[Disclosure Notice: During the pre-release review period for this game, Nintendo held a friendly competition for the press and gave out prizes to the winners. We participated in this event and did indeed win a prize (specifically a code for $20 worth of eShop funds) which we did accept. As we are professionals you can trust that we’re able to separate this small gesture intended to foster online play among the press from our feelings regarding the game itself.]
Splatoon is a very curious game, an interesting approach to a familiar genre, one that shines with originality but also bears the pockmarks of the developer’s relative inexperience with this sort of game. As this review is going up a week late (there was a delay with our retail copy of the game and I didn’t want to write this before getting a chance to test out the public servers) a lot has already been said about Splatoon, but I do feel like much of that has been couched in the standard Nintendo fervor that seeps forth whenever they release a new game and especially one from a new IP. That’s not to say that I think Splatoon is a bad game, those 4 stars are up there for a reason, but it does have some notable flaws that need addressing in between all of the praise.
Before we get into specific pros and cons though, let’s elaborate on the gameplay a bit, because it is very unique and warrants explanation. Superficially taking the form of a third person shooter, your primary goal in most of the modes is to cover the stage with your team’s colour of ink. While taking out your opponents is both possible and encouraged, the game does not focus on pure K/D ratios and instead awards the best scores to those who cover the most ground, giving the game a general flow not dissimilar to that of a MOBA. This is also emphasized by how much inked ground ends up effecting the actual gameplay outside of your raw score. At any time characters can switch forms between that of a Kid and a Squid (as says the marketing byline) and both forms are impacted by the ground beneath them. In Kid form you can traverse most any kind of ground as well as fire your weapon, but your average speed is pretty slow and walking over enemy ink will bring you to a poisoned crawl. The Squid form on the other hand can’t shoot and can barely move on dry land, but when situated in your team’s colour of ink it can swim forward at blazing speeds, perform extra long jumps, and will automatically refill your ammo and your health. This means you need to be constantly switching back and forth between the two, using the Kid to carve your team a path forward and deal with enemies before switching off to the Squid to affect retreat, recharge your resources, and then quickly maneuver your way back to where the action is happening. This makes the smart spraying of ink essential as it provides not only extra score but also places of respite for your team and roadblocks for your foes. Thankfully there are a great number of different weapon options available to help keep this curious formula fresh and to Splatoon’s credit the weapons all play pretty differently, though they do tend to fall into certain familiar shooter archetypes and can be somewhat unbalanced. The Roller weapon in particular, which basically acts as a steam roller with a shotgun attached to it, is an easy to use powerhouse that had already gained a notorious reputation even before the game had launched. That said, I’ve noticed that the more experienced and higher ranking players tend to eschew the Roller in favour of the greater versatility offered by the lighter assault rifle style weapons instead, so there is clearly some decent sense of strategy there.
Let’s get away from the more general gameplay though and talk specifically about the multiplayer, which is the big draw for this game after all. The defacto online multiplayer mode, known as “Turf War“, is exactly what I’ve already described; just two teams of four trying to cover as much ground as they can while stopping their opponents from doing the same. There is also a secondary ranked mode you unlock at level ten which is like Turf War but with the addition of control points. Unfortunately though I was never able to find a match of it before release and I didn’t have the time to re-grind a character back up to level ten on the retail version, so I can’t really comment on it. I do know however that it uses the same limited pool of maps that Turf War does, with thinly spread content being one of this game’s major sins. At launch there was only four maps available to play around with, and despite being very well designed they did get old rather quickly, especially considering that they’re re-purposed for use in the single player campaign in places as well. That being said, Nintendo has pledged to add more content to the game via updates, and they’ve actually already added another map and a couple of new weapons in the short time since release, so hopefully they’ll keep that up and Splatoon will grow significantly over time.
Moving onto the actual infrastructure that supports the multiplayer, it’s fairly well designed but not without its pitfalls. One issue is that a match can only start when a lobby contains a full eight players; this makes sense considering how lopsided things would be if even one person was missing and at the moment servers fill up quick enough that it’s not much of a problem, but once user numbers start to fall off it could make for some long and unpleasant wait times. They do have a nice little distraction prepared for these anticipated longer ques in the form of a simple Doodle Jump style mini-game that you can play on the gamepad while you’re waiting in a lobby, but as you might imagine it loses its appeal quickly. In terms of performance, the game seems to be pretty stable with little to no lag present during gameplay and lobbies that fill up quickly without disconnecting midway through. As a note, my experience with the game when I was playing it on the pre-release press servers was much shakier, with players occasionally teleporting around and ink not showing up for a good ten seconds after being sprayed, but it does seem that they have ironed out those kinks for the public servers. One last thing to mention regarding the multiplayer is that there is no voice chat or proper matchmaking; while these are the sorts of things that most multiplayer shooters would be flayed for not having, I think their exclusion suits the less confrontational nature of Splatoon and obviously helps keep this game family friendly during online play.
Of course multiplayer is not the only thing this game has going for it, there’s a single player campaign as well, but frankly it comes off as more of an afterthought than anything else. On the bright side though it’s where most of the game’s (surprisingly decent) lore comes from. The basic premise is that long ago the Inklings and the Octarians clashed in a great conflict known as the Turf Wars, of which the multiplayer mode is essentially a garish reenactment. Thanks to their greater numbers, the Inklings won that war and the Octarians seemingly disappeared. However one day the Great Zapfish that powers the Inkling city of Inkopolis goes missing and at that same time a mysterious UFO shows up. Lured through a manhole in town, you quickly get enlisted by the long retired Captain Cuttlefish to stop the returning Octarians, retrieve the Great Zapfish, and save Inkopolis. From there you’ll jump, splat, and platform your way through a number of very Super Mario Galaxy looking levels, practicing your Inkling skills and defeating a number of fun and challenging bosses to earn unique gear for use back in the multiplayer. Helping to pad this out somewhat are special collectibles in each level that flesh out Splatoon’s lore as well as a separate single player upgrade tree, though honestly those upgrades feel token at best. While Splatoon’s campaign does feel rather light and the levels aren’t all that engaging, it does offer up some good twists on the gameplay that help differentiate it from the multiplayer and the bosses are genuinely fun, with the final boss in particular being an enjoyably hard-fought challenge that tests all your skills and feels truly good to surmount. While I wouldn’t say the single player mode is worth buying the game for, when positioned as a counter point to the multiplayer it works beautifully and really helps to deepen the experience. There is actually another single player mode in the game in the form of some weapon challenges, but unfortunately they’re locked behind specific amiibos, so you’ll have to shell out an additional $13-15 to play them, assuming you can even find the hotly demanded Splatoon figures. For a game that is already stretching a very limited amount of content to its breaking point, locking that mode up behind a pay wall (a very hard to find pay wall at that) honestly seems somewhat sleazy. While I imagine the free multiplayer content updates will help to balance that out over time, it’s still a move I feel less than good about and it really does undercut any attempt to frame this as a single player game.
A part of Splatoon that is beyond reproach in my mind though is the presentation; this is easily one of the best looking games Nintendo has put out for the Wii U and the soundtrack is absolutely off the hook. In terms of sheer technical quality, it’s about on par with the recent Super Mario games and has that same somewhat over-bloomed stark primary colour aesthetic, leading me to assume that it’s using the same engine. However in terms of artistic design, it’s much more complex, evoking a pleasantly odd melange of Pikmin, Jet Set Radio, and Sunset Overdrive, utilizing a cozy Japanese urban setting and elaborating upon it with countless little splashes of street art and everyday objects being used in strange ways. It meshes really well with the vibrancy of the colour palette and as a result Splatoon has a look that manages to distinctly pop off the screen while still remaining cohesive. In terms of the sound design, it’s got that fantastic OST that I mentioned, as well as a very effervescent yet laid back slant to its sound effects and vocalizations. For example, all of the characters speak in that classic Nintendo warble, though it’s less chipper than it is in something like Animal Crossing; rather it’s got a feel closer to that of record scratching here and it adds a nice feeling of punctuation to the conversations. Similarly, the sound effects also blend into the overall soundscape in a really pleasant way, popping when needed to add some spice to the flow of battle. As for that soundtrack I keep dancing around, it’s an incredibly catchy batch of songs which mix Hip-Hop and Funk influences with a manic J-Pop vibe. Even more impressive is how well suited each piece is to where it’s used; the lobby and mode select screen music calmly loop in really subtle ways that keep those tunes from getting annoying and the battle themes ramp up in tempo and volume as the matches draw closer to their conclusion, adding a distinct sense of panic and building tension to the whole affair.
There’s a lot to like in Splatoon and I’m excited to see where Nintendo goes with it as a franchise, but while I do ultimately recommend this game that does come with some caveats. If you’re not a big fan of multiplayer and are only planning to play the single player campaign then I would advise against picking this game up, at least at full price. I would also note that a lot of Splatoon’s appeal does rely on there being a significant community, and while there’s plenty of people playing at the moment, whether that player base will still be there in a year or even six months is going to depend on exactly how hard Nintendo supports the game with free content updates. Those things aside though, Splatoon is an insanely fun and unique experience that takes the traditional and well-worn multiplayer shooter genre and does something truly special with it. As such I can happily give Splatoon a 4 out of 5 stars and strong recommendation to any Wii U owners out there looking for a fresh and colourful ride to help them while away the upcoming summer months.