We think it's only fair that we lay our cards on the table before launching into this Ninjatown review; you see we're not really big fans of 'cute'. Sure, we understand the basic appeal behind kittens and babies – with all that stumbling about and the big eyes and whiskers (well not the babies, obviously) – but on the whole we're a bit tired of the excessive twee-ness that's infected the world of interactive entertainment.
None of which bodes well for Ninjatown, which as you'll see from the attached shots is pretty much the very embodiment of cuteness. The game's central protagonists are not, as you'd expect, the cut-throat, killing machines of countless action flicks, but fluffy, rounded, big-eyed characters who wander colourful cartoon landscapes. They do this to indulge in what can only be described as 'moderately sweet' adventures as they bid to protect their 'entirely sweet' currency, the Ninja cookie.
Even the wrongdoers in Ninjatown are cuddly; they're called 'wee-devils' for goodness sake. Yet despite all of primarily coloured, round-edged, big-eyed fluffiness of the whole, we've come to love this game to the point of obsessiveness.
You see, unlike certain other DS games we could mention, Ninjatown doesn't rely on 'cuteness' alone – it's got character, humour and personality in spades, too. Oh, and the fact that all of that is bolted onto an absolutely top-notch, expertly balanced gaming challenge doesn't hurt either.
The mechanics of the game will be instantly familiar to anyone who dallies with online flash gaming, taking its inspiration from the tried-and-tested Tower Defence genre, which challenges you to build a base able to withstand an invading horde. So far, so familiar then, but not only is this the first commercially available execution of the genre on a portable console, it's also one of the best you're likely to see, packed with a host of neat touches and smart variations on the basic theme.
For instance, rather than the usual gun turrets on a battlefield, here your armoury takes the form of Ninja houses place around a town, out of which the cute ickle assassins head forth to soundly batter the invading enemy that stream through the street(s) en route to their goal.
Aside from maintaining the integrity of the Shawnimals universe (from which the characters are borrowed), this change is actually quite crucial, allowing subtlety in strategy as you can set specific patrol points, monitor and upgrade ninjas' abilities and force injured troops to rest so they can heal.
The meat of the strategic challenge comes in deciding what and where to expend your resources (the Ninja cookies mentioned above). Initially you've only got a limited selection of Ninjas to chose from (the standard fast but light Wee Ninja and slow but sturdy Anti-Ninja), but as you progress your recruits increase, offering a wider range of tactical options with projectiles, area attacks and more (our particular favourite are the Business Ninjas who, wired on stress and caffeine, zip about braining the baddies with their mobiles).
At first your resources and choices will be quite restrictive, but as you dispatch enemies and earn more currency in the process you'll find yourself faced with a growing wide range of options to fend off the increasingly tough opposition – should you build more fast ninjas, upgrade existing huts or invest in some secondary buildings that boost your troops stats?
Inevitably you'll get it wrong sometimes as your best-laid plans become over-run, which is where the next neat addition to the tower defence theme comes in as you can take matters into your own hands.
The ability to take direct action, either by utilising either the smart-bomb style tokens (earned from successful completion of a level) or engage the services of the powerful Ol' Ninja to smack, singe, freeze or blow your enemies across the screen adds an even more frantic quality to the level while making good use of the DS's capabilities. Indeed, the game fits perfectly on the format, utilising the dual-screens smartly for overview (top) and detailed action (bottom).
Level-design is equally praise-worthy, with constant variation in the pathway layouts and enemies throughout the 36 single-player campaigns, ensuring the challenge remains fresh and interjecting plenty of neat surprises along the way, from touchscreen-activated canons to the tame Feroshi dragon of the latter screens.
There's replayability, too, in the form of both a neat challenge multiplayer mode (who can clear levels fastest) and the level-grading system that encourages you to drop back to levels to try and secure that elusive 'A'. Heck, even the storyline isn't too bad, in a cutesy kind of way.
In fact the only real criticism that we can offer is that the difficulty is maybe a touch on the easy side and that with generous resources and all the helping hands on offer from tokens, special powers the regular gamer will rarely be excessively stretched (although that said we've still got a fair few 'Cs' and 'Ds' on our report card).
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter whether you're a fan of Shawnimals, cuteness, tower defence games or strategy titles. All you need to know is that Ninjatown ends up being a brilliant, must-have mixture of all of those things.