Mini Ninjas DS Review
Like aliens, commandos and renegade cops, ninjas are some of the most overused video game characters around. Because of that, a game company has to be either really brave or really foolish to attempt to develop a game around such a shop-worn cliché. As evidenced by their new DS action/platformer Mini Ninjas, IO Interactive (makers of Kane and Lynch and several of the Hitman titles) and Magic Pockets (makers of mediocre movie-based games) considered themselves up to the challenge. Their ambition is admirable but the result of it is a sometimes amusing but incoherent action/adventure/RPG/platformer that never really gels.
When Mini Ninjas begins, the once-peaceful world is in turmoil due to the return of a once-banished (and very yoda-like) Evil Samurai Warlord. After three centuries of exile, this Warlord has returned and is bent on taking over the world using dangerous “Kuji” magic. What do you do when life as you know it is threatened by an army of innocent woodland creatures being turned into mindless samurai automatons? Well if you’re a Ninja Master, you send your best ninjas out to stop this madness. And if you’re a Ninja Master who’s already lost all his best agents, you send out whatever you have left, even if it’s an inexperienced runt and a hammer-wielding fat guy.
After an expertly done intro cutscene showing the world being ravaged by floods and earthquakes, you gain control of half-pint warrior Hiro. Your Ninja Master teaches you to move, fight and collect things and once you've met up with lumbering plus-sized ninja Futo, you set out to stop the Evil Warlord. There are three playable characters in the DS version of Mini Ninjas: Hiro, an expert in swordsmanship, ranged weaponry and Kuji magic, Futo, a powerful hammer master, and Suzume, a female ninja you meet down the road who specializes in stealth.
During your quest to defeat the Evil Warlord, you spend most of your time exploring the environment, collecting plants and fighting waves of mini samurai enemies armed with swords, pikes and bows. Combat is very simple and consists mainly of single button melee and (with Hiro and Suzume) ranged attacks using bombs and shuriken. Through combat you gain XP and colored feathers which when placed on spirit altars, grant you powerful spells that make armed confrontation a lot easier. Once earned, these spells can unleash a devastating tornado or fireball, send up a defensive shield, possess small animals or exorcise pesky ghosts. Spells aren't your only useful ninja extras--you can also use your nifty ninja cloak to avoid freezing or turn your bowl-shaped ninja hat upside down and go rafting in it.
Navigating the environment simultaneously represents some of the most fun and the most annoying aspects of the game. While it’s really fun paddling down a fast-moving river in your ninja hat, it’s not fun trying twenty times to find that sweet spot on a ledge that lets you pull yourself up. And while it’s really fun dodging spinning blades by doing a crazy wall run, it’s not fun wasting time struggling with the wonky movement controls in order to angle the camera right. You guys pickin' up what I’m puttin' down?
Anyway, there’s just enough fun in the game to keep you from getting totally fed up with the tedious bits, and much of that is due to the quirky boss battles and Plane of Spirits puzzle games. Before facing the Evil Warlord, you’ll encounter the lords of earth, fire, wind and water. The funniest of these is “Windy Pants”, a samurai whose main weapon is his poisonous green flatulence. A gold star goes to the design team here for their sense of humor and imaginative use of the DS mic. In between stunning Windy Pants with shuriken and wailing on him when he’s on the ground, you have to blow madly into the mic in order to waft the deadly gases away from you. In addition to amusing boss battles, the most engaging part of the game is overcoming real world obstacles by entering the Plane of Spirits through meditation. When in the Plane of Spirits you’ll solve puzzles using the stylus to paint, cut and manipulate what look like traditional Japanese scroll paintings illustrating your current obstacle. When the puzzle is solved, the obstacle disappears, allowing you to continue on your quest. Occasionally, you’ll also do battle with elementals within the Plane of Spirits by using the same techniques.
There are a couple of other noticeably good things about Mini Ninjas that do a lot to support the fun. First, keeping on track isn't too tough with a map that not only keeps you oriented, but reminds you of your objective. Dying isn’t that big of a deal, either, since you respawn more or less right where you bought the farm. The thing is, that’s where the list of fun-supporting elements ends. Sadly, the list of fun-reducing elements is quite a bit longer. For one thing, objectives may be clear but figuring out how to achieve them can be something of a chore. Without enough graphic and environmental feedback, you’ll find (especially during boss battles) that the name of the game becomes “trial by dying”. Then there are the clumsy camera and controls which make simple actions like walking across ceiling beams become teeth-gritting trials.
Related to these is the frustrating targeting system which prevents you from ever really controlling where your ranged weapons go. The most heinous example of this occurs during the final boss battle which requires split-second timing. The fight is designed so that you need to use shuriken to destroy the boss’s shield from a distance but every time you aim at it, your shuriken fly wild of the shield and hit whatever other enemies happen to appear on screen. Unrelated to the controls but just as problematic is the “meh” multi-player which consists of two uninspiring modes--Death Match and Time Attack--and the fact that although you have two playable characters in addition to Hiro, you never need them. Futo’s slowness and inability to use ranged weapons makes using him almost pointless and the combat XP/leveling system makes using Suzume’s stealthiness completely pointless.
While there’s some fun to be had within Mini Ninjas, it’s limited by a case of what appears to be a serious case of “genre confusion.” While this ambitious action/adventure/RPG/platformer contains things that reference a wide range of game types, it never fully delivers on any of them. The result is an uneven hodge-podge where the ninja concept isn't particularly fresh and where the good bits are undermined by the game’s undeniable issues in the areas of feedback, controls and targeting. Sorry Mini Ninjas. You just don't make the cut.