Splatoon does what Nintendo does best, namely introduce us to a colourfully intuitive new IP brimming with ideas and potential. It’s an atypical third-person shooter of sorts, but with one eye firmly on the PEGI 7+ rating as it swaps bullets for paint. Unfortunately, It also does what Nintendo does worst, namely nannying players to the detriment of the game’s overall experience, and including some design and content choices which will leave you scratching your head.
Playing as an Inkling, you are thrust into Splatoon’s central plaza which acts as a hub of sorts, linking the various game modes together. Here you can buy clothing, weapons and customise your character with an array of styles, as well as hitting the online and local multiplayer modes and whilst the game’s focus is primarily team play, a campaign mode is also present for single-player fun.
The campaign is actually a great way to familiarise yourself with the mechanics before taking on human opponents in an arena. It’s split into various worlds comprising of a number of stages, each culminating in an epic boss battle. Your aim is to navigate the platforms whilst taking out the enemies with your paint gun and avoiding their own paint-based attacks. The first thing to note is that the gamepad’s motion controls are awful. Tilting and rotating the pad to move the camera is simply cumbersome, and causes you more frustration than reward. Some players may get used to the odd twisting motion required, but we never did; thankfully once you’re past the tutorial there is an option in the plaza settings that lets you turn off motion control and once done, you’ll have a far more enjoyable time. The enemies are creative and fun to splat, and the bosses have been intelligently designed to boot. It’s a campaign which only lasts around five or six hours and shouldn’t pose much of a challenge to anyone with even a basic familiarity of 3D platformers, but it’s a fun diversion from the main content.
Multiplayer is the meat of Splatoon, and offers both one-on-one couch play, and ranked and casual online modes. Turf War places you into a team of four, and you must battle the opposing team by covering as much of the floor area of the arena with ink as possible. You can splat your opponents (not kill them - this is Nintendo, after all) to make them respawn at the start of their base with a variety of weapons - rollers, grenades, airstrikes and so on. Your basic weapon can be upgraded as you level up, and the different clothing and accessories you buy from the plaza hub shops will grant you more abilities in-game, including special attacks. As an Inkling you have the option to transform into a squid and swim in the ink laid down by your teammates and yourself. Whilst submerged your ink levels become replenished, and as a squid you also have the ability to scale paint-splattered walls, navigate through mesh fences and super jump over platforms, as well as more effectively dodging enemy attacks. When the time is up, the team who has covered the arena with the most ink is the winner. You’ll gain in-game cash to spend on more accessories and weapons to help you in future matches such as increased ink replenishment, faster respawns and more, as well as experience points which you can use to grind and improve your base stats.
It’s a simple and effective premise, but it’s hampered by some frankly bizarre design decisions. Let’s start with the basics - the lack of content. The game launched with five maps, and although more have been (and continue to be) added, they were restricted to two playable maps on a rotation basis. That’s right - you cannot simply pick a map to play on, you are forced to choose whatever is currently on Nintendo’s timetable. To further exacerbate things, you’re subjected to an unskippable scene every time you launch the game in the form of a cheesy gameshow hosted by two irritating characters who tell you which maps you have been allowed to play this time around.
Not that the multiplayer itself is perfect, far from it. It shows up Nintendo’s significant weaknesses in this area on a number of levels. For starters, the matchmaking is horrific, and there is a lack of party matchmaking which rules out any sort of decent co-operative play. Not that this matters, since there is also zero support for in-game chat. This was a decision strongly defended by Nintendo to protect younger players from abuse over comms, but when there are parental controls available to handle this exact situation, it seems incredible to hamstring a game which so fundamentally needs communication. Matches won’t start until you have eight players, and you cannot escape the lobby once you kick off the player search process. In addition, weapon loadouts cannot be altered in-game so any strategy you had for countering the other team’s rollers or ranged weapons is moot. You’re entirely at the mercy of chance as to who you end up with and what weapons they have. If you’re lucky your team may be a well-rounded force, but this situation rarely occurs.
The gamepad does an excellent job of showing you how much of the arena is covered in both your ink and the opposing team’s, and there are other neat touches such as allowing you to tap your opponent’s location on the map to teleport to them instantly and back them up, but the lack of voice in multiplayer hurts Splatoon far more than it needed to, resulting in a battle that feels colourful but sterile. The local multiplayer is another area lacking in depth. Not only is it a completely different mode to online, it seems bizarre that Nintendo didn’t offer up a four-player arena when the basic premise of the game is screaming out for 2v2 action over split-screen.
It’s a shame, as there is real depth to the underlying mechanics. Splatoon is an intelligent shooter, but it tries too hard to be hip with its “fresh” lingo and focus on superficial style. One has to wonder what kind of message kids will be receiving when they’re told they can’t go into a shop because they aren’t “cool” enough… Strip away the pretentious nonsense though, and you have a solid, imaginative team game which could well benefit from the cumulative updates being wheeled out by Nintendo. They should be applauded for bringing something fresh to the table, and tailoring it to a family-friendly audience was a smart move. It may be too little, too late though - multiplayer games live or die by their user base and by releasing with a miserable amount of content which is itself restricted unnecessarily, Nintendo may have crippled their new IP before it even got off the ground.