If Ninjala had a tagline, it'd be Roddy Piper's famous line from They Live: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." Only the kids that populate GungHo Online Entertainment's Ninjala aren't out of bubblegum. In fact, they're in healthy supply of it and they're ready to kick ass. And they've probably never seen They Live.
Ninjala, in a nutshell, can be summed up as "melee Splatoon with gum." It plops us into an arena—either free-for-all or within a four-player team—with our weapon of choice, and sets us off to smack away at other kids and apple-shaped drones. The goal is to accrue the most amount of points by the end of a match. Points can be earned by taking out the stagnant drones or other players. When one's health meter hits zero, that's a K.O., but when they're taken out by any gum-based ability or via a successful parry, it's an Ippon, which amounts to more points than a traditional K.O.. Being taken out isn't for the whole match though—respawning happens within seconds.
In the build up to its recent release, Ninjala has come to have a reputation as a game aping Splatoon's style, but the similarities are largely superficial. In contrast to the premium Splatoon, Ninjala is free-to-play, making it instantly more accessible. It's also melee-focused, so while its weapons are similarly reminiscent of non-violent inanimate objects, it's focused on getting in close to opponents. (Imagine, say, if everyone was stuck running with a roller or paintbrush in Splatoon.)
Ninjala's main similarity with Splatoon is its setting in a battle-torn world populated largely by stylish kids—though Ninjala is severely lacking in the clothes department compared to its aspirational counterpart. Its sense of style instead pops up in other places. It's in the sky-high hairstyles and bright colors that don every avatar; in the chunky metal rings and zippers that hang from some accessories, as if Tetsuya Nomura had a hand in designing them. It's in the neon-tinged world itself, and the clever stylings of its weapons. But it's in the last point where the nasty side of it being free-to-play emerges.
Like most free-to-play games, Ninjala is stuffed to the brim with microtransactions, but it's more visible and more tediously implemented than its counterparts. For instance, in lieu of unlocking cosmetic outfits—which are relegated either to microtransactions in its shop or the battle pass—players can unlock free cosmetic swaps for their many weapons. With the cosmetic unlocks, unlocked via missions (completing simple match goals, like landing an Ippon), the color palette of a weapon can be changed. There's a big annoying catch though: They have a limited use.
All 12 of Ninjala's weapons are unlocked from the start, which are divided into three undefined subsections basically: bats, yo-yos, and hammers. Every weapon has its own unique abilities (a projectile Gum Shoot and the ultimate-like Gum Ninjitsu) and special, which all vary in usefulness. Each weapon has a general go-to look; such as an axe in the hammer family that looks like sushi, or the Trick Ball, a basketball tethered to a string that can be swung around like a yo-yo and emits a flashy visual of a hoop materializing in thin air as I dunk on an opponent. Still, there's no permanent way to change the look of a weapon. The only free form of progression Ninjala really offers is by way of collecting these free color palette swaps, but with their limited use, they remind me of the annoyance of Destiny 2's Shaders at launch. Why would I want to use something that I'm only going to lose?
I learned about the limited use of the alternate color options the hard way. I unlocked a new "Ninja-Gum" for a weapon with skateboard wheels, which changed their color. Before entering the match, it double-checked if I was sure I wanted to use the gum, to which I hit yes. I did not realize that the big number next to the Ninja-Gum weapon alternates denotes how many times it can be used in battle. So for that battle, it was one and done for the teal-colored skateboard wheels. I was disappointed, but I guess not wholly surprised considering it's a free-to-play game.
That doesn't mean every weapon's color alternates that are unlocked are limited to single use. I have another in my inventory that has 10 uses. Another has more than just one. It varies, but to be honest, I'm finding myself hoarding the Ninja-Gum weapon color alternates now instead of ever using them, because I don't want to lose them. Additional Ninja-Gum weapon alternates can also be purchased via the loot box-like gumball system, but I don't quite see the point.
What's really hooked me about Ninjala is how it plays. Every weapon has its own identity; a bat is a balanced weapon that's solid for any sort of combat, while a hammer-type is stellar for crowd control and a yo-yo-type is optimal for closing in some extra distance to an opponent. But even within those weapon families, they each can feel wildly different. For example, the Drill Beast, already emerging as a favorite judging from how many people I see wielding it, right off the bat (pun intended) plays very differently from another weapon in the bat family, the Ippon Katana. The Ippon Katana is something of a giant foam sword, swung horizontally accordingly, while the Drill Beast can easily wreck an opponent quickly with its sustained, pointed damage. Both in the same bat zone, but they don't feel the same to wield whatsoever.
All the weapons, from top to bottom, feel different from one another, from their basic ZR attacks, to their unique bonus abilities. For instance, the Drill Beast's Gum Shoot ability inflicts gum grenades that float toward enemies. Conversely, the Shinobi Spinner's Gum Shoot traps a foe into a spiderweb of gum. There's a surprising amount of depth to the weapons in Ninjala's roster.
Even with the Drill Beast emerging as an early meta favorite, that doesn't mean other weapons aren't viable. Another favorite of mine, the aforementioned basketball-looking Trick Ball, comes with my favorite Gum Ninjitsu ability in the game: the Fujiyama Rocket. The rocket can be summoned after its meter steadily builds up over a match, and when carefully aimed and unleashed, can easily net at least a few Ippons. Like any game, every weapon still has its positives and negatives. I'm sure with future balancing things will change, but right now every weapon earns its place on the roster in one way or another, which can't be said for most multiplayer games, honestly.
Ninjala also has a brief, hour long story mode, which can be purchased separately. (Currently, it's on sale for a little more than $4.) The story mode doesn't amount to much, but it being hailed as Story Pack 1 means that there will undoubtedly be more coming. It plays out like an extended tutorial, complete with an awful tailing mission (yes, video games still do these) to show off the "disguise as a random object" ability that I've barely used in any match due to the tiny size of the arenas. There are four "chapters" and a prologue in the story package, with the highlight being a genuinely rad boss at the end. I found it to be forgettable overall, but it helped give me a better handle on how fights play out as I smacked at AI space ninjas. By its end, I had earned enough "Ninja Medals" that I was able to buy up all the available Shinobi Cards that grant special bonuses—like the ability to absorb life with every attack, but slowing down the auto life recovery in the process. (Initially, just one Shinobi Card can be equipped at a time, though more slots can be purchased with Ninja Medals.)
All in all, it took me a while to figure Ninjala out. For a free-to-play game, it's even more opaque than most. It feels like the sort of game that's cutting corners anywhere it can. Its tutorial video isn't even in-game—it's pulled up via the Switch's browser and played in poor resolution, likely in an effort to save on file size space. I wonder if there was ever a version of this without microtransactions seeping in at every corner of its menu, from the gacha Gumball Machine for more limited-time use weapon cosmetics, to its stacked battle pass. I wonder if the story mode was initially going to be longer. Yet, it is what it is.
Still, for a free-to-play game, Ninjala offers pretty much all the tools players will need to find success in the arena. It's overall a slim package with only a couple maps, a team and non-team based mode, with a paid story pack. Even with that considered, it's the sheer variety in feeling between its weapons that sticks out in the crowded free-to-play landscape. Free-to-play arena-based games may be super common, but also, vibrant melee action with sushi axes don't come along too often either.
Ninjala at launch is thin on content, but still enjoyable. Despite a frankly skippable paid Story Package, it's the sheer variety in its weapon lineup that makes its colorful free-to-play melee action stand out. Whether you're a Splatoon fan hungry for any new content, or just curious about a game where you can swing a giant ear of corn as a bat and enwrap your foes in bubblegum, Ninjala is worth checking out.