In many crucial areas, Splatoon 2 is a fantastic continuation of Nintendo’s new family friendly shooter series. The ink-based gameplay is further refined and tweaked to near-perfection. The music and visuals are still a memorable mix of Japanese youth and pop idol culture mixed with extreme sports, fish puns and punk sensibilities. And there are a lot of appreciated changes under the hood to make it yet another catch of a game for the Nintendo Switch. But it is also an example of how even great ideas can be held back by odd, even counterintuitive restrictions. While the end result is still a fresh experience with a lot to offer, you can practically feel the rattling of its own chains holding it back.
For those who didn’t own a Wii U and played the original, it is quite easy to jump into this game. After customizing your own personal Inkling character, you are taken to Inkopolis, the center for the latest fashion and trendy food. It is also the general hub for the rest of the game’s activities as well as its own social board.
Chances are you will want to take in the single-player campaign first because it is an absolute treat. Each level has the same goal. Solve some puzzles, take down some octarian enemies, and get to the zapfish at the end. Rinse and repeat until you reach the boss fight.
In addition to teaching you the basics of the game like covering territory with your ink and turning into squid form to swim quickly and quietly through your own colors, the campaign also helps familiarize you with every major weapon type you’ll deal with. Everything from the standard Splattershot to the long-range Charger, even brand new weapons like the dodge-focused Splat Dualies and the adorably silly Splat ‘Brella – which looks like what would happen if you crossed one of The Penguin’s umbrella weapons with a Super Soaker, all get at least one dedicated level. There are also some lively movement challenges like ink-powered rails you grind on like a professional rollerblader, sponges that expand as you shoot them, and a leveling system where you upgrade your weapons and unlock new sub weapons by spending fish eggs, the game’s equivalent of coins or rings.
Also, the enemy variety is utterly brilliant. Mashing together deep sea life and mundane appliances, Splatoon 2 is full of memorable baddies. These include giant bowling balls with tentacles popping out of the holes, a deadly showerhead that sprays high pressure ink from long distances, and even a unicycle riding samurai fish man wielding a high-power steam cleaner. Yes, really.
It’s a breezy and enjoyable eleven hours of your time spent.
Splat The Planet
It is also good practice for the sealion’s share of the experience: the online multiplayer. The main mode of Turf War is still a lot of fun. Having two teams of four see how much of a map they can cover in their team’s respective ink never stops feeling satisfying or strategic. Take the initiative and splat your foes so they can’t cover more territory, or take the time to paint your own half of the map first, the choice is yours… but chances are you’ll want to the latter first.
There are also three returning modes. Tower Control, where both teams fight over controlling a moving platform while riding it into enemy territory, Splat Zone is basically King of the Hill with team colors standing in for people, and there is Rainmaker, a Capture The Flag mode where the flag is a giant golden fish statue that spews rockets.
There are also several big improvements to the game overall. Along with improved matchmaking and netcode there is now something resembling a competitive meta to Splatoon 2. Not only are the new super abilities you can pull off more teamwork oriented, giving you and nearby enemies super armor temporarily for example. Alternatively, they have more concrete drawbacks as well, like firing off a barrage of Tenta-Missiles leaves you completely helpless while you’re firing them.
There’s also more control given to how you choose to play. In addition to the standard RPG elements of using earned in-game currency to buy different types of clothing and weapons with various perks, you can now alter and adjust those various perks to your own play style. Using items called ability chunks, you can give a specific perk to your equipment, allowing you to focus on certain areas like how large your ink reserves are or how fast you can run. You can even mix and match various abilities you’ve gotten this way by talking to a certain NPC in Inkopolis. It gives Splatoon 2’s online an entire sea trench of depth that is utterly absorbing.
Arguably Splatoon 2’s biggest addition is its new co-op mode, Salmon Run. You and three other players are given four different weapons at random and are tasked with surviving on a small island as it slowly gets swarmed by new enemies called the Salmonids. But this isn’t just a Horde mode where you and your teammates just survive. While fighting off waves of enemies, various boss monsters will appear, each one with their own special attacks and weaknesses. Before the timer hits zero, you and your teammates must defeat these bosses, collect special golden eggs they drop, and deliver them to an egg case. As the difficulty rises, time gets shorter and your egg quota rises, demanding more coordination by your team.
It is an utterly addictive mode. The Salmonid enemy designs are particularly amazing, toeing the line perfectly between being adorable and scary. There are random events that can occur during each wave to mix things up such as fog rolling in to cut down on visibility or a teammate getting marked as a priority target by the enemy. You’re even rewarded with money and special gear to use in the main game.
Swimming Against The Tide
I am loath to bring up issues with Splatoon 2 considering how much of it shines with Nintendo’s trademark polish, but they are still considerable and they do weigh the whole thing down. There are still weird holdovers from the last game in terms of UI and general quality of life. For example, once you enter a lobby to join a match, there is no way to change your weapons or gear or even leave the lobby. Once you’re in, you’re stuck there until the match concludes, with a simple “Do you want to continue?” screen at the end being your only out.
There is also the decision to slowly release new maps, modes, and weapons over time free of charge. This has given the game a wrongly-deserved label of being a high budget Early Access experience, but given the history of the first Splatoon which launched with three maps and a single mode then constantly released new weapons and maps every week like clockwork, this is a clear decision made by Nintendo to keep people wanting to come back to the game. I am ambivalent to it since there is already plenty in the game as it is, but a little more of anything this well made is always appreciated.
Furthermore, the game continues its curious tradition of only giving players limited access to maps based on a schedule. There are currently eight maps available to play on at time of writing which include brand new additions like the BMX park-inspired Humpback Pump Track or returning fan-favorites like The Reef and Moray Towers, but only two of those maps are available for casual online play during two hour rotations. The other modes are also locked off for Ranked play, which you can only access by hitting level 10.
Even the beloved Salmon Run mode is locked behind these time restrictions. But rather than simply alternating maps, this entire section of the game is only available for a few hours on certain days. Also if you didn’t redeem your rewards for beating down dozens of Salmonids before shop closes up, you’re out of luck.
To Nintendo’s credit, these restrictions do not apply to the ability to host local games. All maps are available as well as all modes, and if you have friends each with their own Switch, you are free to play Salmon Run or any of the competitive modes with your friends to your heart’s content. It’s a small comfort considering split-screen play is not available.
But arguably the clunkiest feature Splatoon 2 has is its connection to the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app. Using a combination of the Nintendo Switch and prompts from the app, you can set up private lobbies with friends you have met through Nintendo’s games, and play matches together complete with voice chat courtesy of your smartphone. It’s a decent idea in concept, but how it is handled feels like a half-measure.
While you can invite friends to a lobby and set them up on certain teams, you can’t adjust voice preference. You can only speak to guys on your team during the match or to everyone in the lobby afterwards. You also cannot invite random players you’ve met, only those you have officially added to your friend’s list through the Switch’s annoying Friend Code system.
All of this makes something as usually painless as meeting a new friend and messing around with them a complete hassle. It’s especially baffling considering an entire quarter of the maps for the game are dedicated to League Battle, a form of competitive play that demands you have a team together and voice chat for coordination.
This isn’t to say that the smartphone voice chat doesn’t work. For the sake of this review, I messed around with it along with our very own O’Dell Harmon Jr., and once we jumped through all the hoops to get a lobby going, it worked perfectly fine. But compared to the more robust infrastructure and ease of access by Nintendo’s competition, this is a pretty mediocre first impression.
Splatoon 2 is a great game that could have been amazing. If you have a Nintendo Switch and some friends willing to deal with some headaches, then this is a must-buy especially if you didn’t dive in to the series before. But the baffling way modes and maps are gated off feels antithetical to a game on a console that prides itself on letting you play however you want. It’s one heck of a catch, I just wish it didn’t get tangled in its own net so much.