Mini Ninjas Review: Hitman: Lunch MoneyS

Strange one, this. Mini Ninjas is, at first glance, clearly aimed at children. Or at least children at heart. Big-eyed characters, cute design. But it was also made by the same guys who did Hitman.

Mini Ninjas is a game that sees you start off as a young ninja, sent out into the world to stop an evil samurai. As you progress on your travels, you'll meet new friends, learn new skills, explore large areas and do a lot of fighting. All controlling an ever-expanding gang of cute, big-eyed ninjas.

And yet, it's by the same guys who did Hitman. So is there some substance, some menace beneath the fluff? Or is this just Fisher Price: My First Legend of Zelda?

Loved
Design – Mini Ninja's visual design is clean, pure, charming and incredibly effective. Adorable, even. I wish more games realised that it's better to have a fully-realised, simple aesthetic than get bogged down shooting for something more elaborate.

Okami Jr. – It's not Fisher Price: My First Legend of Zelda. There are no dungeons and no puzzles. Instead, it's Pixar Presents: Okami. Except, in many ways, better. The levels are often smaller than Clover's masterpiece, but not an inch is wasted, enemies are easily distinguished and varied, and there's no unskippable dialogue sequences. It rarely feels linear, or cramped, it just feels tight, focused.

E for Everyone – Don't write this off as a kids game. Like the best cartoons, it appears superficially to young ones, but has a greater depth to it that adults can appreciate, like tongue-in-cheek humour, hidden areas on every map and some surprisingly tough combat sequences that feel more Ninja Gaiden than Mini Ninja.

Hitman: Lunch Money – IO are the guys behind Hitman, and Agent 47's influence can be seen skulking under the hood of Mini Ninjas. There's a strong stealth mechanic throughout the game based on crouching and hiding in long grass or bushes, which makes every confrontation a choice between fight or fright and every level – especially the large, "urban" castle stages - a tip-toer's playground.

Tricks – One of the delights of playing Mini Ninjas is in the little things, the little touches that add colour and variety to the gameplay. Like your big hat, which when under fire can be used to shield you from arrows, but also doubles as, of all things, a boat and a ski sled during some "vehicle" sections. Or your magic powers, some of which are obvious – like firestorms – but others quirky little delights, like allowing you to possess cute little animals and, disguised, sneak past guards.

Short Film Festival – During the game, story sequences and cutscenes are kept to a minimum. But as you unlock new ninjas to control, you in turn unlock a short animated vignette of that ninja's first day at ninja school (here's an example). It's a shame these are buried within an extras menu on the game's start screen, because the quality of both the animation and humour really blew me away.

Hated
Mini Game – I blew through mini ninjas, finishing it in just under two days. That's partly because the game is so tight, with no real "down" time, but mostly because it's, well, short. It's such a joy to play through that it's a shame there's not more to it.

A little more conversation, a little less action – one area it differs from Okami and co. is in a lack of NPCs and things to do other than fighting. There are a few people scattered around, and they offer sidequests to boot, but they're one –dimensional and rare. For most of the game, you're just exploring and fighting. I would have liked a little more depth to the world, make it more worth your while to go off the beaten path and explore the game's many hidden areas.

Mini Ninjas is one of the most pleasantly surprising games I've played in a long time. Hitting the market with little fanfare, I threw it on expecting a quick blast through a children's action game, and ended up loving every second of one the most polished, charming action/adventure games I've played in a long, long time.

Mini Ninjas was developed by IO Interactive, and published by Warner Bros/Eidos for the 360, PS3, Wii, DS and PC (version played). Retails for $30 on DS & PC, $40 on Wii, $50 on 360 & PS3. Played game to completion on all three difficulties.

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