Hoy there, small fry!
I remember when I first previewed the original Splatoon at Nintendo headquarters many years ago, and it felt like it was the beginning of something special. How special? Well, a lot of people probably didn’t predict that it would still be around seven years later, with Splatoon 3 keeping the spirit alive.
Thus far with a limited sample size, this has been a series of incremental changes, to be sure. But if Splatoon 4 rolls around, there’s less that needs to be done compared to what we got with Splatoon 2.
Splatoon 3 (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Released: September 9, 2022
Splatoon 3 is a coat of many colors, offering up a full campaign, multiplayer (casual and ranked), a new card game called Tableturf Battle, and Salmon Run (the PvE horde mode). This is on top of all the game’s social features, like wandering around the new hub city and checking out other players’ loadouts and Miiverse-esque drawings and sayings.
After creating your character (and customizing the hairdo of your little companion named Small Fry), you’re tasked with completing a very short tutorial on inking and locomotion, then it’s time to head to the city. From there you have the option of going straight into multiplayer (Salmon Run and Tableturf Battle unlock at player level four, which is the equivalent of a handful of core multiplayer matches), or the optional campaign. Despite their inherent simplicity, I’ve always been a fan of the Splatoon campaigns — and this time there’s a little more complexity involved, thanks to the way the map works.
While you’ll start off with a few introductory levels in an area called The Crater, you’ll quickly graduate to the main hub called Alterna, which is separated by six core zones. There’s a cute exploration element where you need to acquire a certain degree of currency through clearing levels and challenge spots, allowing Small Fry to power up and eliminate corruptive goo from blocking off bits of the path.
Alterna can be explored at your own pace, which is a fantastic way to go about a campaign of a multiplayer-centric game. If you want, you can rush through to all the bosses (skipping around the optional goo) and finish the critical path in a few hours. Or, you can slowly explore every zone in order, uncovering every patch of goo, challenge level, and secret/bonus along the way.
Core stages teeter on the edge of tutorial early on, but quickly shift into the realm of guiding players toward learning valuable lessons that will be useful in multiplayer. Namely, levels generally present players with a choice of which weapon to use in most stages, with a “recommended” option that will gradually have you picking up all the core weaponry. Or, you can opt to just pick your favorite and go about your way. Plus, throughout the campaign, you get to throw Small Fry at hazards, switches, and enemies, which is useful and adorable.
It’s crafted with convenience and speedrunning in mind (it’ll be fun to see how everyone approaches the “shortest run”), which makes the campaign that much more interesting to approach. After I finished it I went back and started to uncover things I missed, and had a blast doing it. Some of the tougher challenges and puzzles were also very fun to solve, and feel like the culmination of seven years of Splatoon gameplay. I know some people tend to skip the Splatoon campaigns, but with Splatoon 3, Nintendo has made it really easy to approach it in a way you might be more comfortable with. Clear bonuses that you can bring into online play don’t hurt either.
Turf War is still the core mode: a tried and true “ink the most territory” setup that’s easy to understand. There’s 12 maps to play on (five are new), and you still need to rank up through multiplayer to access new weapons and unlock more modes outside of the story. At this point, there’s something for every playstyle, as the team has curated a wide variety of weapons, sub-weapons, and super abilities. With all the combos that are possible now (and the bow [tri-stringer]/katana [splatana]), it’s common to jump into a match and see everyone using something different — even if it’s a variant of an existing weapon with a slightly different twist, or new subs/supers. Mechanically, combatants can utilize a quick turn while swimming in ink and a vertical boost (which fires you up in the air after a quick charge of the jump button).
It still flows together effortlessly. You jump into a match, ink some turf, kill some enemies, see who wins in dramatic fashion (sigh or cheer), and repeat. It’s a loop that works even better than before because of all the aforementioned wrinkles in the formula, with some gameplay smoothing as well. While I’m not sold on the bow, the katana has been a stylish and functional hit for me, especially when slicing up enemies in Salmon Run. Of course, there are droves of weapons available if those two don’t click.
During the review period, we had session times where pre-launch folks could be matched up against one another, and things went really smoothly. In-between queues there’s something to actually do now, since the core lobby also includes a full training area, with the ability to swap weapons and try out new styles. Annoyingly you can’t swap while queuing (since it queues you for that weapon), but the training room is a great way to instantly become acquainted with new playstyles. Real lobbies that you can invite your friends into are a long time coming, but a relief to have in any case.
I was able to try out a bit of ranked play (thanks to a Splatoon 2 save file transfer), and the core modes are Splat Zones (control), Rainmaker (similar to capture the flag), Clam Blitz (capture and dunk clams), and Tower Control (domination of a tower). These matches played out smoothly like Turf War, because Nintendo has had a lot of practice with them all throughout the lifetime of Splatoon 2. I wish the team mixed things up a bit more on this front, but the modes are iron clad at this point foundationally.
While strictly not part of the review process, I also tested out the new Splatfest format during the public demo period. Up until halftime, things operated mostly business as usual, with the twist of choosing between three teams that you wanted to represent (rock, paper, scissors, in this case). Things get muddier after that, as the event shifts into a 4v2v2 focus, with the winning team “fending off” their current halftime victory. I chose scissors, which was winning at halftime, and watched that lead completely shrink due to a wonky handling of 4v2v2.
Matches in that format were pure chaos, with some spawn points not quite lining up to support three separate, uneven teams. To make matters worse, the winning team couldn’t manually queue for 4v2v2 (instead, it’s randomly assigned through playing the core Splatfest playlist), so if you’re short on time and want to experience the main gimmick that’s new, you might not be able to. Nintendo has noted that they were taking feedback into account to implement in future Splatfests, but how that comes to fruition remains to be seen. Thankfully, 4v2v2 isn’t a core mode, and there are plenty of other things to do.
Tableturf Battle is the aforementioned card game, and it can be accessed from the city hub after you reach level four (with the power to pick up some card packs in the campaign). It’s mostly a diversion at the moment as multiplayer will be added in a later patch (and as such, CPU opponents are the draw at launch), but there’s a lot of potential here. You’ll place Tetris-like shapes down on a grid, in a bid to take up more space than your opponent and earn a bigger score.
“Decks” can be customized with cards that have different shapes, as well as attack bonuses when placed in certain sections of the grid. There is a rank-up system in place with said CPUs, and multiple opponents to square off against, so I spent a couple of hours picking up Tableturf Battle and learning the ropes. With proper curation and more updates, it could end up becoming a core part of the series, but for now, it’s a successful minigame.
Salmon Run is the last big piece of the puzzle, and is thankfully playable all day, every day now. Yep, the Salmon Run restrictions are gone, righting a wrong from years prior. It feels like the bare minimum to add this in with a sequel, but it’s here, and it’s still fun to play. Random salmon enemy variance helps continue to mix things up, as do mechanics like fog, changing tides, and rushes of enemies. Think of them like random events to keep things interesting, on top of the “King Salmonid” bosses that can appear randomly and reward participants with bits of in-game Salmon Run currency (which can be used to buy cosmetics like new outfits).
I was able to test out Salmon Run extensively during the review period, and found myself queuing match after match with random people. The simple ping system of telling people where core objectives, big enemies, and your corpse (which can be revived when downed) are located is easy enough, and the three-wave setup (again, with the optional random king bosses) ensures that each run doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Given that Splatoon 3 shores up nearly everything already present in the series and adds a few extras like Tableturf Battle, it’s safe to say that the magic of the series is still alive. There’s definitely things I want to see improved upon after launch, and the next theoretical sequel can take things even further, but I’ll be playing this one for a long while.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]