When an Evil Samurai Warlord throws the land into turmoil by rounding up innocent animals and transforming them into marauding samurai minions, Ninja Mountain's aging Ninja Master dispatches his most trusted warrior to investigate matters. However, when the heroic ninja fails to report back, the Ninja Master is forced to dispatch another ninja to find the first. Yet when that ninja fails to return, he sends another and another, and another - all of which are never heard from again.
With the Evil Samurai Warlord growing ever stronger within his Fortress of Doom and the ninja ranks near depleted, the desperate Ninja Master is left with no choice but to turn to young ninja trainees and best friends Hiro and Futo, charging them with the deadly quest to not only challenge the Evil Samurai Warlord but also find their lost Mini Ninja brethren.
Given the critical mauling suffered by IO Interactive's explosively violent Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, the swift blemish-erasing creation of another entrant to the studio's acclaimed Hitman series might have been the knee-jerk reaction most in the industry were expecting. However, rather than merely re-treading the well-trodden path of stealth-loving baldy Agent 47, IO instead opted to break new ground by producing the distinctly cuddly Mini Ninjas.
As far removed as it's possible to be from the studio's established relationship with gritty realism, bloody violence, creative assassination and ear-shattering expletives, Mini Ninjas arrives as a colourful videogame adventure crammed with charm and cuteness that's clearly been designed by IO to attract the younger gaming consumer - a hitherto inaccessible sector of the retail demographic for the Copenhagen-based outfit.
But, despite being a glisteningly bright addition to an otherwise dark back catalogue of creation, does Mini Ninjas convincingly blend narrative substance and gameplay depth with its undeniably appealing aesthetics in order to deliver a well rounded experience that merits a standout review score and, perhaps more importantly, a full retail purchase?
Sadly substance and depth are in perilously short supply throughout Mini Ninjas, which is a difficult point of criticism to level at the game given the sense of promise and expectation it creates as Hiro (and the accompanying Futo) depart Ninja Mountain and the game proper opens before the player.
While secondary gameplay encourages open-world exploration in order to rescue Hiro's missing ninja friends, collect useful medicinal ingredients, locate hidden Kuji Magic scrolls, and retrieve sacred Jizo statues, it quickly stumbles at the most fundamental level. Namely, young Hiro and his accompanying squad of interchangeable ninjas (when freed from captivity) all have individual fight styles, and weapons, yet their respective abilities are fixed from the outset, skills cannot be evolved via experience, and attacks are automated as opposed to combo-based.
In a nutshell, and regardless of character selection, the process of battle generally involves pressing the controller's 'Y' button to deliver a basic Block Breaker stun attack that knocks enemies back on their heels. This initial opening barrage then invariably leads to players hammering mindlessly on the 'X' button to unleash all manner of default Primary Attacks before samurai regain their wits. Now, if that sounds unusually simplistic and unrewarding as a core battle mechanic, it's because it is.
The lack of a progressive battle system (which could be learned and mastered as if one were the ninja trainee Hiro is portrayed as) is really rather insulting to the younger gaming crowd IO Interactive is clearly hoping to tempt towards the cash register. It's a mistake to think younger gamers are unable to tackle a degree of challenge and, as a result, Mini Ninjas quickly becomes an embarrassingly easy exercise in rinse-and-repeat action that can only trade on its good looks and charm for a few hours before the tendrils of boredom begin to twist ominously around the game controller.
The only other angle of physical offence offered by the game requires players to collect red Power orbs from defeated foes before pressing and holding the 'Y' button to trade an orb for a hard-hitting Power Attack. These special attacks vary from character to character and are based around their individual ninja weapons. For example, little Hiro is able to take advantage of paused time to remotely target nearby samurai before time kicks in again and he fizzes from one target to the next, returning them to their original animal form with a single sword swipe. Similarly, acrobatic Kunoichi can perform a blurring pirouette with her spear, ranged expert Shun can fire explosive arrows, and agile Suzume charms enemies into a state of vulnerable distraction by playing a lilting tune upon her deadly flute.
Although the addition of special character moves does add a degree of welcome variety to the action, the strength of Power Attacks only serves to further undermine the game's already deficient difficulty level - even when played on Hard. I realise at this point that I'm taking (perhaps unfairly) focused criticism to whole new levels, but it's also worth noting that player advantage is stretched yet further through Hiro's access to Kuji Magic. By offering a flower at various Kuji shrines littered throughout the game, Hiro is gifted with Kuji Magic spells that see him able to spirit-possess animals, hurl fireballs, unleash meteor and lightning strikes and even temporarily stop time. Meanwhile, the supposedly unstoppable samurai hordes have largely ineffectual swords, spears and bows. Seriously, the lack of balance in Mini Ninjas borders on being a gameplay insult to the younger gamers it's aimed at.
Seemingly not content with handing the player overwhelming power, IO has also conveniently forgotten to create even the semblance of challenge through the A.I., which sees weak samurai minions rushing mindlessly to their swift demise at every available opportunity. The A.I. shortfall even extends to boss battles, which are disappointingly easy clashes that not only include totally unnecessary attack hints, but also rob the player of any sense of crowning achievement thanks to shallow quick-time finales.
The true disappointment fuelling this diatribe resides in the fact that, beyond its absolute lack of challenge, evolution and reward, Mini Ninjas has everything else needed to be a thoroughly excellent videogame - regardless of the target demographic. Visually, the game world is stunning insofar as it boasts an endlessly elegant art style that dazzles through vibrant colours, clean designs, and an appealing layout that always promotes a sense of exploration. Character design - be it ninja, samurai or animal - is unfailingly cute, while animation is fluid and well executed, special effects are simple but effective, musical orchestrations are well paced and always fit the game's oriental themes, and the following camera remains reliable and unobtrusive throughout. But such a long list of plus points matters not a jot when the distraction of scrumptious presentation fractures beneath a creeping sense of emptiness that multiplies as the player's arsenal of ninjas and Power Attacks multiplies but enemy resistance remains largely unchanged.
Despite boasting a gorgeous game world, endlessly cute characters, and a standard of presentation most games can only dream of, the shockingly shallow gameplay at the core of Mini Ninjas means it fails to deliver on the pre-release wow factor of its beautiful character trailers. As a full-price purchase Mini Ninjas is hard to recommend to anyone other than those keen to snap up some easy Achievement Points by rushing headlong and unimpeded through its lacklustre adventure - for which a rental would be best advised.