Ninjas are hard wired into our psyches as visual shorthand for cool. I mean, they hide in the shadows and throw shurikens. Make them mini, though, and wrap them in a Pixar-esque art style, and they become cool AND cute - a dangerous combination. This, effectively, is what IO Interactive, developer of the gritty Hitman games, has done with its latest effort, the 3D adventure Mini Ninjas.
The story is a classic caper the kind of which you see every afternoon on the Cartoon Network. The star is Hiro, a young ninja who has the ultra rare ability to use Kuji magic. It's up to him, and a handful of other similarly young and cute ninjas, to save the world from the Evil Samurai Warlord, a wizened old bloke who spends most of his time sitting cross-legged in his Fortress of Doom shouting at his twisted Samurai army. It won't win any Oscars for storytelling, but it's a perfectly apt yarn.
This is family friendly stuff in the extreme - think huge Samurai bosses who choke you with fart clouds, caged rabbits that can be possessed to sneak past enemies, and absolutely no blood whatsoever. Yes, Hiro uses a sword, the speedy Tora uses Wolverine-like claws, the acrobatic Shun uses a bow and arrow and Kunoichi uses a spear, but you'll never see a drop of the dreaded red stuff no matter how hard you try. When you defeat one of the Evil Samurai Warlord's endless magical goons, they turn back into their original form, usually a fuzzy wuzzy animal. Aww.
The only problem is, Mini Ninjas' undeniable cute factor falls just short of making up for its clear gameplay failings, chief of which is the repetitive combat. It's all too easy to button mash the seemingly endless conveyor belt of similarly styled magical enemy samurai into oblivion. Usually only a slightly different strategy is required when you do come up against an enemy with a special attack. A floating samurai that spawns enemies as it backs away from you, for example, can be stunned by reflecting its magical spell back at it with a basic attack. Spear wielding samurai should be stunned with shuriken before dispatching up close. The most glaring example of the dull combat, however, occurs around about halfway through the game, when you need to kill ghost samurai in a creepy graveyard area. The only way to dispatch the apparitions is to hit them with a sunlight spell. There are loads of them and they pose no threat, just hovering, waiting for you to kill them, one after the other after the other after the other. Nobody was expecting God of War or Ninja Gaiden quality combat, but still, this is too repetitive to let slide.
IO will point to the fact that as you work your way through the campaign you'll eventually rescue and thus make playable a total of six mini ninjas, each with their own unique feel and combat style. That's fine, in theory. But in practice, you never want, or need, to play as anyone but Hiro, who is by a country mile the best character in the game. He's fast, his sword swipes do good damage and he's the only mini ninja who can cast spells - some of which are essential to hunting down the many collectibles, including shrines that train new spells. But, more than anything else, it's his power attack that makes him so indispensable. Press and hold Y and Hiro will leap into the air and slow down time Matrix style, allowing you to queue up enemies to attack with a reticule. Then, when time reverts to normal, Hiro speeds towards his enemies, one-hit killing each in the order selected like a demented bullet. As you level up, this power becomes even more useful: no other mini ninja's power attack can compare.
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.