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Mini Ninjas
Graphics: 7.7
Gameplay: 7.9
Sound: 8.3
Control: 7.5
Replay Value: 7.4
Rating: 7.8

While everyone was calling for Io Interactive to make a new Hitman, the studio was hard at work on Mini Ninjas instead. It won’t appease the Hitman fans because it’s an almost complete departure from the critically acclaimed stealth franchise, but even so, this little production has a good heart and strives to capture yours. The game reminds us a little of last year’s Kung-Fu Panda, in that it’s has both an amusing sense of style and a solid gameplay mechanic to keep the player smiling throughout the appealing adventure. However, there isn’t quite enough involved in this particular production to warrant a purchase, even at the slightly discounted price of $50. It may be good for a laugh and a nice option for a rainy day rent – and it could be very worth it once it drops to a true budget price – but there are just too many gigantic titles coming out that take precedence. That being said, Mini Ninjas has a lot going for it, so don’t pass on it just yet…

The graphics aren’t anything special, but they’re clean and charming; in short, they fit the atmosphere Io provided, and it remains consistently alluring. The animations are fast, fluid and even beautiful in some situations, and although there isn’t a vast amount of intricate detail, we don’t really need it. The color palette is rich and vibrant and while too many of the landscapes look the same (a whole lot of cutting and pasting going on), that doesn’t mean they’re not professionally implemented. We don’t have to worry about major hitches and glitches, and for the most part, anybody who opts to step into Hiro’s surprisingly capable ninja shoes will be satisfied with the visual presentation. The design of the main characters, allies, NPCs and enemies is also good, but again, lacking a little in the way of inspired imagination. We’ve seen similar things before so we’re not about to claim that Mini Ninjas excels in the area of graphics. Even so, perhaps the best word to describe these visuals is, “pleasant.”

The sound is a little better, as the voice acting is decent and the sound effects are really top-notch. There are plenty of humorous high-pitched yelps and grunts during combat (after all, many of your foes can be considered “mini,” too), and the dull thud of an arrow smacking into your protective ninja helmet gives an added dash of flair to the game. The soundtrack isn’t quite as impressive as we’re typically treated to a subtle and somewhat repetitive music assortment that only kicks in when we’re facing a particularly tricky foe. One of these days, we’re going to get a nice simple action game that blends invigorating music tracks with sharp, accurate effects, thereby giving us a completely well-rounded audio experience. Mini Ninjas has the effects down pat – even wandering around and picking up items is pleasing to the ear – but while the soundtrack isn’t bad, it’s not prominent enough. Beyond this, there isn’t much else to say besides the fact that you won’t have many complaints.

The action in this game is fairly straightforward: move about with the left analog stick, control the camera with the right analog, jump with X, attack with Square, sprint with Circle, and Triangle does double duty by being the attack that lets you break through an opponent’s guard, and also – if you hold it down – enables the character’s special power ability. The R1 and L1 buttons are used to manage your inventory and your available allies respectively, L2 lets you sneak and block, and R2 uses the secondary skill – shurikens, Kuji spells, etc. – you have equipped. All of this works relatively well, although we weren’t the biggest fan of the aiming mechanic attached to the shurikens. For one, we can’t move when we’re aiming and for another thing, it simply doesn’t seem to be effective enough. But besides that minor complaint, battles zip right along with a speedy fluidity, and you always feel as if you’re in full control. Learning new skills and abilities only adds to the fun, of course, although the balance between each of your allies seems a little off.

As you progress, you will gain new ninja friends to assist you, and although they won’t all fight together ala Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, you can bring them into the action whenever you wish. Certain characters are better for dealing with certain enemies, and you will quickly learn this as you move along and experiment with new allies like Futo, the big hammer-wielding guy. He’s slow but he packs a pretty big punch. Later characters offer different ways to play; they’re fast and agile, or they have a special ability that’s just plain entertaining to perform. However, a few of these friends didn’t prove quite as useful as others, and Hiro himself was usually preferable throughout the majority of the adventure. Also, because many of the enemies behave in much the same manner, you only switched off when you were faced with a foe that does something entirely new…and that wasn’t often. Still, we can’t deny that it’s good to have all these character options for combat.

Perhaps it’s the magic that sets Mini Ninjas apart from the rest of the third-person action crowd (besides its cutesy exterior). You can do all kinds of stuff, from tossing fireballs to possessing little animals. Yes, you heard that correctly: see, animals play a large role in this game, as the evil Samurai Warlord has been using forbidden Kuji magic to transform previously cute and cuddly creatures into mindless warrior drones. Defeating these guys will release the animal within and furthermore, if you wish to take them by surprise, you can send your spirit into one of these animals (or any creature wandering about). In this way, you can sneak up on an enemy disguised as a chicken or rabbit, but bear in mind that your health is at a bare minimum so if you’re spotted, you had best pop up and deal with the trouble. There are other little gameplay features, too: using Hiro’s Ninja Hat – he’ll get other hats, by the way – as a rowboat and collecting ingredients during your rounds are only a few examples.

You will be rewarded for your exploring, even though the game is mostly linear. And if you missed out on a lot of the items to be found in any given level, you’re given the option to go back and find them before completing the area. And as all good games should, both the challenge and entertainment factor increases as time goes on. The only problem is that the camera isn’t always perfect, and too much of the combat – perhaps due to the blinding speed – comes down to just mashing buttons, which is a drawback in our eyes. It’s actually a little strange: the developers do what they can to provide the gamer with an appropriately deep combat system, and on the surface, it appears there’s always plenty to do. But after playing for several hours, you’ll start to realize that much of the experience starts to feel the same from one level to the next. Gaining new allies and skills certainly helps, and there is a decent amount of diversity in terms of changing environments (though still lacking in detail), but…well, you’ll get the gist real fast; let’s just leave it at that.

This is one of those productions where there isn’t anything glaringly bad and there’s a healthy gameplay mechanic at its core. It’s pretty well solid the entire way through, from the technicals to the artistry to the control, but we’re missing that extra “oomph;” something that rises above it all and says, “buy me; I need to be played!” We’re not saying you’d be disappointed with a Mini Ninjas purchase because it’s almost impossible to find crippling shortcomings and the game really is fun, but sadly, the competition that looms around the corner may have a negative impact on sales. If this title had released in July or something, we might’ve just said; “eh, there’s really nothing else out, and there won’t be a for a while. It’s entertaining enough and devoid of major problems.” But it’s tough to say that now…unless of course you’re just really drawn to the attitude and style inherent in Mini Ninjas. And if that’s the case, go for it. We’re relatively certain you’ll be satisfied. Just don’t expect anything too spectacular.

9/10/2009   Ben Dutka