The developers at IO Interactive - previously known for such mature titles as Hitman, Kane & Lynch, and Freedom Fighters - decided to switch things up this time around and try to create a game that they could play with their children; thus, the story and gameplay in Mini Ninjas is all fairly simple and squeaky clean, with no messy killing involved. More than three hundred years ago, the Evil Samurai Warlord, a master of forbidden Kuji magic, was defeated and an era of peace settled upon the land...but predictably, he's now back and ready to take over the world with his army of cute-little-forest-animals-turned-cute-little-samurai-guys. Thankfully, you get to take control of the last remaining ninjas and battle tyranny in this free-for-all Wii action title. But is this light-hearted ninja action adventure all it's cracked up to be and can it hold its own against some of the more impressive Wii action titles we've seen released recently?
Though the Ninja Master sends protagonists Hiro and Futo out together - and you will eventually be able to switch between all the other ninjas as you rescue them - this game is an entirely solo experience. Hiro, the most well-rounded ninja in your little group, is the main character. He can defeat almost any enemy with his sword as well as with the Kuji magic he'll find at hidden shrines scattered throughout the levels; with his magic, he can cast fireballs, possess animals, slow time, and a whole host of other interesting feats. He's also the only ninja available for use during the boss fights.
The other ninjas, though unable to use Kuji magic like Hiro, each have their own special abilities. Futo is large enough to take on really big enemies with his mallet; Kunoichi uses a naginata (a type of spear) and has a spinning power-attack; Shun is an archer with a power attack that involves an explosive arrow; Suzume wields a flute like a club of some sort, but has the ability to charm and stun enemies with her music and Tora is the swiftest of them all with his long, sharp claw weapons, his power attack being a quick dash across the area that ends in a flying pounce onto the enemy. The differences between each character, their fighting style, and their chosen weapons really make this game fun, and the levels are so open-ended that you can play however you like. Want to have Hiro just blast enemies with magic? Or would you rather have Shun pick off everyone from a distance with his arrows? No matter what methods you choose, there's almost always a character to oblige.
Of course what ninja game would be complete without the use of stealth? You can sneak around in bushes, tall grass, or on top of buildings with the button, and if you come upon an enemy, with one downward swing of the Wiimote you'll have it poofed back into a bunny, or a frog, or a raccoon, or whatever it really was. You may also decide to take advantage of the ninja paraphernalia at your disposal to get through each level, including shuriken, caltrops, and various bombs which, along with recipes to craft various potions from plants you collect along the way, are available for purchase from some of the helpful Tengu bird-people at temples. There's no one 'right' way to get through a level, and figuring out new strategies quickly becomes the most enjoyable part of the game...well, aside from the whole 'possessing animals and small samurai' thing, which, surprisingly enough, never really gets old.
That said, with Hiro being such a well-rounded character (and especially with him as the only magic-user in the group), the only other ninjas you may ever have to rely on to get through the trickiest parts of the game are Shun (for long-distance enemies if you're low on health), Futo (for really big enemies), and Tora (for super-fast enemies). It is possible that you may not have to use Kunoichi and Suzume at all to get through the game, though they do have their own aforementioned advantages. It would have been much better had all the available ninjas had the ability to use some magic, at least... it's a shame that you have to constantly revert to using Hiro, as there will be times you'll get all the way to the end of a level with him and realize that you completely forgot to switch back to the other ninja you had meant to play the level with. Oops.
But enough about the good guys. The Evil Samurai Warlord's army is mainly comprised of cute little samurai that poof back into their benign animal forms (as well as drop experience spheres and Ki refills) upon being defeated. With their high-pitched cries of 'Ni-ni-ni-ni-ninja!' as you approach, you may hear them coming long before you'll ever actually see them. It can be a real pain when you're trying to save at a checkpoint altar - no matter how far away they are or how safe you are from them at the time, if you can hear enemy yelling, you will not be able to save at the checkpoint until they have been defeated or otherwise evaded. They make the same noises every time you come across them, too, which is cute at first, but may annoy you by the time you reach the latter levels of the game, as you'll have fought groups of them over and over...and over, and over, and over again. The battles are repetitive and fairly easy, even with the super-large samurai and the magic-using samurai you may face in later levels, though on Hard you'll want to consider your strategy somewhat carefully, especially if you're low on healing items and there's no trees or bushes around to shake down for healing fruit.
The game is controlled via the Nunchuk and Wiimote, and coming from other action/adventure games with the same controller setup (think Twilight Princess, Okami, or Lego Star Wars), one thing in particular takes some getting used to - the basic attack. Instead of waggling the Wii Remote to attack normally, here the button performs your basic attack. If you're already well-used to waggling, there will be times you'll find yourself frantically shaking the Wiimote and wondering why nothing is happening. Also, again unlike those games, keeping the Wiimote pointed at the screen at all times is a near-necessity. Certain Kuji spells require aiming at target enemies within a limited amount of time, and if the Wiimote is not aimed at the screen when you press the button to fire it off, the camera will suddenly go off in a random direction and you'll end up missing your shot entirely.
Though there is no map screen available in this game, you do have the option to meditate with the + button, which will tell you what you need to do and which way to go next to progress through the level (though it will not tell you how to do it, leaving your options wide open). Meditating will also regenerate your Ki at a faster rate than normal. Ki is used for sprinting with , as well as for powering Hiro's magic abilities. The boss battles are easy enough, though confusing at first; the game will offer a vague hint about what to do to defeat the boss if you take too long. Once you're close enough to the boss to begin your attack, the game will begin displaying a sequence of icons above the boss consisting of the and buttons, as well as a shaking Wiimote, each of which you must copy successfully in order to inflict damage to the boss. Three successful attacks, and they're out.
Visually, the game is somewhat stylized and cartoon-like, but that's par for the course for a game aimed at kids. Hiro and the other ninjas travel through a world that begins in a verdant, flower-filled springtime and gradually deteriorates into a bleak, stormy, snow-covered winter before erupting into cracked earth and molten lava. Truly breathtaking landscapes abound, and yet all that wide open space is filled with intricate detail - tree branches and tufts of pine needles waving in a storm as you vault over a courtyard wall, the shadows of fish swimming beneath the surface of the water, individual tiles on tiered pagoda-like rooftops stand out against looming gray storm-clouds as they float heavily across the sky. You can literally get lost in just exploring the world around you (but not really, thanks to the + button).
Repetitive battle-cries aside, the music and sound effects of this game are very natural and, combined with the incredibly detailed settings, make for a superb game environment. You start off in the Ninja Village, where a shakuhachi and koto come together in playful, relaxing harmony as a soft breeze sets every tuft of grass and flowering tree to gently swaying; a level where you attempt to infiltrate an authentic-looking castle during a snowstorm features at intervals a shakuhachi with a wild, breathy quality that matches the sound of the wind and snow swirling all about; and later on, energetic taiko drumming accompanies you as you attempt to outrace an avalanche, passing startled samurai enemies as you go weaving your way through the trees in your hat. Most levels will intersperse phrases of music amongst the sounds of nature happening around you as you progress - flowing water, birds singing in the distance, thunder and lightning, or other sounds depending on the area. Every time you come under attack, the background music is superseded by an inexorable drumbeat that does not fade until the danger has passed, and yet, at no time does any of the added music or sound effects feel as if they don't fit into the game. Even the voices of the Tengu, the Ninja Master, and the Evil Samurai Warlord all have an accent to match the Japanese-inspired theme. All in all the audio performance is about as varied and thorough as you could expect from a ninja-themed outing.
There is a world of incredible detail to be discovered in this game. The music and sound effects are top-notch, the developers really did their homework in terms of creating a series of lush, deceptively simple-looking settings to explore, no two ninjas are exactly the same (the way they move, the way they fight, each are distinct from one another) and in nearly every level you're absolutely free to simply explore to your heart's content.
The graphics are truly adorable, and the game is genuinely amusing. That said, the story is short, sweet, and straight-forward, and there's not much in the way of outright encouragement for you to use every single ninja at your disposal, nor are you really encouraged to go out of your way to beat the game at its hardest difficulty level. There's also not much in the way of replay value in this version of the game, unless you fall in love with some of the levels and decide to have another go once you've already beaten them.
Mini Ninjas is obviously a game that was created with children in mind, and in the 'good, clean, wholesome fun' department, it truly excels. Of course adults used to more meat on the bone in their action titles might find it a bit lacking.