Platform: Switch

When we got our first look at Ninjala at E3 2018, it was a promising online multiplayer action game for Switch that showed a lot of potential. Its Splatoon-like art design and fast-paced 3D beat ‘em up action were certainly enticing. Here we are just about two years later, and Ninjala is now available for free on Nintendo Switch. To put it plainly, if you own a Switch and enjoy online multiplayer games, you should give Ninjala a go without hesitation.

Bubble Gum and Blunt Objects

It’s hard to take a look at Ninjala and avoid comparing it to Nintendo’s Splatoon. The truth is both titles share a very similar graphical style. Gameplay-wise, though, the two games couldn’t be more different. Where Splatoon is a paint-based shooter, the GungHo Online Entertainment-developed Ninjala is a gum-based brawler.

Wait… what?

Okay, so it’s a bit weird, but baked into the ninja themes and chaotic action are gum-centric gameplay mechanics that go hand-in-hand with the frantic beat ‘em up action.

Typical rounds have eight players duking it out in arenas either in free-for-all or team battles. The main objective in each round is to pummel your opponents and get those sweet, sweet KOs. You do this by bludgeoning your adversaries with bat-like katanas, mallets, and yo-yos.

There’s more to the action of Ninjala than just straight-up brawling, though, and that’s where the gum mechanics come into play. Each player can use gum to get an edge in battle. Below your health bar, you’ll see the S-Energy meter and this is directly tied to your gum abilities. Blow a bubble and hold it to create a quasi-shield that absorbs incoming damage. Use your gum to dash in mid-air. Or build up your S-Energy to instantly craft a giant version of your weapon.

Your S-Energy meter increases whenever you get KOs or destroy drones that appear onscreen. The bigger your S-Energy meter, the more abilities you can pull off. Because everyone starts out with a short S-Energy meter, you have to move quickly and destroy drones or attack enemies to build it up and gain the advantage. What you’re really looking to do is use your S-Energy to create a giant bat, hammer, or yo-yo and become an overpowered brawling machine.

You’d think that having a giant weapon would break the game, but thankfully, Ninjala still requires a bit of strategy. Yes, you can button mash to gain a few KOs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get jumped from behind, ambushed by multiple players, or just bested by someone who’s able to use air dashes and dodges effectively. For as frenetic as the action may be, it isn’t cheap — at least not all the time.

In addition to your weapons and gum abilities, Ninjala also features a card-based abilities system. When you’re in the main menu, you can customize your character with different cards to equip different passive abilities. These include marking enemies that are coming up behind you, regaining health when attacking, and so on. These cards are super useful, and it’s best if you spend a little time in the menus seeing which ones work best for you.

You’re going to have to do a bit of experimentation with both your weapons and cards. While there are three types of weapons, there are different versions of each that do different things. While one hammer can shoot out a sticky web that traps enemies, another will turn you into a tornado that can deal sweeping damage. Also, one weapon may grant you stronger attacks but slow your movement. Success in Ninjala requires that you experiment with all the weapons and cards to find what works best for you, which will require a bit of patience and trial-and-error.

The Modes and Content

Right now, Ninjala is pretty light on content, but it’s still a lot of fun. Currently, you can play free-for-all (dubbed battle royale but definitely not the perma-death battle royale that’s commonplace these days) and team matches. Both play similarly, with the main goal being to rack up the most points by knocking out opponents and drones. There’s also an optional ranked battle system that works just like you’d expect it to — perfect for folks who want to test themselves against similarly ranked players.

While you can enjoy everything Ninjala has to offer from a gameplay standpoint at no cost, the game does offer a paid a seasonal battle pass (the Ninjala Pass) priced at $9.50. That’s right in line with most online battle passes, and it’s great if you want to unlock exclusive rewards such as character outfits, weapon skins, and Jala (the game’s currency).

Speaking of Jala, that brings up the big question…

How Free Is Ninjala?

You should be very happy to know that Ninjala is not a pay-to-win game. You can use real money to purchase cosmetic items, as well as the battle pass, but you won’t be buying buffed up weapons or abilities to give you an edge in battle.

In addition, there’s a single-player story mode that can be purchased. It’s a nice option, even if the main appeal of Ninjala is in its multiplayer component. That said, if you want to check out the story mode, you can currently purchase it for a launch sale price of $4.49 (regular price is $9.99).

So, to sum up, Ninjala is free-to-play, not pay-to-win, and it features a paid season pass with some nice unlocks. Even if you don’t have the season pass, you can still rank up and unlock a few items here and there, which is nice. You’ll even unlock Jala in the free progression ladder, so you could potentially use that Jala for a free season pass if you play enough.

Don’t Let Its Charm Fool You

Ninjala is a pretty cutesy game, but don’t let its lighthearted look fool you — this game is not without its challenge. If you want to get wins, especially in ranked mode, you’re going to have to play aggressively, defensively, and strategically.

That said, yeah, this game is really nice to look at. The characters are charming and silly, and the environments are filled with color. Ninjala is definitely what you would expect from a Switch-exclusive online multiplayer game, and it feels right at home on Nintendo’s console thanks in large part to its art style.

The sound design is pretty strong, too. There are a bunch of catchy theme songs that you’ll have stuck in your head for a while, for better or worse. More than that, though, the game is just loud — in a good way. Characters scream and yelp as they beat each other up. There’s even a commentator who shouts over a speaker system whenever you KO someone or announces when there’s a new leader on the board. The game has a distinct vibe, and the sound helps to make it feel like a big competition.

Newer multiplayer games like this sometimes start out with strong foundations but have a lot of room for improvement. Ninjala has a little room for improvement, but what’s there so far is great. Outside the lack of maps — there are only two at this time — the game feels complete and is a ton of fun. The season pass and time-limited challenges help to round out the overall package, and the fact that the game isn’t pay-to-win is awesome. If you’re looking for a new ongoing multiplayer game to sink days, weeks, months into, Ninjala may very well be it.