb. Not since Heavenly Sword have I never once cringed during a cut scene, and I greatly looked forward to watching each of them in Mini Ninjas as they arrived in a timely manner, neither oppressive in frequency nor stretched out into overly lengthy mini-movies.
Mini Ninjas is just purely, simply a great video game. Period. I won't even bother arguing all the likely complaints, among them limited replay value and the notion that a co-op mode would have been nice. I'll take that co-op mode in the sequel. And I better get a sequel. In the coming weeks of terrific, glam holiday game releases, a title like Mini Ninjas is easily overlooked. A gamer of any age will be a fool to do that. You don't have to tell your online shooter buddies you're playing it; just play it. I rarely take my hat off to development studios. I sneer at their foibles and pat their pretty little heads when they get a few things right. Io Interactive, my hat is off: What you folks have here is a video game that embodies everything good about the art form. Congratulations.
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