Take six miniature ninjas, some of the loveliest set pieces of feudal Japan; spread them out over four seasons and a variety of platforming and send the bravest of them; Hiro- on an epic adventure of fun and exploration.
Now that some of the heavyweights like Halo ODST and Batman have past, IO Interactives` Mini Ninjas is the perfect game for the whole family to fill the pre Christmas blues. Available on the XBOX 360, PS3 and Wii and Nintendo DS, there is something for everyone with action complemented with Role playing, racing and platforming.
Considering IO are also responsible for the hit and miss game Kane & Lynch, not to mention the long standing Hitman series, Mini Ninjas is a breath of fresh air. A much less violent foray into video games, developers Jeremy Petreman and Henrik Hansen have taken a step backwards and crafted a game which although may be overlooked as being only accessible to children, has a lot of depth and at its core, a lot of heart.
Reminiscent of some of the best Nintendo 64 games, Mini Ninjas is essentially an action- adventure platformer with RPG elements. Each level is circular; meaning the end leads back to the beginning while the ‘adventure’ comprises collecting flowers and ingredients to mix for potions and healing brews. The detail though, is in the execution. So many things have been added to Mini Ninjas that simply don’t need to be there; but as a whole add to both its appeal and re-playability.
Initially, the game appears linear- the story being that four of your samurai friends have been sent out, by Master Ninja from Ninja Mountain, to defeat the evil Samurai Warlord who has been corrupting the land with evil Kuji Magic. All the animals in the areas have been turned into mindless minions and it’s the players task to restore both balance and as many cute critters as you can find. This sounds predicable and even cliché until the full extent of what IO has made starts to take over.
When you reach the end of an area instead of progressing you can choose to continue play and go back to find each and every ingredient in the level as well as hidden Jizzu statues and freeing animals trapped in cages. The whole game can be played on hard and is not particularly difficult but is addictive in that each level can be cleared 100% before moving on. Throughout each level as well apart from the myriad of woodland animals, including bears, boars, cats, monkeys and chickens are trees and shrubs with fruit ripe for the picking. This is a perfect example of how IO have taken traditional gameplay elements and expanded on them for a new audience.
Health is represented as hearts and as your ninja levels up you gain more of them. Antiqued sure, but in a time of re-spawns and ‘no health bars’ it is refreshing to see this simply executed. More so though, to collect health you literally have to approach a tree or bush and jump right in, throwing down fruit and berries to pick up and eat. Bee Hives reward with honey and even swimming around lakes reveals fish which can be caught for sushi. This attention to detail and interaction raises Mini Ninjas above other games which have forgotten the fun many games, like Banjo Kazooie and Zelda used to illicit even for adults. Further, each character has their own unique animation style, for running, walking, climbing trees and executing moves; the fat ninja loses breath and the ’girly’ ninjas prance about while every animal can be used in a different way once you ‘posses’ them with a Kuji magic. Bears and boars will devastate enemies while smaller animals like rabbits can pass by unnoticed. Foxes are quick and frogs can cross water.
In more usual style, character move sets consist of a light attack, heavy attack, jump or ground attack and then a power move executed by using orbs to pull out a devastating signature move. By stripping back the game to the basics IO Interactive have been allowed to focus on details including making each character as unique as possible. Think: The Hero, the ‘fat’ one, the girl, the tom-boy, the weird loner and the hyper active crazy one and you have some idea of the all round nature of the characters. Hiro and his best friend Futo aka the ‘mage class’ and the Tank comprise the first Quarter of the game. Later on you will make use of the archer Shun, Konoichi with the spear and even Toro, the young ninja who thinks he’s a tiger and has the Wolverine claws to prove it. For each ninja, there is an equal and opposite enemy. Futo as a heavy is useful against only the largest of enemies while the archer is excellent for picking off warriors from high ground. Towards the end, even the main man, Hiro will not be able to block some of the final enemies and switching characters often will be necessary.
It is refreshing to see a game where all six characters are playable, on the fly by a player and seems increasingly popular with the likes of the arcade hit Trine trying the same approach. This negates a need for co-op though which perhaps would have been useful towards the end of the game.
Played from start to end, the game does start to show some limitations, beyond the ease of disposing enemy. Hiro, the first and main character, is rather bias in that he is the only one who can summon and use Kuji magic. This traditional Japanese meditation allows him to manipulate over ½ a dozen different spells including possessing animals. But it means you don’t play so much with the other characters, using them only when necessary because Hiro is such a good all rounder that no one else is required. The game, despite each area being unique is predicable basically following a pattern of- open outdoor level, puzzle and/or race level, castle level, Boss, rinse- and repeat. This is good for the younger members of the family though and once again IO has excelled at adding detail where there was none without ever needing to explain it.
Underpinning the whole game is a very strong theme of religion and prays. Hiro doesn’t simply acquire magic. No, he has to find the right flower, offer it as a sacrifice, pray and then receive the scroll, not to mention finding the spirits that point the way to the hidden shrine. There are 4 bosses before the end and each one follows an element amusingly- Earth, Wind, Water and Air with the ‘wind’ boss making good use of fart jokes. Each boss is in their own castle which must be traversed; but as the game goes on you realise that the whole adventure is also set over a course of a year. Following, spring, summer, autumn and then winter it is not until the whole game is played that you look back and realise the truth.
The representation of the seasons as they change has as much attention as the gameplay. IO has employed a flat-shaded look with water coloured backgrounds and more dynamic grass than is necessary. The variation of the foliage from tall grass to short and the bushes therein actually have a double meaning as the whole game can be played in the shadows, sneaking though the grasses without ever being detected once.
This is where simple graphics support the game play and add to it with flowers standing out against the environment and statues never too hard to find. Generally secrets are pointed to by glowing ‘spirits’ while magic effects are suitably entertaining.
Unlike more realistic urban and gritty franchises pushed out by Edios, Mini Ninjas tries something different. IO has employed the Glacier Engine to great effect with crystal clear water and weather effects of rain and snow, while still maintaining the look and feel of a Pixar cartoon. And while many movie to game adaptations are underdone Mini Ninjas is one game crying out for its own animated adventures.
Small touches like the addition of the Ninja Shade hat are both aesthetically cute and useful in the game. Swimming too slow; flip the hat into a handy boat and use your weapon of trade as oar while on land it doubles as protection against arrows. Use the hat to sled down the snow but hit a bump and find yourself rolled into a giant snowball protected against attacks. Simply playing the game in full will reveal a number of little touches which have had a lot of thought put into them.
From the Japanese characters written on the title screen and loading through to the execution of storytelling through the eyes of Master Ninja, Mini Ninjas is a Japanese game through and though. As far as the sound goes though, it is mixed. The music is both gentle and relaxing at the same time and while none of the ninja talk, the game can become a little quiet and boring. The whole story is narrated by the old Master and the supporting quest giving characters as well as cut scenes, sound like they were all voiced by the same guy.
Amusingly the gravely voices are suitably Japanese and laughably old, reminiscent of the worst kung fu films. Enemies speak in Japanese and otherwise childish noises while your ninjas will elicit pain or excitement at different tasks. It is entirely probable that like a lot of JRPG games, Mini Ninjas has been dubbed and translated for western audiences, but enough of the soothing oriental feudal Japanese music has made it through that it is not noticeable. On the XBOX 360 and PS3 at least, the music works best in stereo or 5.1 surround.
For a game with no multiplayer or co-op, there is not a whole lot lacking from Mini Ninjas. It does what it needs to well and offers a complete package that anyone can pick up and play. There is no learning curve per say, and it is wholly refreshing to see a game built around so many different options.
IO gives you more tools that you need to complete each area how you see fit. Achievements and trophies point to: ‘not being seen for an entire level’ and ‘executing 100 stealth attacks’. Inversely you can rush the whole level, use ninja stars and shurikens or simple hop inside an animal and go for gold.
Because the levels are circular in nature, you can take the high ground around the outside or rush through the middle. And there are always hidden shortcuts in every area.
What would have added further value is a time attack mode. Beyond the main story there is very little to come back to. The game can be completed 100% and some levels will require a do over to get every achievement. When the credits roll ‘gamer pics’ are unlocked, except it seems only a singular gamer pic is rewarded…
Whichever platform suits you Mini Ninjas is a reward unto itself offering a lengthy campaign with a lot to do within.
There is nothing not to like in Mini Ninjas. Ultimately it is not for everyone, and some older seasoned gamers are going to overlook it. However with that in mind it is worth picking up to relive something close to the golden era of the Nintendo 64. IO interactive has made a gentle game that will calm even the most hardened soul.
The Designers Jeremy Petremen and Henrik Hansen stated that they wanted to make a game they could “play with their kids” and have succeeded- from start to end.
AAG Score: 9/10
-Traditionally illustrated art style
- Gentle music
- Easily accessible to the whole family
- Generally aimed at a younger audience
- No co-op
- No foreseeable DLC or sequel
Reviewed & Written By Ian Crane