It was something of a surprise to see Io Interactive announce that their next game wasn't going to be another Hitman title, or any other kind of manshoot, but instead a new direction based on cute cartoon ninjas. That game, Mini Ninjas, is came out this week, to a mixed reception. Needless to say, I'm going to tell you Wot I Think...
Having played the demo of Mini Ninjas had limited expectations for the full game. It seemed a little twee, perhaps even irritating, and the simplicity of play in the demo didn't seem like the kind of challenge I generally look for. Admittedly, a cute third-person action game isn't even my usual fare, but I wanted to take a look at how some of the things I'd seen in the demo were going to be developed in the full game. I installed and got cracking. After a few hours of play I realised, to my surprise, that Mini Ninjas had me entranced. Just when I was about to give up because something was irritating or boring, the game went and did something smart or cute, and I was interested again. So what does it do right?
While bland at times, and sort of appropriately stereotyped with its medieval Japanese music and caricatured visuals, there is a level of cuteness throughout that ends up being endearing. The little baddie samurai are almost too sweet to kill, with their diminutive aggression and squeaky rage, but fortunately you're freeing the woodland animals trapped inside them, so there's a kind of cute equilibrium that is maintained by violence. The environments are occasionally uninteresting, particularly towards the start of the game, but they deliver enough in the way of beautiful moments for you to want to keep looking forward: paddling down rapids on your ninja hat-boat (which doubles as protection from arrows), or crossing a river full of floating lanterns that are an SOS message from a village upstream, or sneaking through a haunted graveyard to assault a sprawling, dark, Japanese fortress. All these things all add up to a fun place to be, and to explore. Yes, like a good childrens' storybook, it feels like a well-crafted object - artful and solid, while retaining a air of innocence.
And you'll need to explore, too, albeit in a linear fashion, to unlock new spells in hidden shrines and uncover useful secrets as you quest. If you're a collector type then it will become compulsive, because the woods and valleys are littered with things to loot, such as mushrooms and roots, some of which can be returned to optional quest-giver birdmen characters, for other additional rewards. These guys occasionally act as shops, too, allowing you make potions from the things you find in the woods. So far, so cute, but it's the fact that the game escalates through an interesting feature set that keeps it surprisingly engaging.
Mini Ninjas is a linear third-person action game that combines very simple combat with very simple movement to create a game that feels, at times, rather unambitious. You whack at enemies with two different basic attacks, and they go down easy. Of course this also means that it's incredibly accessible, and very easy to play with mouse and keyboard - wall-running, leaping up barriers, sneaking about, all come naturally. However, the way that the game evolves - by giving you knew abilities, via a spellbook, an inventory, and additional even ninjas - is perfectly tuned. The curve of progress is the perfect drip feed of new stuff, and there are occasional peaks of surprise, such as when the bow-ninja first fires his explosive arrow, or when you realise you can scale the rooftops of a castle to infiltrate it.
Possibly my favourite thing about the game is the ninjaness of it - you can hide in long grass and bushes to remain invisible to your enemies. While they generally don't pose too much of a threat to you, it's incredibly satisfying to creep up on them, leap out, and deliver a flurry of deathblows.
Each of the ninjas has their own speciality, but it's the core ninja, Hiro, that the game - and therefore your play - defaults to. There are quite specific situations that cannot be dealt with by him, but a puff of ninja smoke brings in any of the others, and then you'll quickly swap back to Hiro again in an instant. As you gain more abilities, and Hiro becomes more potent in battle, you'll find yourself coming up against marginally tougher enemies - making things like your innate stealth all the more useful. Long range exploding arrow enemies, and then floating witch-baddies, begin to make life more difficult, and you learn to use your skills and spells accordingly. By the end of the game the battles feel like they're just getting interesting, and it's a shame it doesn't ever really stretch you, or demand that you find interesting ways to use the full set of ninjas.
Where they don't really help - and where I was most disappointed - was in the boss battles. These are about dodging death and then running through what amount to a repeated series of quicktime events. They're quite disappointing, even if the character design is at its most charming. There are also some issues with save points: activate one when you are on limited health and you might be in for a long backtrack to find health every time you restart a tricky section. Fortunately the game isn't too tricky, but there's no reason for the PC version of a game not to be able to save at any point. Really, no reason. Don't go making excuses.
If there's a real problem with Mini Ninjas, however, it's that it's not quite ambitious enough. There's some lovely design in there, everything works and "feels" right in its place. Even the pervasive tweeness is happily counteracted by some fun ideas in ninja-combat and movement, which ultimately progresses far enough to keep you interested for most of the game. But there's no real replay value because the levels are so linear, and because the toolbox never quite gets large or varied enough to reward experimentation in the way it does in certain other action games. It's just not enough game. In the meal of gaming, it's a well-made salad for starters.
Perhaps if there had been co-op or some other feather in the cap of this little assassin, then Mini Ninjas might have been a worth recommending. As it is overall experience feels lightweight, and destined for the bargain basement end of the purchasing spectrum. That might seem like a significant bum note to end on, but actually I've found the game more entertaining than not - there were even a couple of moments when I cooed with delight - and it gives me hope that Io will prove to have more strings to their bow that we other realised. Not a failure, then, just nowhere near being a masterpiece.