Much has already been made of the fact that Ninjala so closely resembles Nintendo’s very own Splatoon and yes, the similarities on an artistic level are pretty striking and plain for all to see. However, spend more than a few cursory moments with GungHo’s free-to-play effort and you’ll find a game that works very differently to the paint-splattered turf wars of the Inklings and Octarians. This is a unique, vibrant and surprisingly strategic multiplayer arena fighter that packs in plenty worth recommending – whilst also making a handful of questionable decisions along the way.
In Ninjala, eight pint-sized bubble-gum pugilists duke it out in a tournament organised by the World Ninja Association – inventors of the magical ninja gum which drives the game’s action – in order to search for the next generation of mighty ninja warriors. Battles take place in large arenas – of which there are currently only two available – and can be played in either a free-for-all Battle Royale mode or 4v4 Team Battles.
After blasting through a quick bit of colourful character customisation, players are introduced to the basics of the game's traversal and combat. Your ninja warrior is a surprisingly agile tween who can run up walls, dodge attacks, blow ninja-gum shields, fire sticky bubbles at opponents to slow them down, perform a gum boost that propels them through the air on neon ribbons and even craft a giant version of whatever weapon they happen to be wielding in order to pound their opponents into submission.
The game's introductory tutorial, which is split between a two-minute YouTube video and a handful of screens of text, does a reasonable enough job of covering these very basic manoeuvres but then, inexplicably, fails to explain the more intricate and important gameplay wrinkles at the heart of combat, hiding that information in its menus instead of presenting it front and centre.
As well as the basic moves that are initially covered, your character can perform break attacks in order to destroy embiggened enemy weapons and engage an S-Burst mode to auto-parry incoming assaults. You can pull off combinations of front, back and wide attacks, and when two fighters confront each other and pull off the same move, they clash, with the action entering a rock-paper-scissors style mini-game in order to determine who comes out on top. This chance-based resolution of face-offs definitely feels like a pretty controversial decision – and it’s bound to be one that some players bounce off pretty hard – but for us, it actually suits the knockabout nature of the action well.
In order to avoid getting into a situation where the resolution of a battle is left to chance too often, however, there are things you can do and it's here you'll probably want to start thinking like an actual bubble-gum ninja. At its heart, Ninjala is all about choosing the best moment to attack your foes, and instead of running headlong into battles, you’ll have much more success if you take advantage of the traversal options afforded to you.
You'll want to run up walls to get yourself above the action in order to observe and then attack unsuspecting enemies, transform into a bit of background scenery by pressing A in order to surprise passing foes or – a tactic which is already proving most popular – stand back and watch as other players soften each other up then jump in to finish them off. It’s playing dirty, for sure, but it’s the best way to ensure you don’t end up playing rock-paper-scissors more often than you need to.
The unifying element to all of the various sneaky moves that you can deploy during battle is your ninja’s S-Energy gauge. Displayed in the bottom left corner of your screen, this is the source that powers all of your bubble-gum-based tricks and, upon entering a round, the first thing you’ll want to do is make a beeline for the large drones which pop up around arenas as destroying these increases your S-Energy capacity, strengthening your defensive and attacking options and eventually giving you access to that super-sized variant of your equipped weapon.
This gives the short four-minute rounds a really nice and busy ebb and flow; starting out, you’ll want to focus on smashing up drones and stay out of the way of battles in the short term in order to max out your S-Energy before focusing your attention on the multitude of options the game's various weapons bestow upon you to take out your opponents.
In this respect, there’s an impressive array of delightfully colourful gum weapons to choose from and the various katanas, scroll blades, corn bats, hammers, yo-yos, shinobi spinners and so on each come with their own attributes and skills, opening up different special moves, abilities, perks and ninjutsu attacks for you to wield in battle. As an example, our preferred weapon so far is the Drill Beast, a gum-drill which gives access to gum grenades as well as allowing you to dive under the ground in a very Splatoon-esque fashion, morphing into a splodge of colour that traverses the floor at speed before re-emerging in a barrelling attack towards your foe.
Other weapons allow you to materialise great big bubble-gum dragons, teleport into attacks and tangle your foes up in sticky webs and, overall, there's a surprising amount of tactical choice during battles which, when combined with that short time-limit, means that proceedings have a real urgency to them. There's not a second to lose as you bulk up your S-Gauge and get stuck into your opponents in order to come out on top. As far as modes go, the free-for-all battle royale mode is the most successful of the two currently on offer, giving you the freedom to strike out alone and think tactically instead of getting tangled up in the rather mindless and messy slaughter that currently comprises the bulk of the 4v4 side of things.
Away from the battles themselves, Ninjala has a short story mode locked behind a DLC paywall that gives players a little more background into the world and characters while fleshing out some of the game's mechanics. Overall, this mode is a pretty lacklustre offering; we blasted through it in around an hour, composed of a handful of bog-standard encounters bookended by pretty boring – and tediously slow – comic book story screens.
However, it is currently available for a discount and is perhaps worth a look at the knockdown price for those who want to dive a little deeper into the background and lore of the Ninjala tournament and some of the characters that make up the game's roster. As expected with a free-to-play game, there's also a ton of customisation options with a shop offering ridiculously expensive special outfits and various other goodies which are, thankfully, entirely cosmetic in nature; you can choose to totally ignore this side of things if you wish.
One aspect of the cosmetics side of Ninjala that we do take umbrage with, however, is that Ninja-gums – the game's weapon skins – are single-use items that disappear forever after you've used them in a match. This is really pretty inexcusable given that gums are primarily gained through a gumball machine mechanic which requires Jala, the in-game currency, that you'll need to spend real-world money to acquire if you haven't invested in the Ninjala battle pass. Considering the vast majority of skins players acquire will need to be purchased with their own money, it seems an indefensible choice to have them limited in this way.
In terms of performance, it's also all pretty much great news for Ninjala. This is an extremely pretty game, with that vibrant Splatoon-esque style (there really is no better way to describe it), some wonderfully animated menus and rock-solid performance in both handheld and docked modes. We're surprised, too, that after some teething problems on launch day, the servers are holding up pretty well; getting into matches can incur a few minutes of waiting initially, but once you're in, everything is pretty smooth and downtime between battles is minimal. Gyro control is also available, which will please those into that kind of thing.
Overall, aside from an opening tutorial that obfuscates the game's mechanics unnecessarily – burying important gameplay details in its menus – and a parrying minigame that is absolutely going to be divisive in how it leaves certain duel outcomes entirely to chance, we reckon Ninjala is off to a pretty strong start. This is a fun and vibrant free-to-play effort set in a world we want to see much, much more of. There's a lack of modes right now and a serious shortage of maps to play on, but this is all stuff that will be remedied in future updates; for now, we're having a blast running up walls and sticking our opponents with ippons left, right and centre.
Ninjala is a good-looking and impressively tactical free-to-play arena fighter. It's currently lacking in modes and maps, there are problems with how the lacklustre opening tutorial goes about onboarding new players and the rock-paper-scissors aspect of proceedings is sure to be controversial but, overall, the game is off to a pretty strong start. We can't wait to see where GungHo takes its cast of pint-sized bubblegum protagonists in the coming months.