Mini Ninjas is a cheerful and colourful fighting/platform game by IO Interactive, developers of the Hitman franchise. Not immediately the most obvious source for a child-friendly game where no one dies, an evil emperor has to be stopped from subjugating all the animals in the realm, and the protagonist is a 10-year-old (or thereabouts) mini ninja.
But it looked interesting and a demo was released a while ago, so I gave it a whirl. And as it happens, I think this game could be enjoyable for more than just the young ones…
The demo starts out in what appears to be an early tutorial level. You’re a young ninja named Hiro and your master has just given you a mission to stop the samurai from subjugating the local animals. You also have to investigate the castle that these animals are being taken to, for some hints as to why might be behind this.
Along with you for the ride are Futo and Suzume, two fellow ninjas. Futo is a big guy with a hammer, who is slow and can’t use magic, but is also very strong. Suzume is a girl ninja, has a flute and can force enemies to dance with her special attack.
At its core, Mini Ninjas plays like an action game with platform elements. There are some RPG-elements like levels, skills and items thrown in as well. This makes for uniquely enjoyable gameplay as you hammer, slash and dive your way through enemy samurai.
Each defeated enemy drops boosts, from experience nuggets to red special boosters, which allow your characters to do special moves. Hiro can throw himself into the air for a multi-attack, where you can select the targets to hit. Futo has a hammering ball special attack, and Suzume can make samurai dance against their will for some easy kills.
In the demo the world is very linear, which I doubt will change for the full version. Some alternate paths are presented, but these are just as linear as the regular path, and generally lead to save points or shrines where you can gain new skills. These skills range from transforming into animals, to lightning storm, which damages enemies in an area.
Apart from the usual combat elements, IO Interactive has also added some nice variation in between. You can hop on your hat to use it as a boat in water, and go racing down rapids. And there’s even a fishing game included, which can net you some healing sushi.
As you defeat samurai, free animals from bamboo cages, and crush wooden crates; you’ll uncover a number of items. Some are offensive items such as shuriken, which deal nice area-of-effect damage. Others are healing potions or experience nuggets. You’ll also be able to gain healing items from fishing and pushing against trees or bushes with fruit in them.
It all feels like it’s had some very solid finishing touches. The gameplay is extraordinarily simple, but it’s fun to just hack around and smash through dozens of samurai at once, and the special attacks and skills are genuinely spectacular. I especially liked Hiro’s special move, sneaking past squads of samurai in tall grass, and taking over a boar to charge some nearby samurai.
The problem is that this demo lasts all of 15 minutes, which is not very long. It’s been quite varied thus far, but how will it be in a full retail game that lasts much longer? Certainly it will add 3x as many spells, 3 further characters, some extra bosses and some more gameplay elements, but will it be enough to keep such a simple game interesting?
Another sour point was the difficulty level. Playing at normal there was simply no challenge at all to any of the fights, you can button-mash to your hearts content and win every battle, except the boss battle towards the end. Hopefully the difficulty will be slightly bumped up for the final version.
The preview trailer at the end does look to alleviate some of those concerns. The environments seem more open, characters can be seen walking across roofs, racing in hat-boats, sneaking through enemy territory, etc. A number of additional samurai opponents, mostly bosses, are shown as well. Hopefully this means the game will stay interesting through to the end, in spite of it’s simple button-mashing nature.
The first thing you’ll notice when entering the game is the absence of a HUD. A few icons sporadically appear during the game, but otherwise most of the screen is void of interface elements.
This minimal interface combines with the ludicrously simple controls to make a game that is very easy to pick up and play. But it also makes inventory management a little tedious (you have to go through menus to select a different skill or item to be used) and bogs down the gameplay whenever you wish to use something else.
I think this will result in a game where you really don’t want to change around items or skills very frequently. That doesn’t help the variety so much, especially when a lot of these optional skills and items are really interesting. They’re just too annoying to switch between with the current control scheme and interface.
The Outer Shell
Mini Ninjas plays well and has a very cute cell-shaded look, but it’s definitely not a looker. The environments look a little bland, apart from the occasional waterfall or building, and the engine just doesn’t seem up to today’s standards.
That being said, the art style definitely suits the game and many of the special effects are nicely done. Watching samurai go poof and turn into enemies is a joy in itself. Destroying little watchtowers makes them collapse nicely and the characters are well-animated.
Overall, the Mini Ninjas demo left a favourable impression. If it can stay varied enough and if hard mode proves to be challenging enough, then the final version may just be a nice small game to pass the time when it releases next month.
And with most major titles postponed to next year, we can certainly use a few more good games to pass the time in the coming months.
Grab the demo yourself over here, or on Steam.