Indeed, it often feels as if IO deliberately made the combat repetitive and filled each stage with more samurai minions than you'd find hiding in the shadows of a Kill Bill convention to force you to play stealthily. When you do, Mini Ninjas is at its best. Press and hold the left trigger and Hiro and co will crouch, turning invisible when moving through long grass or tight roping from rooftop to rooftop. It's by no means Sam Fisher stuff, but it's good fun trying to work out how to get from the beginning of any given level to the end without killing a single enemy.
As with combat, stealth suffers from feeling unnecessarily fiddly, due in no small part to a clunky menu system and an overly complex control scheme. Every button on the control pad does something different. Take, for example, casting spells. First you need to go into the menu system, highlight the spell or weapon, then assign it a place in the power wheel. Then, out of the menu, you need to press RB to bring up the power wheel and use the right thumb stick to select the appropriate spell. Then you can cast it with the right trigger. Basically, you're jumping through more hoops than the stars of the Chinese State Circus, something the Ben 10 crowd may struggle with.
While the art style is certainly distinctive (not cel shaded or cartooney, but somewhere in between), the environments and enemies are a tad too generic. I know I'm supposed to find the game irresistibly loveable, but it wasn't long before I was sick to death of hearing the enemy samurai's inane high pitched battle cries. With each level (all impressively large and ripe for exploration), IO's taken a minimalistic approach to environment design, but at times the result of this is a feeling of blandness. While some levels are showered by rain, or drenched in moonlight, or have eye-catching fires raging across the horizon, or see you canoeing through impressive-looking rivers in your ninja hat, all too often the world the Mini Ninjas live in is an uninspiring one.
Perhaps Mini Ninjas' biggest problem, however, is its price. It feels more like a XBLA or PSN game than a full price retail release. It's perfectly possible to storm through the story in one sitting, and with no multiplayer features at all (a two-player co-op mode would have gone a long way to justifying its price tag, and put the game in the same 'play it with your kids' bracket as the LEGO titles), the only reason you'll replay Mini Ninjas is to hunt down every single spell and collectible, and hit the level cap.
That said, there is a good deal of fun to be had here, if you play stealthily, and there are plenty of lovely little touches that do make you smile - you'd have to be the grinchiest of grinches not to at some points fall for Mini Ninjas' charm. The cutscenes are lovely, the dialogue and voice over work stereotypical but fitting, and the soundtrack is a wistful traditional Japanese score that rekindles memories of The Karate Kid. Still, Mini Ninjas will do nothing to quell the growing call from core gamers for IO's "next-gen" Hitman game.