Developer: GungHo Online Entertainment
Release Date: June 24, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment
Genre: Action, Multiplayer
Long-lasting “Games as a Service” don’t seem to be going anywhere. Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2 have kept their player base around for years through free and paid DLC. The newest game trying to take a piece of this pie is Ninjala, a Switch exclusive about ninjas fighting with gum.
Ninjala first caught my attention due to how similar it looked to Splatoon. I’m not normally a fan of multiplayer-focused experiences, but Splatoon’s J-Pop inspired world, and uniquely addicting gameplay made me a fan. Still, there are few things about Ninjala that make it unique, which was enough for me to jump in on day one.
Let’s get this straight out of the way: Ninjala isn’t perfect. There is a lot of room for growth, but these are the growing pains all free-to-play titles go through. The folks at GungHo Online clearly intend to keep Ninjala around for years to come, and it only takes one look at the current state of Fortnite to see that this is totally possible with the right support. This review reflects only the state of the game around a week after launch, so most of my issues will hopefully be addressed over time.
Ninjala is a free-to-play game that doesn’t waste too much time getting you into the action. Outside of a short opening cutscene and a video tutorial, there isn’t much else stopping you from immediately jumping into an online match.
Players can choose between eight playable ninjas: Berecca, Burton, Emma, Jane, Kappei, Lucy, Ron, and Van. Each of these young ninjas can be fully customized with a substantial amount of cosmetic items. However, most of these items happen to locked behind the premium in-game currency. I spent the bulk of my time playing as Lucy because she’s easily the cutest, and I’m willing to defend that (Ninjala waifu wars, anyone?).
Matches are split between two modes: battle royale and team battles. Both are primarily played the same way, with battle royale being an eight-player free-for-all and team battles being 4 vs. 4.
Sadly, there’s a slight learning curve during early matches, given that Ninjala does a pretty bad job of explaining how to play. As I mentioned earlier, the only instructions that players receive are in the form of a short video. Still, there is a training mode that allows players to mess around with controls, but I learned almost entirely in online matches through trial by fire.
Characters use the power of gum-based ninjutsu during matches. This allows players to form weapons such as katanas, hammers, and yo-yos out of gum to take on their enemies. Each of these weapon types has four variations with slightly different skills and stats. No weapon is necessarily better than another; they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Finding which weapon you like best is crucial if you plan on getting into the top tier of matches.
By using medals unlocked during matches, players can purchase Shinobi Cards to customize their playstyle further. These cards add effects such as increased energy or visibility that may give players a slight edge over their enemies.
Matches of Ninjala are won by the player with the most points at the end of a round, and points are gained by destroying drones and defeating enemies. Enemies can be knocked out by reducing their health to zero, though the best way to get points is by scoring an IPPON. Players can score an IPPON by defeating an opponent from a parry state, from a Gum Bind, or using Gum Ninjutsu.
Overall, I really like how Ninjala plays. Though it may look button-mashy from afar, minute to minute combat requires a good amount of strategy. Knowing when to strike, fall back, or focus on taking down drones separates winners from losers in most matches.
The one thing holding Ninjala back from true gameplay greatness is the previously mentioned parry states. When two players try and hit each other at the same time, they enter a parry that is settled in a “rock-paper-scissors” esque battle. Players can press up, down, left, or right to try and best their enemies. Left or right beats up, up beats down, and down beats left or right. While this may seem like an effective way to settle clashes, it makes many losses feel as if they were due to luck instead of skill, which can be frustrating.
Most “Games as a Service” are free-to-play, meaning they are chocked full of microtransactions. In Ninjala, all of these microtransactions (except for the story DLC) are entirely cosmetic, meaning no player will have an advantage over another simply because they decide to pump money into the game.
While some of these items can be bought individually in the in-game store, the main drive for players will be the “Ninjala pass,” Ninjala’s version of a battle pass. This pass costs $10 and allows players to access many more rewards for leveling up, such as cosmetics, emotes, and in-game currency. Though the Ninjala pass has fewer cosmetic items than I like to see in battle passes, I still think it’s a good investment if you see yourself spending a reasonable amount of time with this game.
The cosmetic items and Ninjala pass are cool but unnecessary purchases. Seeing as how I’m poor, the only monetary investment I made in Ninjala was the first story pack. The story experiences in these types of games usually feel pretty tacked on, and this is definitely true of Ninjala.
The narrative follows Van, one of the eight previously mentioned playable ninjas. While training in ninjutsu with his grandfather, the two encounter deadly Space Ninjas. The Space Ninjas have been kidnapping young ninjas from earth for seemingly nefarious reasons, so Van sets out on a quest to stop them.
Like I said earlier, this plot feels pretty throwaway and is easily skippable. The story levels themselves aren’t much better and come off as mostly repetitive sequences. If you think you simply must have more Ninjala content or want to play offline, however, this isn’t a terrible alternative to the online battles. The only part of the story available at the time of writing is the first chapter, so things might get better in later chapters.
Ninjala has a ton of potential to become the next big multiplayer experience. While its single-player experience leaves a little to be desired, playing online with others is a ton of fun. There’s a nice balance found in the game’s premium items, but much of what it does right can be found in the free offerings. Hopefully, continued support by the developer will iron out any rough patches to make this a longlasting online experience for Switch owners.
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