Review: Splatoon (Wii U)

Did Nintendo’s newest game land with a satisfying splat or a heartbreaking thud?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/03/2015 07:00 4 Comments     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
Innovative and accessible concept; Pitch perfect controls and presentation; Multiplayer is addictive; Single-player is clever and rewarding
Poison Mushroom for...
Online modes are too limited; Map selection variety is virtually nonexistent; Single player campaign a little on the short side

Splatoon is really going to throw a lot of folks for a loop the first time they play it. It’s a third-person shooter on the surface, but the rulebook that has for so long been the go-to guide for defining how these sorts of titles are “supposed” to play has officially been smothered in ink by Nintendo’s newest IP. Whether it’s in online Turf Wars or over the course of the game’s 25-plus stage single-player campaign, Splatoon throws the common tenets of point-and-shoot gameplay out of the window. Irreverent, colorful, zany, and packed to the gills with action, Splatoon is boldly itself amongst the faceless legions of me-too military shooters that are currently strangling the market. Nintendo’s decision to slowly eke out new content and modes of play as opposed to offering more at the outset is the only blemish on this otherwise fresh new face.

The end result of all the tinkering and melding of minds that went into Splatoon is a video game that genuinely doesn’t feel like anything I’ve played before.¬†Players start off by building an avatar Inkling boy or girl, the game’s squid-human hybrids who can mutate between forms at will. From there, the player is dropped into Splatoon‘s central hub, a bustling city called Inkopolis. Reminiscent of Times Square in New York with a splash of Tokyo’s Karajuku fashion district, Inkopolis houses a variety of different things to do, from shops to purchase gear and weapons for online play, to a reclusive black market dealer named Spyke who will take care of special deliveries once a day. The plaza is littered with the avatars of players from around the world, with their creator’s Miiverse posts popping up overhead as speech bubbles, and in a neat twist drawings made by users are placed around the landscape as graffiti on the walls. From this hub is where players will make their way to either of the game’s online modes or single player campaign. Vibrant and full of energy, it sets the tone of Splatoon from the very beginning.

While I’ve generally felt that all of Nintendo’s first-party offerings have maximized Wii U’s graphical horsepower, Splatoon isn’t quite in the same league as Mario Kart 8 or Wind Waker HD. The environments are surprisingly reserved given how bombastic Inkopolis and its inhabitants are, but considering how intensive the online play is and that all the pretty scenery is being covered in brightly colored ink anyway, I can understand why Splatoon is a notch below the best looking titles on Wii U. The game certainly has some good art direction, especially in regards to the iconic Inklings, with their domino masks and eccentric wardrobes; I honestly think of them as instant classic characters. There are two control types to choose from: motion or traditional buttons and analog sticks. With motion on, the GamePad must be physically manipulated in order to aim, while traditional controls allow for the familiar dual-stick layout of most first and third-person shooters. I opted for the latter, though the former is certainly workable, and might be more easily learned by newer players. I encourage everyone to find what works for them, but I usually recommend traditional controls over motion nine times out of ten.

The online multiplayer mode is the heart of the experience that Splatoon offers. I’m not taking anything away from the single player (which I’ll get to in a bit), but this is is the sort of game that is at its best online with other people. As of this writing there are two primary multiplayer modes: Turf War and Ranked Battles. Turf War is the more laid back mode of the two, focusing on territory control and earning experience points over combat. Players are split into two teams of four, with the primary objective being to spray more ink on the playing field than the opposition; the team with more of its color on the ground wins. Ranked Battles are different. Unlocked only after a player has reached level ten, this mode revolves around a type of battle called Splat Zones, where the two teams struggle to maintain control over a small section of a map. These bouts are incredibly frenzied and demand much more nuance and skill to be successful at. Splatoon keeps track of player performance here, providing experience points only upon victory, as well as a letter ranking that fluctuates up and down in tandem with wins and losses. In my playtime I encountered highly infrequent connectivity issues, though it can be frustrating not being able to back out of searching for matches or quit mid-match. I hate rage quitters, of course, but there are times any game might need to be shut off midway through, so it was disappointing to see that ability absent. Perhaps it’s in an effort to keep online bouts stable.

There are three weapon types to choose from: machine guns, sniper rifles, and rollers. Each weapon type unlocks as players level up, and they also come with a different set of sub weapons and specials in tow. Though there are no custom loadouts to speak of, the variety of weapons to choose from is solid; I experimented with each until I found a combo that suited my play style. It’s not a perfect system sadly, as being able to customize all of my weapon selection would have been welcome, but I can appreciate what Nintendo was probably trying to do by being more restrictive. This game isn’t Battlefield. It’s not about trying to dominate other players individually. To reiterate, taking out enemies is a secondary objective in Splatoon. The main multiplayer mode, Turf War, is actually very emblematic of this. Whether someone playing is a veteran of online shooters or entirely new to the genre, everyone can find a way to contribute. Lurking in the background and quietly soaking every inch of the ground with ink is as valuable to a team as charging headfirst into the opposition and lobbing Splat Bombs. Sure, there’s always going to be one or two folks who rack up more points than everyone else, but ultimately player worth in Splatoon isn’t easy to pin down. It’s the antithesis of Call of Duty’s sometimes daunting and inaccessible approach to competition and player appraisal.

That said, Splatoon does grant players the chance to be more competitive through its Ranked Battles, where taking out enemy Inklings becomes more important as both teams converge on the tiny plots of territory up for grabs. Tactics in Ranked Battles are a lot different, and overall it’s geared much more toward aggressive styles of play than Turf War. I’m tempted to say it feels out of place after taking part in Turf War’s more lighthearted antics, but in reality Ranked Battles offer some much needed variety in Splatoon‘s online gameplay. Offline, Splatoon offers one-on-one Balloon Battles in the Battle Dojo, but these skirmishes aren’t anywhere near as appealing as the game’s online matches. It’s good as a diversion, if nothing else. My biggest complaint about the game as of this writing is that there simply isn’t enough content for online play as there should be. Ranked Battles weren’t available until a couple of days after Splatoon‘s launch, but even with its addition the options are still sparse. What’s more, Nintendo only offers two maps to play on at a time! That seems crazy to me. Granted, the two maps are switched out every few hours, but why the entire selection of six isn’t available at all times strikes me as strange. Nintendo has promised more content is on the way, but it honestly feels like more of it should have been ready right out of the gates. While I can whittle away hours online with these meager offerings, I can see some players burning out more quickly.

The one area of Splatoon that can be customized is gear. There’s a huge assortment of shirts, shoes, and headgear that can be purchased in Inkopolis’s shops, all of which appear right on the player’s avatar (unlike a lot of RPGs!). I had an incredibly fun time going to look through each shopkeeper’s inventory (which cycles every 24 hours) and dress up my Inkling afterward. There’s a practical purpose to all this outfit-making, too, as each piece of gear will boost different statistics during online matches. From raising offensive strength to conserving ink, gear allows players to create an ensemble that complements their play style. Spyke, the shady merchant I mentioned earlier, actually allows players to inspect the gear of other users, which can then be ordered and picked up the next day. It’s interesting having to wait a whole day in real-time to get an order, but between Spyke’s slow shipping and the shops’ rotating inventory, it helps mete out gear at a reasonable pace.

Luckily Splatoon‘s single-player campaign helps pick up some of the slack of its online counterpart. Clocking in around five to six hours, players work with the timid Cap’n Cuttlefish to take down the invading army of aliens known as Octarians. The adventure is broken into stages that mix puzzle solving and shooting action. Unlike in multiplayer, there are a number of play mechanics in single-player that require the use of ink for something other than just sullying the ground. From Propeller Lifts to Sponges, ink can transport players from point to point or create new platforms to jump on. The boss battles are epic and challenging, and offer a change of pace that keeps the campaign engaging. What’s more, hidden Sunken Scrolls in each stage can be used to unlock new weapons in Turf War and Ranked Battles, further encouraging people to give single-player a go. The three Amiibo available alongside¬†Splatoon‘s launch (Inkling Boy, Girl, and Squid) also provide a cluster of single-player stages to complete that have been tweaked with new challenges, like using a different weapon to win. These stages lead to new gear being unlocked that can’t be obtained otherwise, which is a nice bonus along with the extended gameplay. I loved Splatoon‘s single player, but I would have liked for it to have been longer. It’s not skimpy by any stretch, but it peters out faster than Nintendo’s usual single-player titles.

Splatoon has arrived and very nearly delivered on every bit of the potential it showed at E3 2014. A bold mixture of classic Nintendo sensibilities and modern game design, Splatoon has planted its flag firmly in the ground both as an online multiplayer title and solo adventure game. Though the online modes are currently suffering from a dearth of content, what’s there is highly captivating, clever, and innovative. When all the good ideas for third-person shooters seemed to have dried up, Nintendo came along and decided to do something new, and for that I applaud the company. It’s been a thrill to partake in a shooting game that anyone can play, whether as a family or with a pack of friends, or even alone. As the months go by and more content rolls out, Splatoon will continue to grow more and more robust, making it a worthwhile investment on top of just being a great game. Go give Splatoon a purchase and help make it a new staple Nintendo franchise.

4 Responses to “Review: Splatoon (Wii U)”

  • 75 points
    Robert Palacios says...

    What really impressed me was the art direction. The inklings, as you mentioned, feel iconic from the get go. It really does have a sort of cutting edge Sega feel ala Jet Set Radio and Space Channel 5, maybe even more polished. I think they may have captured lightning in a bottle if they can get some marketing muscle behind it. With the new modes and levels coming soon, I think the complaints about brevity will go away as well.
    I’m really curious to see how Nintendo will support it in the coming months.

  • 1549 points
    penduin says...

    I don’t yet have a favorite splattlefield (to steal a term used in one of those treehouse videos) but I actually enjoy the way the game rudely interrupts what you’re doing to announce the current online maps.

    In Mario Kart 8, every time I see Tick Tock Clock or Big Blue come up, my heart soars. Then, a moment later, it sinks as people vote for some far less interesting course and we’re stuck playing that. In Splatoon, if I don’t care for the arena on offer, I can go dink around in single-player or experiment with different equipment. When they call out one I like, I can plunge right into battle.

  • 849 points
    ejamer says...

    This game looks great, but it’s not for me. Hopefully others enjoy it a great deal.

    One thing that bugs me though: the way Nintendo is using a “retail” release as a Trojan horse for downloading content post release. Defeats (much of) the purpose for buying retail…

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