How often do I talk about console games? Rarely enough that I had to invent a “Console” tag and category just for this post.
As this is a review, there will be spoilers ahead.
On Friday, Splatoon arrived.
I bought Splatoon on faith; because of my well-known internet issues, I hadn’t been able to participate in any of the betas or public testfires. In fact, truth be told, I hadn’t even heard of the game until people started talking about the first testfire on Twitter. But many people I trust told me I’d like the game, so I gave it a chance.
Splatoon is a third-person over-the-shoulder shooter, like Saint’s Row, released exclusively for the Wii U1. You play as an inkling, a member of a race of sentient squid people who can transform into actual squids, whose main sport is a shooting match where eight participants, four to a side, use colored ink to claim territory for their team, and also to knock members of the opposing team back to the starting point. This sport, called Turf War, is the main focus of the game. You can either play as a completely random group of the first eight people to sign up, or with friends – although that has some issues too, which I’ll address below.
There’s also a single-player campaign, which allows you to use ink to fight against computer-controlled octopus people – octolings or octobots – and includes several features that don’t show up in the multiplayer matches (and a final boss fight that must be seen to be believed), and ranked multiplayer battles, which have a slightly different format from the regular multiplayer battles2.
How is this third-person shooter different from all other third-person shooters?
Well, first of all, nobody’s killing anybody. The ability of inklings to transform into actual squids – which lets you move quickly through ink of your own color, allowing you to move easily to the edge of your territory – also comes up when you take too much damage (“get splatted”); you retreat to your squid form and run back to the safety of the spawn point, where you can regroup and rejoin the battle.
Second, it’s colorful, which is lacking in a lot of recent console games, especially shooters. (Check out this image, which is pretty accurate aside from substituting “Bioware” for “Bethesda”.) I’m playing on a television that I’m pretty sure dates back to 1991 (I am not joking), and the colors still pop off the screen and make the game a joy to play.
Third – and perhaps most controversial – there’s no voice chat. None. In fact, you can’t really communicate with your teammates at all.
Many people hate this. I love it. There’s no trash talking, no berating, no baffling racist or homophobic slurs. You enter the arena, you do the best you can to score points and help your teammates when you see them, and you leave the arena. Matches are quick enough that communication is almost supernumerary; you just assume that your teammates know what they’re doing and go from there.
The closest you can come to communicating is with the use of a recent Miiverse post – and that’s only displayed in-game in Inkopolis, the main hub of the game, and only when you get close to someone. And since Inkopolis is instanced so that there are only a few dozen players (at most) in any given copy of the hub, it’s rare that you’ll run across someone you played with before.
Another feature of the game, although one that doesn’t necessarily stand out from other shooters, is that, as I mentioned earlier, the games are short. You have 180 seconds to score as many points as you can, and then your points are tallied and you’re given the chance to move into a new match.
We get it, you like the game. Does it have any flaws?
Well, yeah. It wouldn’t be a Nintendo game without some shocking missteps.
First and foremost, although there are many weapons and equipment to choose from, you can only change what you have equipped by saying “no, I don’t want to battle again” after the end of a battle and going back to the main multiplayer lobby. Among other things, this means that if you’re playing with a friend, you’ll have to link up with them again.
That leads me to the second major flaw: the feature that allows you to join friends is great in theory, but in practice you can only choose one friend to join, as long as they’re also in the game, and then you’ll join the next battle they do. This lets you chain friend groups – so that if you have three friends you’d like to play with, you can join Friend 1, they’ll join Friend 2, and Friend 2 will join Friend 3 – but it’s a hassle to get it set up correctly. (Additionally, if you’re playing with a friend, that just guarantees that your friend will be in the same match – not necessarily on the same team. This leads to some awkward situations.)
More on multiplayer: the connection is peer-to-peer, rather than server-based, so you’re connecting directly to the seven other people in the match. This means much faster connections if you’re in the same area – but much slower connections if your opponent is on a different continent (or, like me, has to send a signal into space in order to connect to the internet). This means that lag spikes are not uncommon, and – especially for me – it’s easy to splat someone and then get splatted by them after they’ve died because their connection caught up to yours.
Finally, although the single-player campaign is excellent, it’s relatively short; most of the people I’ve talked to have finished it in under six hours, and most of the time I spent on the single-player campaign was on the final boss. (Man, that’s a hard fight.)
So why do I need Splatoon?
It’s a colorful, fast-paced, zero-commitment post-apocalyptic shooter with fantastic music and designs. Yes, “post-apocalyptic”; you can find ancient documents in the single-player campaign that reveal that the world of Splatoon is built on the ruins of human civilization, after ten thousand years of mutation and evolution on the part of the squids and octopodes. The backstory is surprisingly rich for a shooter, and although the single-player game is short it has a fair amount of replay value to find the aforementioned ancient documents.
Oh, and inside the game – playable while you’re waiting for a match to start or at an arcade machine in Inkopolis – is Squid Jump, a faux-NES jumping game that has you climbing a series of platforms to reach a bird at the top. I don’t think I have to explain that one.
(Why a bird? I have no idea.)
1 Understandably, since Splatoon is a first-party game, developed and released by Nintendo.
2 Author’s note: I haven’t played in ranked battles yet, so I can’t comment on them.