Splatoon is a competitive third-person shooter that doesn’t focus on racking up the most number of kills against your opposing team, but rather on coloring the most surface area on the map. Rather than bullets, Splatoon players fire brightly-colored ink from their weapons, and rather than bloody kills, you defeat your opponents with gooey "splats."
It’s a clever spin on what we’ve come to expect from the genre, but more importantly, it’s a must-buy for any Wii U owner—it’s the most fun I’ve had in years.
At any time, you can transform into a squid and dive into the ink, a mechanic so central to the game that it would otherwise be unplayable. Indeed, it’s truly amazing how much mileage the designers have gotten out of the one idea. Diving into your own color ink both recharges your ink tank (i.e. ammo) and hides you from opponents so that you can throw them for a curve. More importantly, swimming in your own color ink greatly increases your mobility, while enemy ink makes you practically immobile.
By tying all these mechanics together so smoothly, they’ve created an immense wealth of strategy for players to unfold. You could shoot ink all around an enemy and splat them while they’re helpless, dive into the ink and swim around their back to catch them off-guard, or really any other clever strategy you think up. The exact same can be said for how you decide to approach moving around the map to splatter the most ground with your color. And because these battle tactics are directly linked to the victory condition—which is simply to have more ink on the ground than your opponents—the tides can turn in an instant, which keeps every second of these three-minute battles intense, engaging, and most importantly, fun.
One of the most valuable differences this game brings to the genre is that every player has something to do at any given moment. You’re never simply waiting to defend a flag, or trekking across the map to where the action is. There is always a way to contribute to your team, and more often than not, you don’t need to look for that productive task; it presents itself to you loud and clear.
This colorful transmogrifying animal paintball is such a tremendously fresh take on the genre that you may not realize you’re playing a competitive shooter at all. The bright color combinations and manic gameplay feel more like the golden days of eating Trix Yogurt than the solemn tone of Destiny or Halo. It’s a game so distinct in every possible way, from the background music, to the graphical assets, to the urban hipster street fashion, that the most minute snippet of even the smallest cranny in the game still screams "SPLATOON!" That’s a magical accomplishment so rare from the contemporary industry that I was stunned it’s even still possible.
Splatoon offers four different weapon types: Splattershots, ink machine guns; Blasters, ink shotguns; Chargers, ink sniper rifles; and Rollers, close-range weapons that steamroll everything in their path, but become near-useless at any distance.
There are five multiplayer stages, which is certainly a small number for a full retail game, but each stage has been meticulously fine-tuned to offer a wide variety of play strategies for each type of weapon. There are long, narrow passageways for rollers, high vantage points for snipers, and plenty of obstacles and terrain constructed in between to make each level both exciting and unique. This kind of careful, deliberate level design is married to the balance of the weapons themselves, which ensures that no weapon type is inherently better than any other and that each stage remains entertaining even after you’ve become familiarized with them. I’m still finding new ways to approach the terrain with each different weapon type, which is a result of Nintendo’s decision to focus on making five excellent stages instead of seven or eight that are pretty good—a result that’s perfectly understandable for anyone to disagree with, but I much prefer a focus on quality over quantity.
You earn experience points after each round of online play based on how much ink you splattered during the three minutes of play. As you level up, better gear will be available in the shops to customize your character both aesthetically and functionally. Which of these two purposes is the gear’s primary function will depend largely on the player. There’s a wide variety of shoes, shirts, and headgear to customize your character to a look you like, and each piece of equipment has at least one ability that will affect your performance in battle. These effects may be as tangible as a defense boost or as nuanced as shortening the amount of time during which enemies can track your location with their special weapons.
The main abilities can be seen when purchasing the gear in stores, but you’ll have to take the gear into online battles and earn experience with them to unlock their subsequent abilities—much like leveling your character up, albeit on a smaller scale, and with benefits beyond the symbolism of looking tough online. Each ability, however, is unlocked at random, which means it’s possible to get multiple instances of the same ability for one piece of gear, and not at all unlikely that you’ll get multiple instances of the same ability between the twelve possible abilities you’ll be able to equip later on. Fortunately, stacking abilities doesn't cancel their effects. Instead they work with diminishing returns: if I’m using four Ink Saver abilities, only one works at full power, and each subsequent Ink Saver works to a progressively smaller effect. It’s a nice solution that prevents players from stacking up their defense until they’re practically invincible, while ensuring that the system of unlocking abilities at random isn’t maddening.
This gear can only be used in the online Turf Wars described earlier, or the online Ranked Battles, which focus the action in frantic swarms by asking players to control specific "Splat Zones" instead of the entire map. The local multiplayer mode, called "Battle Dojo," has eight non-customizable weapon sets for players to choose, which is a tad disappointing, but works well enough.
The larger problem with local multiplayer is that there’s only one way to play. It’s a one-on-one match with one player on the GamePad and one on the TV screen, competing to shoot the most balloons. It’s excellently made, and it’s just as much fun as a Turf War, but friends playing together are going to need more options to keep it interesting for long periods of time. At the least, an offline Turf War with CPU players would have helped, but it is sad to see that the creative minds at Nintendo couldn’t implement something more unique.
I was most surprised by Splatoon’s single-player campaign, Octo Valley. Nintendo hasn't touted Octo Valley too heavily, but it turns out to be every bit as worthwhile as the main attraction. It features a large hub world made up of five core areas, each of which act like any other in-game map. Strewn across the nooks and crannies of these areas are invisible tea kettles, some of which are hidden shockingly well, which you’ll discover by splattering paint. These tea kettles are how you access the levels themselves, so it becomes a satisfying quest to progress through the campaign by uncovering secrets, instead of limiting that sense of discovery to forgettable rewards.
The levels themselves are consistently fun, thoughtful, and unique. It takes the famed Super Mario Galaxy approach of introducing a new mechanic at the beginning of each level and using it in clever ways as you progress, which keeps each idea fresh and exciting without overstaying its welcome. One particularly memorable course has you splattering ink at what appears to be empty airspace so that you can reveal hidden floors, walls, and passageways to move forward. These levels are home to dozens of fun elements of stealth, puzzle-solving, and exploration that you can’t find in the online battle modes, because the developers were able to design these worlds around specific planned scenarios, as opposed to the unpredictable dynamism of online play.
But the true purpose of Octo Valley is to teach players the finer details of Splatoon’s mechanics, and to that end it does a terrific job. The objective in a given level is to make your way towards the end of the goal, of course, but each one introduces a new mechanic or obstacle that’s key to making it there. Some levels, for example, might focus on a new enemy type that uses a specialized weapon from the multiplayer battles, while another might have you dipping through grates to avoid getting splatted. These ideas start small, but they’re well paced so as to teach you the ins and outs of playing the game without ever feeling dull or patronizing.
Octo Valley is secretly more of a tutorial for competitive play than a true campaign, but it’s so full of life and creativity that you wouldn’t even realize how much and how quickly you’re learning. When I finished the single-player mode, I felt like I truly understood Splatoon, and my online performance was measurably better as a result. Building such a robust, effective tutorial system is already an impressive accomplishment, but Nintendo was able to build one so fun and engaging that I never wanted to put it down.
Despite all the glimmering genius, there are a few frustrating oversights. You can’t change your gear in the lobby of a game, for instance, which means that if you want to choose a different weapon or equipment, you’ll have to either wait for the lobby to time you out, wait for a new match to start and play it through before leaving, or reset the console altogether. That’s an absurd process for a player to endure for something so simple.
There remain a few minor annoyances. Not all five stages are always available online, but rather they’re set up in a rotation of two at a time for each of the two online modes. This isn’t inherently a problem, but they only switch out once every four hours, which means anyone playing a binge session will start to get antsy well before the rotation is over, and even in shorter play sessions it’s not uncommon to get the same stage four or five times in a row. It’s not a cardinal sin by any means, but it would be more enjoyable if they expanded the selection from two stages to three. Worse, however, is that the stages on rotation are plastered everywhere in the game—you can find it on the GamePad screen, hung up in the central hub of Inkopolis, and even right there in the lobby while you’re waiting—and yet it still interrupts you every time you start the game (or if you’re playing when the rotation changes) with an unskippable cutscene to reveal this news.
The Verdict: Truly Inkredible
Splatoon is a wonderfully fresh take on one of the industry’s most tired genres. Every corner of the game is oozing with creativity and an attitude uniquely its own. It’s a beacon not only of brilliant game design, but of the imagination and risk that the big-budget industry so desperately needs. Above all else, though, it’s a fun-filled, ink-soaked, splat-tastic blast.
- Answering Your Questions About Splatoon
- Why Splatoon Doesn't Need Voice Chat
- Some of Splatoon's Controversial Decisions Actually Make a Better Game
Editor’s Note: Nintendo provided Gamnesia with a free copy of Splatoon for review. They provided us with no accompanying Amiibo, and Amiibo functionality was not factored into this review as a result. I plan to buy my own Splatoon Amiibo for use with the game and update the review if I find that Amiibo functionality affects it in any way. This review also does not take into account the quality of online servers, which have worked fine during the review period, but may very well differ for the wider commercial release.