Format: 360 (version tested), PC, PS3, Wii
Release: Out now
Developer: Io Interactive
The kids who grew up with NES pads in their hands expected little more than endurance courses of cruel and unexpected death. How will children bottle-fed with the likes of Mini Ninjas ever survive in the wild? Quite well, perhaps; despite the name, Mini Ninjas has little in the way of stringent martial training, but there’s several Ray Mears’ worth of woodland botany and animal husbandry packed in.
More than just a straight brawler, IO’s first foray into the sub-15 age bracket sees the dinky-but-deadly ninja Hiro set out on an epic journey to rid the world of an evil samurai master. Along the way, Hiro will free captured ninja chums and undo the magic that has transformed animals into ersatzsamurai goons (and, since battered opponents simply turn back into frogs and foxes, the game cutely side-steps the nastiness of death). Though progression is linear, environments open up into sprawling hubs, each liberally dusted with useful collectibles, herbs and secrets.
It’s a peculiar miscellany of diversions that, along with the game’s uniquely soothing cartoon-fauvist style, sets a meditative pace. In between skirmishes with samurai, you find yourself wandering amiably through quiet twilight woodlands to search for ingredients or bobbing on a river with a fishing rod while peach blossom descends.
It’s not quite Hitman, to make the inevitable nod to IO’s previous games, but the levels encourage multiple approaches, both in the physical route and in the manner of its taking. And, as is befitting of your ninja status, you can avoid combat almost entirely. Even if players opt for a more aggressive approach, then the available choices are so in excess of those required that you’ll have to actively force yourself to explore more than a handful. Most threats can be vanquished by dashing into the fray and hammering X until you’re surrounded by a chittering heap of de-transmogrified woodland animals – and this will be a problem for some, succumbing to the path of least resistance.
This is choice over challenge, breadth over depth: freeing ninja colleagues allows you to transform into them at a moment’s notice, adopting a different style of combat. Bombs can be thrown to send enemies into coughing fits, spells can be cast to deflect arrows or summon lightning and ninja-unique special moves. And though combat isn’t without its occasional complexity – enemy-resurrecting wizards require extra concentration – you might get through the game without ever hitting the block button.
But just as you’ve settled in to its amicable, shallow flow, things fall apart. Niggling clipping issues throughout and occasional context-sensitivity glitches are preludes to what feels like a sharp QA failure. While there are confusions elsewhere – drops that look like any other survivable drop, but are actually instant death – it never amounts to more than a rap across the knuckles, but in the snowy mountains and beyond, the camera fails to even keep Hiro in the frame. Environments shun openness for incoherence, combat devolves and increases in quantity – but since you can simply gulp one of your many health potions, it never challenges either. The failings compound and, though they only once stymie progress, they sour the overall experience.
Mini Ninjas offers an assortment of simple pleasures and its tooth-rottingly sweet presentation wholly endears – but it isn’t sustained, and in places falls disastrously below the watermark. It may be impossible to condemn something so eminently agreeable in its appearance and melodious pace, but small as its characters are, Mini Ninjas isn’t quite perfectly formed.