Ninjala: First Impressions
The fast if flawed multiplayer is just a small introduction into this wacky new world and fascinating characters.
My hype for this game began when it appeared during Nintendo's Mini-Direct back in March; it seemed like a cute new IP, revolving around Ninja-powered bubble gum and taking place in an appealing world that blends two of my favorite aesthetics together, Japanese culture and architecture with modern-day Western society. The free-to-play battle royale-style gameplay only strengthened my resolve to try it out once it dropped later in the summer, since I haven't had much experience with the genre before, and with the state of the pandemic right now, I felt like I needed something new to keep my spirits up while in quarantine.
And now, after three straight days of playing since launch, I can safely say that Ninjala was well-worth the wait - even if the gameplay is far from perfect.
While the free multiplayer is called a battle royale, it is far from a traditional one; rather than at each other until only one remains, players instead fight for points in a small, dojo-like area under a 3-minute time limit, using various different Ninja-Gum weapons to take out opponents and allowing those defeated players to respawn after about 3 seconds. What I really liked about this system was the variety of ways in which you could earn points; not just from scoring kills but from parrying attacks, taking out mechanical drones which increase your Shinobi-energy meter's capacity, picking up S-energy orbs, or hitting another opponent with your weapon's Special, among many, many other actions. Even if you lose a fight, even if you got just a single hit on an opponent, you will earn points for it. Obviously some actions are worth more points than others, but this point system meant that I could have been KO'd more times than I KO'd somebody else and still turn the game in my favor within the last 60 seconds. This made the game feel very beginner-friendly (which was very welcome when considering the combat's oftentimes-confusing nature, which I will discuss in a moment). Not to mention the heaps of bonus points you can earn by completing the most amount of a certain task during the game, such as destroying the most drones or scoring the most amount of special Gum-kills called Ippon; I remember several games where earning either "Drone Master" or "Ippon Master" bonuses bumped me from 4th all the way to 2nd or even 1st place. This has kept me motivated to keep jumping back into the crazy, fun action even after some of my worst losses, knowing that I could still take it all even if I felt like I got my butt kicked.
Despite that there is still a definite skill to the game, so while it could be considered beginner-friendly, there is also a huge learning curve, and strategy will definitely come into play if you're serious about consistently ranking in the top 3. The sheer variety weapon choices lend themselves very nicely to this, and I've already seen quite a few players figure out how to use each weapon's moves and Specials to create guaranteed-kill combos and counters. There's also plenty of room for playing mind-games with opponents and tricking them to get the upper hand, which I can see as a match-deciding tool for possible future tournaments. Just like with games like Smash Bros., I love that this encourages both casual and serious play, and compliments diverse playstyles so that even the most inexperienced players can get into the game.
But, despite all of that good, I still have plenty of issues with the gameplay that frequently annoyed me - one of which is a core mechanic of the combat. Whenever two players' weapons clash, there is a chance for either to perform a parry attack, and this is determined by which direction on the control stick you press in what the game calls a "rock-paper-scissors-style showdown!":
More often than not, these clashes end with one of the players scoring an Ippon against the other, meaning that players can potentially take the lead because they won a game of chance. Granted, you can still be strategic with this and psychoanalyze your opponents' movements to better your chances of winning the parry, but I personally would rather not feel like I lost a kill or an entire game not because of my own skills, but because I lost rock-paper-scissors. A bit of a small complaint given how you can still strategize against this, but I'd still rather not play a game of chance in a combat-based battle royale.
I also felt that certain weapons were very overpowered - specifically, the long-range Ninja Yo-Yos. The weapon concepts by themselves are perfect for this type of battle royale game - they're the standard ranged artillery with the least amount of damage-per-hit - but sometimes it feels like the game's meta and programming messes with how they're supposed to function. There were times when I was defeated by a relentless string of Yo-Yo combos with little to no cooldown time on their attacks, even after they use the exact same button input seven times in a row. Not to mention their inconsistent targeting, which is actually a complaint I have with all the weapons; when surrounded by two or more enemies, sometimes my target would lock on to somebody else with almost every attack. I remember some moments where I would miss out on the final hit that would earn me a guaranteed kill because my reticle suddenly decided to direct me to the person off to the right of my camera. The game did only just come out though, and after a very brutal beta period as well; if this is a consistent problem for others as well, then GungHo is very likely to patch these targeting and cooldown issues in a future update.
But even if the gameplay sometimes doesn't do it for me, I keep coming back to the game just for the creatively wacky world the game takes place in. It's fun in the same way the worlds of ARMS, Splatoon, and Big Hero 6 are fun; the story is set in an alternate history where bizarre concepts are blended with an environment that contains elements from our real world - in Ninjala's case, an Eagleland-esque country where ninja train and battle in an undercover ninja organization - but doesn't mirror it completely. Upon starting the game for the first time, you discover that you're just one of many kid ninja-in-training at the World Ninja Association, an organization dedicated to keeping the traditions of ancient ninja alive through training and putting recruits through the regular Ninjala tournaments to test their skills; to unlock those recruits' apparently-latent ninja abilities, they invented Ninja-Gum, an alternate-universe chewing gum that fuses with the chewer's DNA to allow them ninja-like abilities like instant-disguises and parkour skills, and even allows them to craft powerful weapons from the gum itself. It's a strange, even out-there concept, Ninja-Gum, but it still works and stays in-line with the world's 80's-slash-modern-day aesthetic. Just like with ARMS and Splatoon, Ninjala takes place in a world that resembles our own but stays unique through its arguably strange and bizarre concepts, and that color and out-there nature are what make it interesting.
The game's story, while still in-progress, is also interesting, and it honestly surprised me how invested I became in it. Currently there is only one chapter of the paid story mode out, focusing on the character Van (even including cutscenes animated in a comic book style), but the content it included kept me intrigued as to what will happen to the cast in future chapters. Van is an adorable, high-spirited animesque kid hero who's still learning the ropes and patience of the ninja arts, and his backstory shown in the first episode of the online Ninjala Animated Series is surprisingly mature and sympathetic for an E10+ game with such a cute and soft art style. Even the dynamics between the trio in the fully-CGI "Episode 0", Burton, Berecca, and Ron, and their mishaps with Ninja-Gum's creation were very entertaining and made me interested in seeing them again in the game's story.
If you're looking for a fresh IP to sink your teeth into, another battle royale, or a game with an interesting story and gorgeous visuals to compliment it, then I highly recommend you check out Ninjala; the game is completely free as well, so you don't lose anything if the main multiplayer isn't for you. But, if you're only interested in the story mode, that is still paid for, so be aware of that if you decide to try it out. Also be warned of your Switch's storage space; I had to archive a couple of larger games to make room for this one. Personally, despite its flaws, I can't wait to see what else GungHo has in store for this unique game, and I cannot wait to experience more of it.
The official launch trailer can be viewed here:
Ninjala Episode 0 can be viewed here:
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