Let’s get the obvious statement out the way first – Ninjala may look like Splatoon, but it doesn’t play like Splatoon. Although funny, that comparison is surface-level and for those worried about playing a bootleg version of one of Nintendo’s best, worry no longer.
Another important thing to note is that this is an impressions piece and not a review. We think it’s far too early to be putting a score on something that is still very much in its early stages, but it’s definitely worth giving some early impressions on some of the things we like and don’t like after a few days of play.
The most striking thing about Ninjala is its presentation. As we said above, the Splatoon comparison is obvious, but it actually reminds me more of the PlayStation 2 generation of 3D platformers, combined with something like Puffy Amiyumi. The aesthetic works, although it can often feel like a bit much with everything going on. The best part of the presentation is the different gum weapons and skins you can equip, which are genuinely fun to collect. It can definitely feel a bit much at times though, and it has the honour of being the first-ever game to make me feel old.
One thing that Ninjala needs to work on is its menus. You don’t actually get told what you’re clicking on in the main menu until you’ve clicked it, which is fine once you know but at the start it makes it difficult to actually acclimate to what is already some pretty confusing navigation. Until you mess around in the menus a bit, it’s difficult to even see your character’s level or how to make a loadout. These may sound like silly complaints to those who have already put in the time, but if Ninjala wants to have a place in the free-to-play arena, it definitely needs to work on making its systems a bit more user friendly.
This extends to explaining how to actually play the game. Most of its mechanics are explained at a base level but never really elaborated on. It took me some time to figure out the clash system and to be completely honest I still don’t really know how I’m actually getting the special IPPON knockouts.
The fact that Ninjala is free-to-play is definitely one of its strengths however. I could complain about a million different things (don’t worry I won’t), but at the end of the day the game is completely free to play. No matter what you feel about the game, you don’t have to spend any money on it at all if you don’t want to. There are some heavy microtransactions which are never great, but you don’t have to take part in that if you don’t want to. That being said, there are a lot of them to be found here, which is a shame considering the lack of content elsewhere.
The free-to-play nature of Ninjala is also what makes it hard to properly review. This game is going to be constantly updated with new weapons, maps, skins, characters and gameplay adjustments that make any comment you have to say about it almost immediately subject to change. For now, Ninjala feels like a skeleton of what it eventually wants to be. As of a week into its launch, it’s very light on content with only two maps, two modes, a few weapon types and one chapter of a single-player campaign. As long as the game is supported well it won’t be a problem, but only time will tell in that regard.
There’s so much to discuss everywhere else that I haven’t even talked about the gameplay yet! Thankfully, when it comes down to actually playing, Ninjala is a fun time. It’s not largely complex or competitive, but it certainly is fun.
Actually controlling your Ninja is a particular highlight for me because you’re given a lot of options to get around. Using your gum to dash ahead and running on walls feel great. I loved that as your gum gets bigger from destroying drones, you can actually use it to glide a little after jumping. It’s little touches like these that make the gum mechanic feel thought out.
You’ll mostly be using your gum for combat though. Combat is fun, if a little bit less involved. You use your gum weapon to perform basic swings, as well as having access to a special attack and a ranged attack. These all change depending on your weapon and skin, but generally doesn’t feel too different between weapons. Your weapon can also be upgraded to a bigger, more powerful version if you collect enough gum, which is the reason behind destroying all of the drones.
One controversial choice is that battles between players more often than not end with a rock-paper-scissors type directional clash which makes battles more about luck. I personally didn’t mind it as I wasn’t taking Ninjala too seriously, but you have to imagine a more skill-based system will come later down the line for the players who are really involved. I can’t see the game making too much impact otherwise.
Another combat feature I’m not entirely sold on so far is the stealth. Conceptually it’s a really cool idea, allowing your ninja to disguise itself as an object from the environment, but in the midst of battle it doesn’t really seem like a worthwhile tactic. I’m sure there are players out there making full use of it, but I didn’t see any of that in my battles.
Even with that caveat, going up against other players is still fun. Matches move by so quickly that you don’t really think too much about what’s going on and it’s a rare example of a game I didn’t really mind whether I was winning or losing. I can’t see it ever being massively competitive, but hopping on for a few matches is a good time.
Ninjala definitely has a lot of problems that it needs to iron out, but that’s the beauty of being free-to-play. It’s definitely worth checking out, but I think the best is yet to come for Ninjala.