Mini Ninjas is a 3D action adventure game with enough charm and brilliance, along with a batch of childish toilet humour to facilitate an all round enjoyable flick. A strange choice of direction then for IO Interactive, the developer behind the Hitman series and the masochistic Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, but one which ultimately pays off.
An opening animation sets the plot of the game running- the narrator informing us that the once tranquil kingdom in which the game is set has seen an evil warlord once again disrupting the balance of nature, causing storms, floods and the like. It's up to the remaining two ninja and, you guessed it, you as the player, to restore balance once again and bring peace back to the people. The generic story does little for older players but gives simplicity to actions for younger gamers, which is the intended audience of the title. The incredibly simple aesthetic of the game, from its smooth 3D modelling, hand-drawn backdrops and Eastern décor delivering a beautiful setting, whilst the individual character models of the 6 ninja all give warmth and personality to the overall experience.
Starting out as Hiro (one of six eventual unlockable ninjas that can be interchanged on the fly with a push of 'L1'), a quick tutorial giving credence to the basics of game play stands in the way before you can leave. Attacks amount to two “attack” buttons ('Square' and 'Triangle') whilst 'L2' initiates a block; a hold of 'Triangle' meanwhile, allowing the execution of a “special” move- each individual to the character (Hiro, for example, can slow time down to allow the player to 'paint' targets to attack, resulting in a flurry of swipes and quick removal of all in his way. The use of which are governed by the number of red energy spheres in your grasp (a total of up to 3), which can be picked up from fallen enemies. Hiro is also inclined to use “Kuji magic” (which results in the “kuji” level depleting), a batch of separate spells that can be found within the world to unlock their use; including, amongst others, the 'Lightning storm', 'Tornado' and 'Spirit form'- which can turn Hiro into any of the animals within his immediate area. The careful use of the magic gives variety to what first seems a set of incredibly simple game mechanics. The different ninja also having separate and unique set of skills- Hiro is especially good for sneaking and stealth whereas the larger Futo may be used for his strength against particularly nasty foes.
The fluidity of game play along with the quick menu switches between the different ninja is the game's key draw, providing simplicity while also allowing more keen gamers to get sufficient depth from the number of different options in possession to them. Saying which, however, the endless drones of enemies that are greeted wave upon wave through progression in each area does get tiresome after some time, even with the number of different enemy types on show (from the simple swordsmen to the archers and guardsman). Saying that, the way in which each section of the game is designed in a distinct style (such as water, ice, wind) which, in itself corresponds to the end boss of that particular section somewhat alleviates this mundanity with a refreshing palette change before the design grows truly stale. The child-friendly hint system, the “advice from God's” mechanic, provides the player with a reminder of their current objective and arrow to point the way with the tap of 'up' on the D-pad- the use of which available at any time and most probably needed by many players since the linear structure of levels is often halted with exploration of the open areas for any of the many collectibles that can be found within the game. The main collectible “Kuji statues” scattered to and fro over the map whilst ingredients to make any of the potions (through the 'Select' menu) that restore the magic meter, health meter or replenishing red spheres, also ought to be picked up. Health is governed by a bar represented in terms of 'hearts', which are also divided further into smaller hearts. The health bar can be extremely quick in depleting if not timing dodges and parries successfully enough, so clever consumption of potions at critical moments and picking the health-restoring apples is key to getting to the next checkpoint within the level before your hero falls to his knees in loss.
In the end, it's easy to recommend Mini Ninjas to young and older gamers alike. As I've mentioned, the game's initial simplicity can be opened to an underlying depth that is often lacking in other games for its intended audience. Whilst some aspects of the game are severely misjudged (the boss battles are way too simple and short, the use of the dodgy Six-axis control), the overall appearance, levelling system and tongue-in-cheek experience is worthy of a play. IO Interactive may be returning to more hardcore territory with the return to the Kane & Lynch franchise but judging on this performance, I certainly wouldn't mind them returning to the casual market in the future.