So, you've undoubtely heard this game's name somewhere in the past couple weeks and you've probably noticed its lower than normal-for-next-gen price point at $49.99. That low price point is usually a red flag when speaking about the quality of a game, but, there are always exceptions to the rule. Let me introduce you to one of these exceptions...
My initial draw to this game was the cute characters and that, like the traditional Sonic the Hedgehog, the enemies were actually captured and transformed animals that returned to their natural state upon administering some damage. The cute lil' foxies and bunnies! Awhhhh. Yea. I got suckered in by that. The story is actually pretty neat, however. An evil samurai lord has taken control of castles in this ninja world and is capturing helpless animals to turn them into mindless samurai evildoers, thus offsetting the balance of nature. All the ninjas that have been sent to investigate have vanished, and you are the last ninja left. So, your ninja master sets you out to restore the balance and find out what happened to your ninja compadres.
So, I started playing it expecting a shallow kid's game of just hack'n'slashin away at evil samurais. The beginning tutorial dragged on for a bit longer than I wanted it to, with a bit of some "run up here to talk to this guy," then "go here and find this guy," and then "go back to this dude," but I am glad I champed through it. The game revealed itself to be for a much bigger audience than children.
The action plays just like God of War. What? Did I read that right? Yes, you did. God of War. If you love God of War and need a game to hold you over until the double remastered pack comes out in November, or even waiting for God of War III in March, pick this game up now! The action is just like God of War and the boss fights utilize the same gameplay mechanic, so it is a treat to play, even though the graphics leave a bit to be desired. It looks like a well-made PS2 title and the environments are rather bland - textures are often just two or three different shades of a color.
Mini Ninjas utilizes magic spells - dubbed Kuji Magic in the game - to help you complete various objectives, but mostly just to save the precious forest animals or to take control of them using "Spirit Form." (And yes, Kuji is a real thing - read about it here if you are curious. And yes, I googled it because I was curious!) An old ninja master hid various scrolls that contained more spells throughout the world, so as you play you will run across Kuji Shrines where you can unlock new spells. You are given a "Detect Kuji Shrine" spell to help you locate these and casting this spell will summon three, for a lack of a better description, bird spirits who will fly to the nearest shrine, if there is one. Also, to activate the shrines, you have to donate an Anemone flower which you can always find hidden near the Kuji Shrines.
When you take control of an animal - whether it's a boar, bear, rabbit, fox - your life meter goes to one heart so you can die rather easily. However, as an animal, the enemies will not detect you and you will be able to "sense" collectibles in the surrounding area, which makes it easier to find and 100% the level. Each level tracks how many Kuji Shrines there are, coins, Jizo Statues, caged animals you free, and plants you find, and by becoming an animal, each item in the world will start emitting smoke so you can spot them easily.
You can use the coins you find to buy weapons and recipes from temples that are scattered along your path. Weapons range from smoke bombs to caltrops that stop advancing enemies. The flowers you pick up as you go can be used to make healing potions, Ki potions (Ki is the energy your magic uses), and various other goodies - but you need to unlock the recipes for them before you can use them.
You will find your missing ninja friends on your journey and these ninja followers are usable by you. In essence, it works as if just equipping a different weapon. Only one ninja can be selected at a time (and only Hiro, the main ninja, can use Kuji Magic) and each ninja has a different weapon and a different special attack and it is possible to change out ninjas in the middle of a fight. They share each other's health, however, so if you have Futo selected and you get killed, you will restart the level or from your last checkpoint.
To add more depth to the game, as you go along killing evil samurais, you will gain experience points and eventually level up, adding more health bars, more Ki energy, speed, etc.
There is definitely more to this game than you'd expect looking at the cover - and it will definitely give core gamers such as yourselves an enjoyable run through. I would not mind seeing a Mini Ninjas 2 in the future where they hired actual artists and gave the game a much needed graphical overhaul, but as far as gameplay goes, this game gets everything right.