I really wasn't sure what to make of Ninjala when it released more than six months ago. I was a little turned off by how much is borrowed Splatoon's neon aesthetic, and there are so many free to play games that it took me a while before I sat down and gave it a deeper look. What finally enticed me to do so was the free "jala" (the game currency you buy with real money) the game gave out for milestones like 5 million downloads, and they also have "matsuri" (i.e. festival) events where you can earn a ton of tier points for completing missions. I started playing more seriously over the winter break and I have to say I'm very glad I did. The game hooked me in so much that I ended up happy to spend a few bucks of real money to get the premium paid pass for last season and this season to unlock the various par for the course cute emotes and costumes.

The game has a few things in common with Splatoon even beyond its sense of style and the way it divides clothes into "brands" and also how it lets you tweak your abilities with shinobi cards (like skill slots on gear in Splatoon). Like Splatoon the game is an arena fighter and like Splatoon there are variations of weapons that provide different abilities and special attacks. Also like in Splatoon you can focus on two objectives during the game, both of which help your team. In this case you can defeat stationary drones in order to increase the maximum level of your "gum meter" (which is necessary to increase your weapon strength), and defeat other players. In Ninjala this ability to help your team even if you're not going after KOs is nice, but that won't get you too far. You can play solo vs seven other players or teams of 4v4, and although I find the team mode to be less pressure and thus much more satisfying, the two modes require different approaches and both are enjoyable.

As for the core gameplay, there's a satisfying variety of weapons such as the standard equivalent of sword and hammer types, but also many that are more unique, like a skateboard that has unique movement controls when you ride it and also powers up the more you jump around, and a yo-yo that you can leave spinning in place that you can teleport back to in order to attack. There's a nice variety in specials attacks and ultimate attacks, and pretty much all of them are easy and fun to use. The game controls are super smooth, and a key sign of a great game is when it's fun to just run around and navigate the space. You can blow bubbles at any time and rocket yourself in any direction as a faster mode of travel, and the game also has a really satisfying mechanic of letting you transform into random environmental objects such as trash cans in order to regain health and also catch your opponents off guard. The character design is cartoony and kiddy-looking but inviting, and there's a good variety in the stages as well (with Japanese, French, and London/British aesthetics so far). There aren't really any limited time special modes (I think there's been only one since I started playing), but there really doesn't need to be because the core gameplay is so fun. Playing with friends in a private room or open team battles is simple to set up and fun, but playing with strangers is pretty much equally fun as well.

There were some complaints I was a little concerned about that I'd heard a little about before I played the game. One was that weapon skins are single use. This turned out to not be a big deal at all for me. For one, upgrading to the paid pass automatically gives you infinite uses for the weapon skins. Also, the skins are really just palette swaps. All the weapons are available from the beginning, and earning these palette swaps seems to me to just be a little extra to encourage you to experiment with different weapons when you're first starting off. The other issue I was worried about was the core battle mechanics, which has you parrying and basically randomly choosing between three options. The choices aren't actually completely random because different weapons gain super armor if you successfully parry, but then the problem is if your opponent knows that you're more likely to choose that option. I ended up not minding this too much because it gives the game a more party feel, and over the course of a match you're more or less likely to win as many of these encounters as lose them. This also encourages you to be more strategic about avoiding getting into these clashes in the first place, either by being sneaky and picking off opponents who are already at low health, or making better use of your specials and ultimates.

In case you couldn't tell, I've grown to really like Ninjala, and I have to say it's easily my favorite free to play game on Switch right now, by a good margin. It's so polished that it really feels like it could have been a first-party Nintendo release, which is high praise indeed. I'm really hoping the game continues to build up its audience, and I'm definitely planning on jumping back into it whenever the next matsuri event happens. I've also already gotten my nephew into it, and I've gotten some other friends to try it out as well, so it looks like it may end up working its way into my online game night rotations as well. I'm really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this game, and I can see myself appreciating the game even more the more I play it and try out even more of the weapons. What are you waiting for? See you online! ;)

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