A spoonful of cel-shading helps the mediocrity go down.
I’m a sucker for cel-shaded graphics. Make a game 2D and brightly colored enough, and I’m liable to run to the nearest chapel and declare my undying love long before my friends and family have time to talk some sense into me. Some men go for blonde hair or long legs. I go for black outlines and non-photorealistic lighting tech.
[image1]It’s little wonder, then, that I immediately fell in love with Mini Ninjas. Right off the bat, the game looks beautiful, the character designs are enthralling, the voice acting is top-notch, and the music is mesmerizing. How could this game go wrong? The answer is simple: lost opportunity after lost opportunity.
Mini Ninjas is best described as a cross between the visual style of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and the melee combat of Ninja Gaiden Black. Just imagining that mash-up is enough to get most of us chomping at the bit to give it a go. And for the first half hour or so, it feels like a mix of the best of both of those games. But as Mini Ninjas progresses, that initial promise falls to pieces.
The story is predictably simple: An evil samurai warlord has transformed all the local critters into his evil samurai servants. Ninjas from a secret village have been sent one by one to defeat the evil warlord. None have returned. The last remaining ninjas are sent to go rescue the others and defeat the evil warlord. So far, so good.
The game is at its best when it’s at its simplest. The basic swordplay is fast and fun. The enemies are an irresistibly likable blend of Jawas and Marvin the Martian, and taking them on is as enjoyable as it sounds. They have more personality than any of the playable characters, and listening to them shout at you and each other in a high-pitched mock-Japanese chatter is the highlight of the game.
The heart of Mini Ninjas’ problem is that it tries to do too many things and does only a few of them very well. It takes on too much and tries to compensate for half-baked gameplay with its alluring animated sheen. I may be a sucker, but I’m no fool.
[image2]The central mechanic of the game is the rotating cast of ninjas, each with unique skills and weapons. You begin with just two and collect more as the game progresses, selecting whichever ninja you feel like using. The problem here is that most of the characters are useless since only the main ninja can use the game’s many spells. Occasionally, the requisite tank character is useful for taking out large groups quickly, but otherwise you’ll end up using the main character exclusively.
There are also a wide array of spells, recipes, and potion ingredients to collect. Two spells are occasionally useful—one that helps locate shrines and another that lets your spirit possess animals—but the rest are unnecessary. Most of the time, it’s more trouble to constantly switch out your available spell than it’s worth. The recipes and ingredients suffer from the same problem; they’re simply not worth the effort.
The animal-possession spell, however, allows you to spot items more easily. Additionally, if you possess a boar or a bear, you can use them to help fight your foes. Otherwise, all animals are the same regardless of whether you’re a frog, rabbit, crane, or raccoon. Equal treatment might make the ACLU happy, but it doesn’t make for an interesting game. Why can’t birds fly? Why can’t raccoons climb things?
The game also includes a simplistic stealth mechanic. If you sneak up behind your enemies, you can kill them in a single blow. But you’re so easily spotted and combat is so easy anyway, that sneaking around is just a slower way to fight. There’s absolutely no motivation to do anything but go in with swords flying. I was immediately drawn to one of the characters you find who specializes in stealth, and I was determined to use him as much as possible. But I quickly discovered that it was futile to try since he’s usually spotted after firing just one arrow, forcing you to switch back to your melee specialist to dispatch the remaining enemies.
[image3]Hunting down the hidden shrines is a nice diversion from the main story path, but since the only reward for doing so is more useless spells, it didn’t keep my interest after finding the first few. Apart from that, the game is almost entirely linear. Some sections give the sense that an open area is just around the bend, but it never happens. Many doors and paths that you think will open later don’t, and areas that you leave behind can't be returned to.
I had the same reaction to the visuals. Because the first level looks so incredible, I kept expecting to be wowed again, but that payoff also never comes. The same exact forest scene repeats so many times over the course of the game that I started wishing for bulldozers and chainsaws. There are some brief, much-appreciated reprieves from those forest sections—short river sections and a handful of city sections—but overall, the game feels like the same exact level repeated dozens of times.
Enemy types also repeat endlessly. A few new enemies are introduced as the game progresses, but some never return more than one or two times. Mostly it feels like you’re fighting the same exact enemy types from beginning to end. Boss fights attempt to lend some variety, but the designs and strategies for those encounters are lacking real weight and are all based on repetitious quick-time events.
IO Interactive deserves credit for going in such a different direction from their usual shooter fare. Alas, the result is a beautiful game without a soul. Like a piece of gum, everything great about Mini Ninjas can be experienced in the first few minutes. After that, its sweetness is just a quickly fading memory.