Mini Ninjas Adventures is a Kinect-exclusive spin-off of IO Interactive's 2009 foray into family-friendly action gaming. The original game was favorably received, allowing IO a chance to step away from its dark and brutal reputation as the developer of Hitman to modest success. Though IO has now returned to their bread-and-butter series, the Mini Ninjas license has survived at the behest of Square-Enix, and now, with the help of developer Sidekick Ltd., Mini Ninjas maintains its status as a series emblematic of pleasant surprises.
In Adventures, players are cast as Hiro, the youngest and “mini-est” of the titular Ninjas. His journey to free the less-miniature of his cohorts from villainous samurai is told through simple Sumi-style painted cutscenes. At the outset, the game is as simple and bland as one might fear from a Kinect-only title, but it deftly introduces players to its many mechanics in a smooth and consistently engaging difficulty curve.
Standing in front of the Kinect, players step from side-to-side to shift Hiro into one of five different “lanes.” Enemies then hop in from the edges of the screen and run at Hiro from one of the lanes. By shifting Hiro to target the enemy directly in front of him, players can then fight off their assailant with a swing of their right hand, representing his sword. The game then instructs players to switch between sword, bow, or throwing stars with a number of simple, broad gestures. Hiro can also kick enemies to stun them, knock them back, or take out their shields. Blocking is then introduced, as is a magic system, and a shout that allows players to call in Hiro's ninja partners for a screen-clearing beat down.
In the midst of these new abilities, Mini Ninjas constantly introduces new obstacles and enemy types against which to use them. What is initially a very simple, “figure out who to stand in front of and swipe” gameplay-loop turns into a frantic symphony of dodging, blocking, weapon switching, magic casting, and structured tactical thought. It's a surprisingly deep gameplay experience that unfolds over the course of the game's 20 or so levels.
Mini Ninjas Adventures doesn't look much more impressive than an average iPad game, but the bright cel-shaded look does its job of providing easy visual cues. It's not taxing the 360 at all, but the art-style keeps gameplay clear and focused, and kids should take to it in no time.
As with any Kinect game, the device itself is the title's biggest obstacle. Though in many cases Adventures feels as if it's “Kinect-proofed” its mechanics, through the use of broad gestures and generously timed enemy attacks, there are some chinks in the armor. Specifically, the sword-slicing can be problematic. As the one mechanic that requires speed, slicing often isn't picked up by Kinect's lackadaisical sensors, and players can end up whiffing their attacks in important moments. It's exactly the kind of problem that Kinect excels at, and may turn people off sooner than the game might deserve.
Also, while the overall game is quite short- a full runthrough of one of its three zones shouldn't take more than 45 minutes -it's not advisable to play for longer than half an hour. By the end of each session, players' right arms will feel as if they've just pitched a game in the majors.
Despite its Kinect-oriented problems, Mini Ninjas Adventures' sensibly organized gesture controls and ever escalating mechanics and complexity should compel players to return as soon as the lactic acid dissipates. Meanwhile, the cel-shaded visuals and lighthearted storytelling make it an easy recommendation for children, especially those still enamored with motion controls. Parents, of course, will remain more discerning, but you could do far worse with Kinect right now.