Mini Ninjas is something of a departure for IO Studios, as they're commonly associated with making gritty third-person shooters like Hitman. Probably the only element that's still present from their previous work is actually the third-person perspective, as players will now be tackling samurai warriors through ancient Japan, as opposed to gunning down innocent civilians using M16s.
Many years ago, an Evil Samurai had ravaged the land, but the Ninja were able to banish him from the world, leading to an era of peace and tranquillity. However, this could not be sustained, and when terrible storms start to appear alongside rumours of mysterious figures caging animals, the Ninja begin to fear that the Evil Samurai Warlord has returned. The Ninja Master sends his best Ninja to investigate, but no word ever returns, and he is left with just two Ninja remaining, Futo, and an untrained Ninja in Hiro, the game's main protagonist.
Hiro's final training effectively serves as the games brief tutorial, before he is sent off to try and rescue all of his friends, and defeat the Evil Samurai Warlord. It's definitely a story that doesn't take itself too seriously, and overall there isn't a huge amount of development to be found. There are short cutscenes to be seen here and there, but they're mainly to talk about deeds the player has performed, like defeating a boss. It's entertaining though, and will probably make a few people chuckle due to the sense of humour that's adopted.
The gameplay is also rather simple. There are essentially two buttons that perform attacks - one for normal attacks and one for a stun attack. There aren't really any combos to perform, so it's generally a case of mashing the normal attack button and occasionally using the stun attack if the opponent is blocking. The player also has access to a block button of their own, which does enable some slight evasive moves too, but going on the offensive generally prevents the enemies from attacking anyway. There is also a power attack available, which can be accessed by holding down the stun attack. It enables groups of enemies to be dispatched more quickly, but can't be used against all of the enemy types.
There is a levelling system in place, but there are no opportunities to really upgrade anything. Generally it revolves around doing a bit more damage, or gaining some extra health - new moves come in the form of obtaining new characters via progression through the game. There are six characters in all, and they each have their own playing style. For example, Hiro is the only character who can use Kuji Magic, while Futo is the only character who can kill the large Samurai. Each of them generally has a scenario that suits them best, and it adds a bit to the diversity, but overall there's just a lack of depth.
The Kuji Magic does help to alleviate this a bit, as magical scrolls can be found throughout Hiro's quest. However, collecting them isn't mandatory, so it is entirely possible to get to the end of the game without collecting very many. Not that it's a hindrance, but using the Kuji Magic is probably one of the more enjoyable and unique aspects of the game - making players collect it would have seen them enjoy using it more and offered more selection and variety to the gameplay.To compound the often shallow gameplay, the boss fights are generally quite easy. They revolve around causing the boss to perform a certain action, which leads to a set of quick time events. There isn't any real challenge involved, and it's a bit disappointing. The game just doesn't promote any real sense of achievement. Escaping an avalanche, while using a Ninja hat as a snowboard, was entertaining and a nice change to the gameplay, but the final level, which also offers a deviation in the formula was not a welcome change. It features an extremely shaky camera, as well as tight rooms, which make the camera behave in weird ways. It can actually become quite nauseating.
It's very clear from the presentation of Mini Ninjas that it's aimed at a younger audience. The art-style is very cartoony and the voices are extremely stereotypical. It works really well in the context of the game though, and it's a definite plus point. There is enough diversity in the levels to really promote progression through the game, and the playable characters even react differently depending in the environment they find themselves in, like shivering during the snow levels. The soundtrack, provided by Peter Svarre, is also very fitting.
Although many of the locations are enjoyable to play through, the game is actually quite short. There also isn't really much incentive to play through again, other than using a different selection of characters to progress. It's a shame, as Mini Ninjas is a game that could really had done with more development. It's also only a single-player experience, and since the game is aimed at a younger audience, it's quite a strange decision. It seems like the kind of game that would have been perfect for co-operative play, or some fun multiplayer mini-games.
Mini Ninjas is a game that has many of the tools needed to make it a successful venture, but unfortunately doesn't utilise them. The combat is generally quite shallow, and even the addition of numerous playable characters doesn't help to make it more refreshing. The omission of any kind of multiplayer options also seems a bit baffling. However, the game should be commended for having beautiful locations, and a fun, quirky storyline. It's just a shame more wasn't done to develop the other elements.