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Titles based on all-new properties are always an intriguing proposition, except when it involves a multiplatform release that includes DS. The problem is that DS invariably seems to get the short end of the stick, whether it is the botched DS version of Mushroom Men, the underwhelming version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, or a DS version of Chicken Shoot that manages to be even more horrible than its Wii counterpart. Eidos's Mini Ninjas, which released to several platforms, seems like a disaster-in-waiting for the Nintendo handheld. The bad news is that the DS version does lack features of its console brethren. The good news is that Mini Ninjas for DS, when taken on its own merits, is still a pretty solid game.
The game is an action-adventure game with the increasingly common "light RPG" elements. The action plays out in a 3D world, with ninjas jumping, running, and slashing through varied environments. Along the way, characters can collect flora to be crafted into potions, secure new weapons such as smoke bombs or darts, and collect other miscellaneous quest and assisting items. Characters grow in two ways: one, through leveling-up by way of experience points; and two, through acquiring new spells and abilities. In a broad nod to Zelda games, health is measured in hearts, which can be increased through leveling up and through acquiring specific potions. The plot is classic -- or derivative, depending on your point of view -- detailing a young ninja's quest to set out and stop a villainous evil.
The game, from the start, exudes a lot of polish for a new property. The graphics are solid for the handheld and strongly resemble the polish shown in Square-Enix's Final Fantasy IV remake. The cutscenes are both clever and well-choreographed and give the game a nice cinematic flair. The music is even better, evoking the same traditional Japanese vibe that gamers experienced in Okami, with some nice ambient music, a few cool boss tracks, and a really catchy meditation theme.
There are three playable characters in Mini Ninjas, down from the six present in the console version. The main character (Hiro) is a balanced swordsman with magic skills, while the other characters are a large bruiser (Futo) and a stealthy speedster (Suzume), respectively. Because the bruiser is pretty slow and the speedster is pretty weak (and because the main character has the most useful abilities), most of the game will be played with the balanced swordsman, with the other two relegated to situational duty. The storyline plays out across six or so chapters and most players will finish the whole package in under ten hours.
Controls in the game are pretty straightforward, and they work adequately. Movement and combat actions are generally effected through the d-pad and buttons, while the touch screen is used to change characters, equip items, and manage the inventory. The camera is reset with the R-trigger, and while the camera can be a little fidgety at times, it is no more so than typical 3D adventure games. The touch screen controls, for their part, work quite well and make most of the game's important management issues, including character changes. The main controls are not quite as good, although the problems are more a reflection of the absence of a control stick than the game itself.
A nice change-up in the game takes place in the system-exclusive "Spirit Plane" levels, which are perhaps easier to experience than to explain. They take place entirely on the touch screen and are set on a parchment. In these mini-levels, players are tasked to move a character through the level by either solving a puzzle or beating a boss. The player is given a range of different options depending on the level, including a knife for cutting paper, wind (effected by blowing through the microphone) and -- in another nod to Okami -- a paintbrush which is used to create objects on screen. These levels are brief but work wonderfully to add another layer to the overall game.
As has become more standard in recent years, Mini Ninjas is a forgiving game, which is not surprising given its broad appeal. Although some of the enemies, especially later on, can be challenging, death results in little more than being deposited nearby with half one's health. More complicated, though, is the item management in the game, and very young players may find crafting of items to be more complex than they bargained for. For better or worse, though, the game's forgiving death penalty makes item management more of a luxury than a necessity.
Overall, there is a good deal to like about Mini Ninjas. It's clever, deep, and offers a nice blend of adventuring and a bit of RPG-ing. At the same time, its relative brevity, minor control haggles, and overly-forgiving death penalty hold it back from being a truly great title; this is the sort of title that will probably fade into obscurity among DS's many titles. Regardless, this is still a solid title and a worthy purchase, especially for those who enjoy a classic ninja story.
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