Thanks to its flawless balance, Splatoon manages to be, at the same time, deep, competitive, and highly accessible
As far as the Nintendo canon goes, Splatoon is – simultaneously – a point far out of the curve and a game whose nature is right at home with the company’s other franchises. Not only is its existence inside the third-person shooting genre an oddity for the new property of a developer usually focused on platformers and other whimsical adventures, its narrow focus on online multiplayer matches also represents quite a sharp turn for one of the last bastions where local couch competition stood strong and tall. At the same time, the title is a perfect summarization of the Big N’s spirit: a colorful, accessible, ridiculously fun, surprisingly deep, and light-hearted family friendly experience.
Splatoon has its home in a world where humans have succeeded in annihilating themselves out of the surface of the earth – that backstory is, indeed, shockingly dark for such a bright-looking work. With our planet’s solid portion now lacking a dominant race, both squids and octopuses slowly clawed their way out of the sea, transforming into humanoid species that were able to switch at will between their two-legged shapes and their original watery forms. War ensued between both legions and, with squids coming out on top, they developed a society on the ruins of human civilization. The main heritage of that conflict was the creature’s love for a sport that replicated those battles with a huge amount of ink-spilling weapons; that’s where Splatoon’s outrageous level of fun resides.
The game begins when the player’s inkling, an avatar that can be freely customized at any moment, walks up to Inkopolis – the city that serves as the hub for all the engaging battling. During that five-minute journey, Splatoon smartly introduces all of its core mechanics to gamers through a seamless tutorial. From straightforward moves such as jumping and firing ink from one’s gun of choice, to more advanced techniques like turning into a squid to hide in ink or activating secondary weapons, all of the moves are done with the simplicity of a button press and are utterly responsive thanks to one of the system’s tightest and most intuitive control setups.
True to Nintendo’s philosophy to give gamers the chance to customize their experience, both aiming and camera movements can be mapped to either an analog stick or to the Gamepad’s motion, both of which can have their respective sensitivities properly adjusted. The former is suitable to those who are used to the dual-analog configuration in most shooters and the latter offers a steeper learning curve whose reward is far more precision and shorter reaction times.
With accessibility fully conquered through its control scheme and easy-to-perform mechanics, Splatoon moves on to achieve its second remarkable quality: competitiveness. As a statement on how the title’s core is its 4 vs. 4 online multiplayer madness, the entrance to the worldwide lobby sits right in the center of Inkopolis. Two modes are currently available (with more to come), one of which is Turf Wars, where players compete to see which team inks more turf within three minutes; and Splat Zones, where inklings must fill specific areas of the map with their team’s color, which will cause a timer to begin winding down, awarding victory to the team whose clock first reaches 0.
The matchmaking occurs almost instantaneously and within a few seconds the battle is underway. That wonderful efficiency, though, comes at the cost of a few features. For starters, the algorithm has no regards towards balancing both teams, sometimes setting up battles where groups filled with high-leveled players face a bunch of newcomers. Secondly, and most aggravating of all, Nintendo has opted to randomize the stage selection; although that is in fact a quality, given it avoids the underutilization of certain maps that eventually plagues all online multiplayer games, it is baffling that – out of the nearly 10 levels currently available – only two can be chosen at any given time.
Every four hours, the game changes – for each multiplayer mode – the two maps that can be selected by the randomizer, but that strategy – one that is far worse than allowing the script to choose among the whole pool of existing choices – causes players that want to sit down and devote themselves to a lengthy session of Splatoon (something that will happen often due to the game’s addictive nature) to play the same two levels over and over again for a long period of time. Although the game’s general fun makes up for that repetition, it is something that could have been easily avoided.
When the battle begins, though, all minor issues that surround Splatoon are promptly forgotten. As those mad artists armed with a myriad of weapons start painting scenarios that were originally a pale canvas, Nintendo reaches for the kind of fun and competition found in the company’s other two multiplayer giants: Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. It is arguable, however, that Splatoon attains competitiveness in a much smoother and smarter way than that enormous pair, because while both of those titles embrace rookies and experts alike and try to give them equal chances to win through the creation of devices that allow those on the losing end to suddenly raise their chances of victory, Splatoon achieves the same with pure built-in balance.
Sure, the lack of items and other luck-based shortcuts means that here – to the relief of many – sheer skill is on the winning side much more frequently; however, that does not mean the ride is not fun or satisfying for both parties. Firstly, the Turf Wars mode, conceived with the goal of serving as the game’s more casual sort of competition, awards covering ground in paint more than killing foes and sending them back to their team’s re-spawn point. Given that painting terrain is a matter of pressing a button and aiming towards the ground – at least until one comes face-to-face with an enemy squid – all players, regardless of age and experience, can feel the satisfaction of contributing to the greater good.
Secondly, gunfights are – more often than not – decided by strategy and situational reactions, and not by who aims more accurately; a trick pulled off thanks to three central reasons. The first one is how well-structured the stages are. In terms of theme, due to a very cohesive focus on urban areas, they are a bit lacking as far as variety goes; nonetheless, their design is impeccable. Vertical variations, wide spaces, enclosed hallways, and tight corners support a wide array of approaches that include sneaking up on foes, going head-on into all-out 4 vs. 4 warfare, or looking for advantageous positions from which a large portion of the map can be observed.
All of those nuances are supported by the second pillar that makes combat so exciting: the ramifications of the characters’ ability to turn into a squid and swim while occult by their team’s ink. It is a skill that kicks the door open towards various gameplay possibilities, such as secretly stalking enemies, setting up surprise attacks, or inking walls – which do not count towards the final score of painted turf – in order to access elevated locations quickly.
As an extra touch, and in a smart use of the Gamepad, players will be able to view a map that displays how the stage is currently painted and the position of their allies. More than a visual aid, the map can be used to jump to a friend’s location or to the re-spawn point with a simple touch. The downside of that move, however, and one that adds strategic layers to its usage, is that a marker will display the jump’s ending point, allowing nearby enemies to patiently wait for the jumper’s arrival to shoot him down.
Splatoon’s astounding balance – its most polished and remarkable feature – comes together in its weaponry; all guns are perfectly viable options and the available arsenal is flooring. The more powerful ones are held back either by slow firing rates, heavy ink consumption – which forces players to reload frequently by swimming in ink, or poor range; whereas the weakest ones tend to be superior in those three areas. The weapons support an amazing array of play-styles, given they can behave like standard pistols, machine-guns, long-ranged snipping tools, one-hit kill blasters that fire slowly and eat a lot of ink, and even the wacky – and appropriately themed – paint rollers and paint brushes.
Every standard weapon comes with a predetermined sub-weapon and a special move that is unlocked whenever players fill up a meter. The former group includes different sorts of bombs, sprinklers, mines, seeker bots, and others; while the latter features a ink-tornado-firing bazooka, an air strike, a temporary shield, a radar that tells enemies’ positions, and even the ability to turn into a kraken. With all of those pieces added, players will have an incredible amount of choices to consider and to explore before they can settle on a gun that suits their taste or that is more effective on the stages that are available on the randomizer’s pool of options.
The game’s balance only truly suffers when disconnects, which are generally infrequent, take place before or during a battle. As a misstep, Nintendo opted not to replace those that disconnect – accidentally or not – with a CPU-controlled character, which means that any team that loses a member will be in severe trouble when the match begins. Other than that, Splatoon’s colored wars are affairs that invariably keep players on the edge of their seats thanks to their fast pace, strategic undertones, and – especially – the fact that most matches hang in a very tight balance since any small accumulation of gunfight defeats by any team can allow the other side to quickly advance and regain lost ground.
As players battle, experience points are earned and higher levels are reached, which unlock new weapons and clothing to be purchased on Inkopolis’ shops. The latter are especially important because, other than giving one’s inkling their own sense of style, they come with one main ability and – as each piece is leveled up – new ones (up to four) are added. Those include higher attack or defense, the ability to swim undetected, quicker re-spawns, ink-saving, and countless others. The gathering of a set of abilities that goes along with one’s play-style and weapon of choice is key when it comes to succeeding against Splatoon’s more experienced players.
As a pleasant company to the game’s true meat, Nintendo has devised a six-to-eight-hour single-player mode where players are recruited to go through five worlds, each with a bunch of levels and a boss, in order to stop the rise of the octoling army. Taking place in clever stages with a Super Mario Galaxy vibe that has the hero jumping between disconnect areas and obstacles, the mode is an entertaining mixture of shooting and platforming that has some flashes of brilliant game design.
Splatoon’s overall package is excellent. As an evidence of its status as the first step of what will hopefully become a long-standing franchise, a few areas and quirks offer plenty of room for improvement – such as the disappointing lack of a communication system that could have been implemented via a group of short and predetermined messages mapped to the control. However, the bottom-line is that by tackling a genre with which they were not familiar, Nintendo has unearthed a gameplay that thanks to its flawless balance manages to be, at the same time, deep, competitive, and highly accessible.
Like the best games of the company’s canon, Splatoon will welcome people from all ages and gaming backgrounds and immediately charm them; and, in the long run, it will offer a great constant and lengthy learning curve to those who want to become masters of this delightful world where mad wars of paint are the main source of entertainment.