I can’t even begin to imagine how a developer attempts to shoehorn another battle royale onto the market right now.
In developer GungHo’s case, it seems, they’ve taken the last-person-standing fun of Fortnite and fused it with the neon-hued mayhem of Splatoon. The result is frenzied free-to-play Ninjala, a new title that successfully, if perhaps inexplicably, apes much of its magic from other titles, yet somehow manages to cultivate a curious charm all of its own.
While it looks and sounds similar to the games it draws inspiration from, Ninjala’s quirky fighting mechanics admittedly stand out. To maintain its PG veneer, our pint-sized ninjas don’t fight with guns or swords, but instead use foam katanas and yoyos and novelty bats to inflict damage, utilising their, er, ninja gum to pull off ultimate attacks and trick shots.
Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
There are three PvP modes up for grabs; a “quick battle” eight-player battle royale, “Ninjala battles” which let you set your own scene – and rules – for unranked fun, and “room battle” which is precisely the same as the battle royale, except you play 4v4. With just eight ninjas in each lobby it may sound like a more sedate affair than you’d typically expect of a battle royale, but Ninjala’s tight maps and truncated time allocation – you’ll only get a few minutes each match – promptly dissolve any fanciful notions of a stealthy encounter.
Trouble is, too much goes unexplained. Yes, there is a tutorial mode and opportunities to experiment with weapons and special abilities, but some of these learnings come from watching in-game links to grainy YouTube videos, while others simply come via trial and error. The game teaches about the importance of smashing drones, for instance – they’ll top up your S-gauge, which in turn allows you to mould a bigger weapon from your ninja gum – but fails to inform you of the prompts that pop up should you and an enemy attempt to pull off the same move at the same time. It makes your first few battles bewildering, overwhelming affairs.
Furthermore, the matchmaking feels unnecessarily uneven. In my very first encounter, I was matched with competitors that were ranked levels 6, 9, and 11. In my second, it was with level 12 and level 14ers. This wouldn’t matter if Ninjala was a traditional battle royale that levelled the odds, so every player kicked off with the same equipment (or lack thereof), but as a lot of your combat strategy is learned on the fly, and you’ll unlock more stuff the more you rank up – enabling you to find a weapon that best matches your own playstyle – an inexperienced player pretty much doesn’t stand a chance against those that have already discovered theirs.
Consequently, this can make some early (or even later, sadly) rounds feel incredibly un-fun, a dull rinse-and-repeat of spawning and being knocked out without ever getting a chance to try out your skills and special moves to build a little momentum.
That said, kills – whoops, I mean knockouts – aren’t the only way to clock up points. At the end of each round, the players who destroyed the most drones, as well as the players who pulled off the most IPPONs (a knockout executed in a particularly fancy way) get a weighty point bonus, too. This makes experimenting with your loadout critical, as the more impressive your combos, the higher the chance of securing that all-important bonus at the end of the match.
As for the story? There is one – kind of – but the brief, 45-minute-ish story mode is locked behind a paywall. Admittedly it’s not a big one – at the moment, £3.49 will unlock the prologue and all four 10-minute episodes that boomerang between visual novel exposition and fighting sequences – but it’s such a shame this small slice of single-player action is gated away. Despite spending a good chunk of time with the tutorial and AI battles, its only in the story episodes that I began to get to grips with the control scheme, as well as exploring Ninjala’s bright, bold backdrops – something that’s hard to do during a battle royale fight.
While not particularly adventurous – one episode had me guarding a school bus, another gated areas off until I’d destroyed all traces of pesky space ninjas, only to move on and do precisely the same thing again – the final boss fight was a delightful romp, packed with colour and chaos. You take on an enormous cola bottle – think Ghostbusters’ Mr Staypuft and you’re pretty much there – with a long, snake-like, blue tongue that trails along for several city blocks. It’s a frantic, frenzied fight, and full of opportunities to sprint up walls and sneak around to get a tactical advantage. It’s a shame you’re forced to play as default character Van and not your own personally-customised Ninja, though.
I’ll admit that everything’s a bit too noisy for me, though. The colour palette. The sound effects. The UI. The battles themselves. I appreciate the game hasn’t been fashioned for the likes of me, of course (you’re looking at someone who’s currently transplanting every black flower that blooms on her Animal Crossing: New Horizons island to create a bespoke goth garden), but I wonder how Fortnite-hungry kids, who will no doubt be tempted by the cartoon visuals, jaunty score, and zero price-tag, will be able to manage the complex UI and combat systems.
Couple that with the erratic matchmaking, and it’s difficult to recommend Ninjala without slapping on a whole load of caveats first. Yes, it boasts a gorgeous aesthetic and a cute conceit. Yes, the entire idea of a secret ninja school with ninja gum is original and intriguing, too. But despite all its promise, beyond the highly truncated story-mode that’s currently locked behind a pay gate, for all its polish and neon paint, Ninjala is sadly a shallow experience that isn’t as much fun to play as it looks.