If there was any doubt that Splatoon is set to become one of Nintendo’s next big Mario or Zelda tier franchises, Splatoon 3 arrives on the Switch in colourful fashion to put that to rest. It might seem like a largely iterative sequel at first, rather than reinventing the proverbial “Splatoon wheel” and, well, that’s because for the most part it is. But once you get into it you start to see just how thoughtful and strong these iterations are.
Ditching Splatoon 2’s Inkopolis Square, this time the new fresh hangout for all the land dwelling marine life is the new Splatsville. Splatoon has always had an apocalyptic vibe bubbling underneath the surface, but this time it’s been dialled up to eleven with a more Mad Max aesthetic. The locale might not seem all that important to an online shooter, but Splatoon’s funky and characterful world has always been a massive part of its appeal.
That being said, the main draw of course is the competition. It may not be as fresh and novel as it was the first time around on the Wii U, but Splatoon 3’s main gameplay loop is still incredibly well designed. Chances are you’ll be spending the bulk of your time playing the seriesflagship mode, Turf Wars. Instead of the match being dictated by which team managed to rack up the most kills (or “splats” as they’re called to be a bit less violent) the winners are decided by which team covers the most of the arena with their own colour ink. It’s like a frantic game of king of the hill that spans across the whole map.
It might feel chaotic with all the colours flying around, but there’s a strong sense of order to be found within the storm. Given that taking down opposing players isn’t the be-all and end-all, Turf Wars is an incredibly accessible game mode. Obviously, some parts of the map might be more competitively important than others, but as long as you’re spraying paint you’re helping your team in one way or another. This approach also does a lot to help the game’s balance. While teamwork is obviously still important, it becomes a lot easier to cooperate when you can be scoring points anywhere on the map. Small tweaks like dropping onto your base from above, rather than running out of a set spawn point also help things feel fresh and dynamic.
I feel like I can’t understate just how well-designed Splatoon 3’s core gameplay loop is. When playing optimally, every action slides smoothly into the next. Shooting not only takes out opponents but also covers turf with your team’s ink. Covering turf with your ink not only scores points but also lets you swim around the map. From there, swimming is not only more mobile and agile but lets you better position yourself to shoot opponents and ink enemy turf. It’s simple to understand but it thrives in its ability to be more complex.
It also helps that Splatoon 3’s matchmaking system has been massively overhauled. Finally being able to change your gear without leaving the lobby is a huge relief, even if it shouldn’t have taken this long to get something so fundamental. Aside from that, the ability to run around the training room between matches and interact with other players isn’t huge, but it’s certainly more entertaining than staring at a matchmaking screen.
Unfortunately, given that this is a Nintendo game, online play can be a little shoddy at times. My connection during matches has been flawless for the most part, but the game can sometimes struggle a little to find a match. It doesn’t feel any better when it searches for a few minutes only to slap you in the face with a communication error. From memory, it has been an overall better experience than either Splatoon 1 or 2 with fewer disconnections mid-match, but I would still find myself in some pretty egregious stand-offs where the game would refuse to find me a match.
More positively, the weapons stand as a highlight in Splatoon 3, with their main strength being their variety. Obviously, there’s the standard mid-range guns — which are cleverly designed to look more like water pistols — but the more heavy paint roller stands out as a strong design. From buckets and bathtubs, to window cleaners and giant paint brushes, there’s no shortage of diversity and creativity. The game as a whole absolutely oozes creativity. Whether it’s the aquatic characters you’ll meet around Splatsville, or the extensive amounts of gear to collect and customise your character with, Splatoon’s unique and fresh aesthetic shines through.
With that said, collecting gear has been changed a slight bit this time around. You’ll still buy your clothing with cash that you earn through battle, but you’ll purchase weapons with a new currency called “Sheldon Licences”, named after the owner of Splatoon 3’s weapon store. You can earn Sheldon Licences by either levelling up, or by sticking with one weapon over a longer period of time. In one sense, it prevents lower-level players from buying overpowered weapons, but at the same time it makes weapons harder and more confusing to collect.
New collectable titles and name tags might seem like a small addition, but they add a fun extra social layer to playing the game that’s appreciated at the least. Your decoratable locker also serves the same function for the same part. Chances are you could go the whole game without even knowing where it is, but there’s a certain charm in plastering it with stickers and making it your own. The ability to post messages also returns. While it was originally a relic of the original Splatoon’s connection to Miiverse, I’m happy that the feature persists even after the demise of Nintendo’s debut social network.
Once again the online messages aren’t a game changer, but they add a lot of character and flavour to exploring the game’s hub world. Splatsville also does a lot to feel more authentic than its predecessors. It feels very inspired by the Kowloon Walled City, and feels appropriately chaotic and dense as a result. It absolutely isn’t necessary, but its inclusion speaks to the passion behind the game as a whole.
On the other side of the fence are Splatoon 3’s ranked battles, now dubbed Anarchy Battles in accordance with the wastelands theme. Instead of playing Turf Wars, ranked matches choose from one of four modes: Splat Zones, Tower Control, Rainmaker or Clam Blitz. Each one is a little more complex than Turf Wars, with Clam Blitz especially feeling a little more overwhelming than the rest. There’s more of a learning curve to them than Turf Wars, which in itself isn’t bad, but it’s where Nintendo’s usually-rocky relationship with online play can start to rear its ugly head.
You’re really only given two options to communicate in Splatoon 3. Either you hit up on the d-pad and yell “This way!” or down for a “Booyah!”. This isn’t really an issue in Turf Wars as it more or less covers all of your needs (telling your teammates which way to go and congratulating them on a good play), but in the ranked modes you can feel a little pressed for options. The omission of voice chat doesn’t really bother me as talking to strangers while playing a competitive game was never really all that appealing, but removing the option without replacing it is a very uniquely Nintendo thing to do.
Like its predecessors, Splatoon 3’s online play has an always-active approach, whereby the maps and game modes cycle in and out every couple of hours. This means that you might load up the game itching to play some Splat Zones, but you just can’t for another few hours because… the game said so. In all honesty, I’m a bit of a fan of this approach: it encourages you to dip in and out of different game modes rather than always playing the same one, and it can make things a little less overwhelming for newcomers, but ultimately not everyone is going to appreciate it. I’ve always been a proponent of games having more options and being more accessible — even if those options aren’t specifically for you — and while this is certainly a unique system, the lack of options does make the game a little less accessible.
Splatoon has always had a “developer knows best” approach, and while Splatoon 3 makes the most changes to player freedom so far, that element of developer control still persists. A massive change (that really shouldn’t be that big of a deal) is that you can now finally opt out of watching the in-game news. Don’t get me wrong, I love the news broadcasts in Splatoon 1 and 2, in concept. They’re super cute and it’s fun how they roll something like announcing the game modes into the game in a diegetic manner, but I really don’t need to watch it every two hours. Similarly, the ability to play the game’s PvE mode, Salmon Run, whenever you want instead of in allotted “shifts” like in Splatoon 2 is a very welcome change.
Salmon Run itself has seen some very strong changes as well. The core gameplay loop is still the same — cooperating to take down enemies, and bring their harvested eggs to the basket at the centre of the map — but new bosses and events keep things fresh. One change that was much bigger than I thought it would be is the ability to throw eggs, and score points from afar. What seems like it would be a minor boost to convenience actually unlocks a lot of cooperative play.
The last pillar of Splatoon 3 that I’ve yet to mention is the game’s single-player campaign. Now I’ve always been of the opinion that Splatoon’s “hero mode” has been just as important to the series as the game’s online play, but never has this been more the case than with Splatoon 3. Set beneath the Earth, in the ruins of an ancient human civilization, you’re tasked with investigating the origins of a deadly fuzzy goo, and eventually saving the world. The premise is more of a reason to motivate the gameplay than its own entity, but it’s fun nonetheless.
The levels themselves are all fun and extremely tightly designed, taking a lot of influence from Splatoon 2’s Octo Expansion. This means that while the levels might be on the shorter end, they’re centred around a killer idea, and explore that idea as effectively as they can. In between levels you’ll find yourself scouring the ruins of Alterna, clearing away the fuzzy ooze, digging up collectables and discovering new levels. The whole experience is completely open-ended as well, letting you choose which levels you want to do, and when.
Following previous titles, there’s also a skill tree that you can fill out along the way. In general, none of the upgrades feel all that impactful and I found myself visiting the skill tree more out of obligation rather than an innate desire. Realistically, how much this is a concern is down to preference, but even with my pretty low regard for skill trees as a whole it never impacted the experience beyond an initial eye roll. If it’s something you want to invest your time in, the campaign is absolutely worth it, but if it isn’t your thing, you can experience the rest of the game just fine.
All things considered, though, Splatoon 3 keeps hold of the things that worked well in its predecessors, while also touching up the majority of the things that didn’t. Although that doesn’t make it as fresh and exciting as it could have been, there’s a lesson to be learned from the fact that it is without a doubt the best the series has ever been.
Splatoon 3 takes what manages to work in Splatoon 2 and touches up most of what didn’t. You’re still somewhat at the mercy of the occasional shoddy connection and some over-controlling design, but where Splatoon 3 works, it works really well. It might not be as fresh and exciting as it once was a few years ago, but five years on Splatoon 3 is the best Splatoon has ever been.
Ethan reviewed Splatoon 3 using a Nintendo Switch copy purchased at retail.