In the last few years we have seen an influx of free-to-play games, for better or worse, seemingly stemming from the business models of popular MOBAs, retooled for the much more recent Battle Royales. Fortnite seemed to pave the way for an entirely new and viable money-making scheme, and damn do I love it! The free to play and NOT pay to win business model satiates many of my video game desires. I can play a game entirely free of charge, or I can choose to buy cosmetics (that don’t affect gameplay in the slightest) and support the developers, it’s a win-win all around. The latest of these games is Ninjala, an entirely free-to-play, online experience for the Nintendo Switch that has won my heart since it launched. Ninjala is both simple and complex in an oxymoron that can only be made sense of through experience, and it is incredible.
The basic premise is that you are a ninja enveloped in constant battles hosted by the WNA, World Ninja Association. They have developed a gum that imbues special ninja powers upon the consumer. A lot of the game revolves around these powers, so you will see a lot of bubbles being blown and gum weapons being wielded. You’re essentially a bad ass ninja with all the perks that come with such a title. The game really shines through its many intricacies, while maintaining a simplistic coat of paint that is very inviting to newcomers.
The game, while being geared toward online multiplayer battles, be it team or battle royale style, also includes a story mode for purchase. While this may be intriguing to some players, single player is clearly an afterthought here and the story is rather uninteresting. Coming in at a total of $10 USD, it is practically highway robbery. The story is dished out through comic book panels that are barely animated and laughably so. You follow the story of Van, a young boy learning the ropes of what it means to be a ninja while practicing his newfound powers.
It’s essentially a tutorial that doesn’t really help you succeed on the online battlefield whatsoever. There is a lot of unmet potential here, as the premise of the game could have been expanded on and really interesting story arches could have been made, but again, the single player is clearly an afterthought here and is a cheap jedi mind trick to get newcomers to dish out an undeserving $10. Steer clear of this purchase, unless you really want to practice your ninja skills when you don’t have internet to play with friends and foes alike. It is worth noting that each episode in the chapter will net you some gold coins if you perfect it, which can then be spent on various upgrades to your ninja, like passive abilities. The amount you can accrue through the story is inconsequential though, maintaining the game’s status as definitely NOT pay-to-win. This game mode does introduce unique enemy types though, and they are rather charming and well designed. That is literally its only redeeming feature.
There are other in-game purchases that can be made aside from the lackluster story mode. There is, like many other Battle Royales before it, a battle pass of sorts that will allow you to unlock cosmetics. Of course there is a standard pass for free that will permit you access to a variety of goodies, but the payed pass will reward you with many more goodies at a much greater rate as you rank up. If you’re not into cosmetics then this can also be avoided, as it is perfectly viable to stick with the free pass. Gameplay is unaffected regardless of the money you choose to spend. This is the best case scenario for free-to-play games in my opinion, where it is very consumer friendly, void of predatory charges.
Now we get down to the most important aspect of the game, gameplay. You wield one of three varieties of weapons, the katana, hammer, or yo-yo. All have very distinct gameplay features that allow you to adjust your playstyle accordingly. Within these three varieties are four different options of weapons that have different passive and active abilities. I am most acquainted with the drill katana because it allows me to burrow into the ground and pounce on unsuspecting enemies, often allowing me to steal kills or surprise attack the oblivious ninja. You swing your weapon by pressing ZR, and you blow a gum-bubble with ZL also acting as a guard. When you clash with another ninja you are given four choices: up, down, left, or right. This amounts to a game of rock paper scissors, where up beats down, down beats side, and side beats up. When you perform a basic attack with ZR and there is no input from the stick, the default attack is up, allowing veterans to exploit noobs by opting for the side attacks.
You can also shoot your bubbles by holding ZL and shooting with ZR. You are given a power meter allowing you to dash. This meter is increased whenever you defeat a drone and will allow you to upgrade your weapon to a bigger form of itself when you accumulate enough power. There are many more intricacies that I will not mention here for fear of my readers figuring out my playstyle and trouncing me when we inevitably meet on the battlefield. I’ll leave the rest up to trial and error. I am hoping now you understand why I have been saying this game is both simplistic and complex at the same time.
The graphics err on the side of simplicity to be more appealing to the uninitiated. It essentially tricks you into playing an overly complex game. I love it. It is very cartoony and colorful and looks like it was made for children. That could very well be the case, but I really don’t see children being able to figure out how to “git gud”. It can be somewhat of a shock to see this giant Pixar animation beat you down if you’re not ready for it. I thought the childish aesthetic to be quite charming in the grand scheme of things, and it definitely motivates me to keep playing. At the very least it’s a nice break from the much more gritty and bleak Skyrim port on the Switch.
The sound is great as well, as I jump for joy when the announcer yells Ippon! or Ninjala! when a combo lands in all the right ways to leave your opponent flying to the other end of the arena. Sound effects are straight out of a cartoon as well, and the music featured in the game has all been originally crafted. You can assign your ninja with a theme song in the avatar customizer, and I’m constantly jamming to the theme song I handpicked for myself. It’s all great fun and appropriate for all ages.
Finally, the game has been designed to be played over and over, ad infinitum. Each game feels different from the last as you can choose to Ippon your way to victory, or steal all the drones, or even just work toward your many missions that will lead you to rank up your battle pass faster. I’ve been playing it rather consistently since its launch and the gameplay has yet to feel dry to me. However, I do believe that many players may fall out of the game if they aren’t winning enough, or the gameplay just doesn’t appeal to them. There are only two maps to choose from so the locations may become stale after a while. I feel like it’s a “love it or hate it” kind of game with very little room in between. If you don’t like the game after giving it a good chance, it will likely never grow on you. However, admittedly I wasn’t a big fan after my first few battles, but after learning the ins and outs, I grew to love it for all of its intricacies. It may very well be a contender for my favorite free to play games of all time.
I would recommend any Switch owner to give this one a go, if for no other reason than that it’s free. You don’t even need a Nintendo Online subscription to battle against other players online, making it one of the only truly free games out there. If you don’t like it after giving it a fair chance, that’s okay, because you literally haven’t lost anything. Well, except for your precious time. Regardless, I think it’s a worthy pick-up for any Switch owner. There’s nothing to lose.
Replay Value: 5/5
Total: 22/25 or 88/100