Ninjala comes from GungHo Online Entertainment, who’ve worked on several ongoing online games like the Ragnarok series. You play as a ninja, capable of running on walls, performing ninjutsu attacks and blowing up balls of bubblegum practically big enough to hoist your child body into the sky like a hot-air balloon. A match was less than 5 minutes, where 8 players fought for the most individual points by knocking other player’s health down to zero (called an “Ippon”). After an initial beta preview session plagued with network issues resulting in the Ninjala team calling it off half way through, the overall experience felt like a melee version of Splatoon, with a dash of Fortnite thrown in for good measure.
Ninjala is currently scheduled to launch exclusively on Nintendo Switch 27th May, 2020.
Story – Unraveling The Scroll
Though the beta only offered a short preview into the lore, Ninjala gave evidence of a well-thought out game world and ninja society through the short texts on the loading screens (not to mention a CG short film). In short, ‘Ninja Gum’ allows those of ninja lineage to perform incredible techniques and abilities. The World Ninja Association hosts a tournament in which Ninjala bouts take place. Mentions of in-game music artists, clothing labels and other cultural aspects passed by which served as an encouraging hint that there’ll be a decent amount of lore to dig into with the game. However, as the game is touted as a free-to-play online multiplayer, it’s unlikely a campaign will be available. It’d be difficult to experience ninja society through multiplayer alone; a single player mode would be the best way to get lost in the world. Or at the very least, learn how the game works.
Gameplay – Sword Clashing & Button Mashing
During the Ninjala beta, the only game mode available to preview was an 8-vs-8, highest solo score wins beat-em-up. Your ninja can run along walls and, when in range of something attackable, pressing ZR/Right Trigger will lock-on and dash towards that target unleashing a combo of slams with your less-than-threatening whacking wand. Dotted around the stage are drones that look like the floating severed head of Baymax; when they’re destroyed, your ninja gathers energy. Pressing ZL/Left Trigger readies a projectile bubble of gum that can temporarily freeze opponents. Through a combination of gum and energy, you can summon bigger bubblegum, bigger weapons and a big special attack – a highly damaging gum tornado.
Whether hunting players or propeller-headed drones, Ninjala came down to hammering the right trigger until something indiscernible decided I’d either won or lost the encounter. Combating other players was a briefly exhilarating but ultimately repetitious series of parries, where the camera shifts dramatically trying to follow characters disappearing and reappearing in different positions like a Disney Playhouse version of Dragonball Z.
On the defensive side of things, an escape maneuver becomes available if you find yourself on the receiving end of another player’s combo. However, how that worked was as clear as the bubblegum that cements Ippon-ed players to a wall. Speaking of which, players need to be hit with two gum shots to immobilize them, a difficult task since people don’t tend to stay to get hit a 2nd time. Also, your ninja can disguise themselves as an inanimate object (a gimmick anyone who’s played the Prop Hunt game in Garry’s Mod would recognise), which ultimately didn’t prove useful in this instance due to a lack of blending decor in the main playing spaces, and another player always coincidentally looking in your direction as you transform into a potted plant.
The most reliable strategy I found was running along the walls high off the ground, dropping down on unsuspecting opponents, or (less honourably) hovering on the periphery of a clash to pick off the low-health victor. Moreover, there was only enough time to build up the special attack once per match, making the final 5 seconds a tropical storm of players trying to pick up last minute KOs. It was unclear how points were awarded for the final score, whether based solely on the number of successful knockouts or style of the takedowns. Extra points were awarded to the player(s) that broke the most drones and, confusingly, who won the most ippons. Giving extra points to players already leading like a banker’s Christmas bonus.
Presentation – Familiar Echoes in sound & visuals
Ninjala has so much bouncy animation, colourful design and a pop-electro sound, you’d be surprised it wasn’t made by Nintendo themselves. The dough-like child-character design (while I may personally find it appealing) may cause some to dismiss this as a children’s game. Your ninja character’s appearance can be customised with different outfit pieces, mascots/idols and emotes. I’d speculate more of those may be purchasable with real money. Menus and gameplay was bright, with occasional comic style celebration and score graphics appearing on screen in a non-obtrusive fashion.
Likewise, music kept the atmosphere of the game intact without becoming noticeable. My character also leveled up between matches which unlocked music tracks (not to mention two weapons; a drill and a yo-yo in the shape of a basketball), so given the lore, I expect more music will be a principal way to explore the world. Sound wasn’t an issue, apart from during the first problem-filled beta period when every time you re-tried to enter a preview session, the main menu voice-over would shout, “NINJALA!” every 20 seconds. Overall, the visual and sound presentation of the game is exactly the type of quality you’d expect of a Nintendo product about the strife of a ninja.
I’ve avoided the comparison to Nintendo’s online multiplayer shooter Splatoon, but it’s undeniable that Ninjala is travelling down similar Nintendo paths. The approach to the lore and stylings are similar. The character design and general brightness bear a resemblance. They both have 8 players in a match zipping up and down walls. It’s effectively swapping squids with ninjas. However, it’s also adopting some Fortnite structure with (assumedly) purchasable cosmetic items, a season pass system, and even promotional art with a very familiar set-up.