Splatoon has been Nintendo’s most successful original franchise of the past 10 years. It’s a series that came out of necessity as the rise of competitive shooters left the company with a hole in its gaming portfolio. Nintendo needed to fill it, but the big question was: How would the developers create a family-friendly shooter and make it feel unique to its brand?
The answer lay in sea life and paintball. More specifically, Nintendo focused on cephalopods, which happen to create their own ink, and the team sport that uses balls of paint for ammo. The big difference in Splatoon is that instead of winning a match by fragging opponents, the players’ goal is to cover the most territory with their team’s colours.
Although it seemed simple to use creatures called Inklings and Octolings to splatter each other with paint, Nintendo plumbed the depths of that inky interaction with its characteristic ingenuity. Through two chapters, they’ve made improvements to the formula, but with Splatoon 3, Nintendo has finally put everything together into a complete package.
A polished experience all around
Whether fans are playing competitively or cooperatively, the multiplayer modes are enjoyable. The single-player campaign is more ambitious with bigger stakes and major plot reveals that make it feel just as epic as anything this side of Call of Duty. Splatoon 3 even offers its own internal card game called Tableturf to add to the game’s many diversions.
It’s a buffet of fun that’s tied together with a slick urban vibe. Players create an avatar and drop into the Splatlands with the crowded city of Splatsville at its heart. It’s a more vibrant place as the curious can explore the hub world’s alleys and plazas, or they can hit the X button to jump to different shops and modes.
The core of Splatoon 3 lies in its multiplayer modes, which are curated with a playlist that’s rotated throughout the day. It’s streamlined so that players can jump in and out of matches and sharpen their skills. The combat and mechanics remain the same. Players shoot their paint to cover the ground and they can slip into a squid mode to glide through their team’s ink, allowing them to move faster and reach more areas of the map.
The skill in the fighting lies in how well players can switch between swimming in the ink and attacking their opponents. It’s a unique form of dodging. The best players are the ones who can outmanoeuvre, outthink and outgun their adversaries.
While the foundation remains the same, Nintendo fine-tuned everything around it to make the progression and customisation both more rewarding and addictive. Players can create different builds that combine weapons that each have their own strategies with outfits that complement that playstyle. For example, if a favourite weapon consumes ink quickly, it’s best to find gear with the Ink Saver skill. What’s great is that the more players use an equipment set, the more perks they can unlock.
This time around, weapons are more difficult to access because players have to earn Sheldon licenses to unlock them. That makes choosing which weapon to unlock more important and mastering it even more so. Increasing a weapon’s “freshness” level through repeated use is a way to earn more Sheldon licenses. I liked the slower progression because it rewards competency with a new weapon.
On the other side of the coin, Splatoon 3 adds even more ways to stand out from the crowd. Players will obtain plenty of trinkets through online modes and the single-player experience, and they can add them to a locker to show off their personality to others.
Customisation spurs exploration
The customisation acts as an incentive to explore the other aspects of Splatoon 3. Players can earn more cash and unlock more catalogue items by tackling the Salmon Run co-operative mode, in which a team of four battles increasingly difficult waves of enemies. The goal is to defeat bosses and collect their Golden Eggs. If competitive play isn’t attractive, then this is a great alternative.
Meanwhile, Tableturf offers a new avenue of play with cards that players earn through the other modes. It’s a nice diversion, but it isn’t anything that rises to the greatness of Witcher 3’s Gwent.
An epic single-player campaign
Fans of the single-player experience will find a heavy dose of deep storytelling and compelling level design, as players explore the Crater and uncovers the underground world of Alterna. Most of the campaign takes place in this high-tech subterranean world that mimics the one on the surface. This place, run by the computer program ORCA, holds the secrets to the origin of the Splatoon world.
Nintendo spoon feeds the lore to players as they explore six sites. With the trusty friend Smallfry, players will have to clear the furry ooze that’s infesting Alterna by infusing the critter’s tiny body with fish egg power. (Don’t worry this is all kind of explained.)
The freeform way players can explore and tackle the levels of each site is a refreshing change from previous games, and like the rest of Splatoon 3, it makes the campaign more cohesive with the rest of the beautifully crafted world.
The levels are self-contained challenges that vary from battle royales to mind-bending puzzles. What’s notable, though, is that this is where Nintendo stretches the core mechanics of Splatoon 3 and shows how it can combine with clever level design to create sublime moments of play. It’s also a good training ground for newcomers to adjust to the multiplayer.
The campaign’s stages have their frustrating moments, but the freedom to hopscotch across different levels and unlock more of the world means that the out-of-this-world finale isn’t out of reach. It’s one that’s as epic as it is shocking and makes this entry the best one of the series so far.
4 stars out of 4
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Rating: Everyone 10 and up – Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service