Squid Quo Pro
Splatoon 2 is a tremendous game dulled by systemic mistakes on the part of Nintendo. It will undoubtedly charm with its unabashed uniqueness and gameplay, but a multiplayer-focused experience is only as strong as the network supporting it and while certain improvements have been made, we’re a long way from a fully realised online vision.
A sequel to the Wii U’s outlandishly successful Splatoon, this follow up retains the original game’s sense of style and fun while introducing a more fleshed-out single player campaign and a delightful list of new and improved weapons and maps. The first game, while achieving an almost three to one attach rate, was marooned on a console that hardly anyone owned, so like Mario Kart 8 before it, Nintendo seeks relevant asylum for their new IP on the Switch. This attempt to rally a new fanbase for a game they know is worth playing mostly succeeds, though this release probably could have been called “Splatoon Deluxe”.
Splatoon 2 sees the return of the Inklings, a monstrously adorable hybrid of cephalopods and kids with attitude who are immediately likeable and make a great addition to the pantheon of iconic Nintendo characters. Armed with an arsenal of radical weapons and the ability to morph between humanoid and squid form at will, these guys set out to cover any surrounding surfaces with blazing neon coloured ink. The game invites you to create your own Inkling through a limited character creation menu. While the choices are all fresh to be sure, a greater degree of customisation would have been nice, especially in a game so focused on identity through personal aesthetics. Three hair styles? Come on, Nintendo.
In human form, players wield a variety of weapons to disperse ink, while transforming into a squid allows Inklings to swim across any inked surface to refill ammo reserves and traverse the landscape swiftly. Inversely, areas covered in enemy ink will slowly deal damage and make navigating the map near impossible. Smartly designed game modes mean that the ultimate goal of any match is never direct combat with the opposition, but rather clever twists on the games ink spreading mechanics. It’s an inspired remix of an established genre and a welcome change of pace from the violent shooters that dominate the market.
A brief tutorial leads you directly into Inkopolis, the lively town square that functions as both social hub and interactive main menu. From here you can jump into the single player campaign or multiplayer lobby, browse shops for new weapons and clothing, play some mini-games, and (most importantly) view the pixel-perfect messages hovering above other online players. These illustrations, created with either directional buttons or the Switch’s less-than-ideal touchscreen, are a masterclass in player engagement and form a perfect bridge between the world of Splatoon 2 and internet meme culture. As such, it’s calamitous that where the game has the most trouble is with its network-based services.
The more time spent with Splatoon 2, the more it shows its rickety underpinnings as minor annoyances pile up. Players are unable to change character load-outs in the multiplayer lobby, while also completely removing the option to leave a lobby without quitting out of the game entirely. Salmon Run, one of the sequels only new additions, is restricted to local co-op only until predetermined times by Nintendo. Even standard multiplayer maps are locked on a 2 at a time rotation, complete with an unskippable cutscene every two hours to let you know which maps are available at the time. There have also been reported cases of the network simply failing, resulting in dropped matches that prompt an in-game warning of suspicious play activity. None of this even touches upon the colossal mess that is the Nintendo Switch’s voice chat functionality.
While Turf War, the primary multiplayer mode, doesn’t rely too heavily on voice communication, the other ranked modes beg for a degree of discourse between players. This is technically possible; downloading the official Switch Online App allows for voice chat between players, however, it requires the app to remain open and the phone unlocked, so if you’d like to do anything else on your phone during chat, for instance, while waiting in a lobby, then you will be booted out. It’s archaic, especially given the abundance of voice chat apps that already exist and don’t plan on charging users in the future. If you want to avoid this absurd process, feel free to buy the outrageously convoluted HORI Headset. While the voice chat complications posed by the Switch aren’t going to be unique to Splatoon 2, it does bear the weight of being the first game to truly suffer from it.
Being a Switch title also allows Splatoon 2 to greatly benefit too, as the control options and portability are both implemented beautifully. The games opening tutorial encourages you to use the motion controls, guiding you through the process of using the Switch to aim your ink and showing off the flexibility of options available to players. Under the options tab you can find a robust set of sliders to adjust the motion controls to exactly your liking, or to simply disable them all together. Whichever way you prefer to play it’s great to see Nintendo embrace giving players a nuanced choice.
The single player campaign, Hero Mode, is a pleasant enough escapade to rescue the Great Zapfish and defeat the nefarious Octarians. You’ll get anywhere between five to ten hours out of the campaign, depending on how deeply you feel like investing in it. From a hub you can dive into several different worlds, which consist of obstacle courses floating in an infinite void that would make M.C Esher dizzy. Finding the entrances to these levels is a portion of the puzzle in and of itself, requiring exploration and painting of the hub.
Breaking up the hubs is a serviceable approach but lacks the innovation you would expect from a numbered sequel, especially when you consider how exceptional Nintendo are at crafting smaller open worlds. The fluid movement of the ink mechanic paired with the modern urban aesthetic could make for a Mirrors Edge inspired exploration game, with those same great levels from the campaign organically appearing throughout a large scale Inkopolis.
Instead, these are mostly linear experiences that reward keen eyed players for exploration, and level design of the quality you’d expect from Nintendo. Scattered throughout are a multitude of platforming puzzles, enemy combatants of varying degrees of difficulty, and smartly hidden areas. Levels culminate in absurdly fun and creative boss fights; encounters that utilise the ink mechanics in thrilling ways, testing your lateral thinking and quick reflexes while never feeling too difficult.
A relentless charm permeates much of Splatoon 2 and when paired with the game’s willingness to subvert genre expectations, forms a wholly unique kind of experience. Weapons and outfits drip with effortless cool, while each of the multiplayer stages is perfectly spaced out and realised worlds. The writing immediately shines with self-aware comedy and sincerity, a trademark of Nintendo’s first party games. The game communicates with you in its own slang, every question or menu prompts a fun poke in the side. The UI is also imbued with this youthful vibrancy as eccentric, neon patterns dance around the screen.
Inharmonious with the established visual language of the game, many of the elements in the single player simply look ridiculous, which in a game centred around squid children should sound alarm bells. The foot soldiers of the Octarians are closer to Minions than Rabbids while chunks of city landscapes and debris float in the ether around platforms. Then you fight a giant baker oven, which while an undeniably fun time, sounds as out of place as it looks. Much of this doesn’t even look bad as such, but rather appears starkly lazy in contrast with the level of quality on show in the rest of the game, especially the multiplayer.
Turf War might not be new but it remains the beating heart of the game, though for some it will simply be seen as a hurdle before you can start playing the other modes. Reaching level 10 unlocks Rainmaker, Splat Zones and Tower Control, individually ranked competitive modes. Rainmaker sees players carrying a unique payload, the titular Rainmaker weapon, into enemy controlled territory; Splat Zones shifts the focus onto specific zones that players must maintain ink domination on and Tower Control is a somewhat convoluted back and forth over control of a moving tower.
These matches are entertaining but never quite reach the frantic heights of Turf War, or the originality of the new Salmon Run horde mode. A bombastic and brutally difficult remix of wave based combat, Salmon Run works the formula and lore of Splatoon and takes it to strange new places. Taking up the role of a foot soldier in the war between Mr.Grizzly and the Salmonids, players must collect golden salmon eggs while surviving increasingly difficult waves of enemies, and eventually special bosses. Salmon Run also does the most to change up the games core formula; weapons are restricted, special moves earnt through combat in the base game are strictly limited, and the focus shifts somewhat from ink coverage to direct combat. Collecting more golden eggs than the required quota also unlocks more bonus points and in game currency, making the whole package an enticing new addition.
Progression in multiplayer standards can initially feel slow, especially if you find yourself on the losing team, but once you find your own rhythm the game is more than willing to reward you. As you level up, you gain access to a larger arsenal of weapons, each with unique strengths and weaknesses that complement the style of gameplay you’re looking for. Cosmetic upgrades allow for personal flair and skill augmentation; I decked myself out in a pink polo shirt that gave me a stealth ability and some dope shoes which refilled my ink pack faster. In-game currency can be spent to alter and reroll your skills too, allowing you to tweak the look and playstyle of your Inkling.
The core of Splatoon 2 is intrinsically linked with online play, with much of the replayability and character customisation limited to multiplayer based levelling and because of this the instability of the network becomes a core issue with the game. Players of Splatoon may be disappointed in the lack of new content in this supposed sequel but new comers are in for a certified treat. Once you get past the horribly awkward design choices you’ll find yourself playing an inventive shooter that not only gleefully subverts the genre, it spits ink in its face.