If you thought a squid's greatest nemesis was a shark, or maybe a badly placed banana on a wedding aisle (no, wait, that was an octopus in disguise, not a squid) then guess again. Turns out a civil war's been brewing beneath the waves between the squid and the octopi - a war so great that they've left the sea, equipped themselves with brightly coloured ink guns, and decided to fight it out for control of tightly packed 4v4 arenas, in an effort to coat more of the walls and floor in their colour of ink than their opponents can manage. Or, something like that, anyway. Such is the kind of ambiguous set up for Splatoon 2 - a game that's every bit as nonsensical as it is brightly coloured, and Nintendo's new great hope on the Switch.
A third person shooter with a bit of a difference, Splatoon is a game that's dripping in Nintendo weirdness. Playing as a young boy or girl known as an Inkling, you'll find yourself equipped with an ink firing pistol, and are essentially tasked with splatting any and every surface in sight, coating it in your team's colour of bright, gooey ink. However, the real magic happens when at the touch of a button, you transform into your squid form, giving you the ability to swim through your ink, essentially rendering you invisible to other players, while also letting you get around the game's often very vertical levels with ease, even letting you scale vertical walls.
While much of the focus has been on the multiplayer mode, though, Splatoon 2 actually comes with a pretty substantial single player mode too (much like its predecessor). Picking up the story of two of the characters from the first game - the Squid Sisters Marie and Callie - the game begins with an announcement that poor old Callie has mysteriously disappeared. At around the same time as that all went down, perennial series bad guys, the dastardly Octarians, decided to squidnap (oh dear) the city of Inkopolis' Great Zapfish, with Marie left wondering if the two events are somehow connected. Recruiting you to find out, it's up to you to drop into a number of "behind enemy lines" stages, as you seek to rescue a smaller Zapfish that's been trapped in each of the levels, and eventually unravel the mystery.
Rather than the close-quarters, arena based affairs in the multiplayer mode, Splatoon 2's single player is almost more of a puzzle game. Reminding us a lot of the N64 era platformers, the Hero Mode, as it's dubbed, is a game that'll test both your reactions, and your brain, bringing together all of the many different ways you can get around levels, before mixing them together in unusual ways. You'll be grinding ink rails, negotiating moving blocks and narrow platforms, zipping over boost pads, and zapping yellow teleportation balloons mid flight to work your way around the expansive levels. Some puzzles even mix up several abilities all at once, or require some pretty fast reactions - like one that makes you switch to squid form to leap through a vertical grate, before quickly changing back before you slip through the grate floor on the other side. There's loads of nice touches, and even more clever things you'll need to work your way around in each stage - like the tiny Squee-G enemies that suck up any ink on a wall (meaning you'll need to be quick if you want to scale it); sponge blocks you can spray with ink to enlarge them (and that shrink if an enemy hits them); or giant stamps that'll attempt to jump on top of you, but which you can splat the side of and scale if you want to reach secret areas.
It's not just brains you'll need to use to get through the levels though - you'll be needing plenty of
prawn brawn too, with many an enemy to splat. Again totally different to the enemies you'll be coming up against online, you'll be facing off against flying tentacles with faces, giant sniper foes, and slightly terrifying five-tentacled enemies that look like really creepy hands, with each enemy type being armed with a different weapon, and each having a different range, forcing you to use the level to your advantage as you struggle to get close.
However, it's not all good news when it comes to Hero Mode. With just five worlds, and roughly 30 stages to play through, each of which can be completed in around 15 minutes, you're looking at around eight hours of play time here, which isn't a huge amount. While each level does contain two (often very well hidden) collectables, adding some much needed replay value, there doesn't really seem to be much point in doing so. Perhaps more disappointingly, there's also very little in the way of a story here, which does put a downer on affairs.
In an unusual move for a Nintendo game, though, it's also rather hard. With nothing in the way of an adjustable difficulty level, and some pretty punishing enemies and obstacles coming your way, even some of the early stages can present a real challenge. When combined with the game's limited lives, which see you having just three lives with which to reach the next checkpoint, lest you be sent back to the very beginning to start all over again, Splatoon 2 can often stray a bit too close to the challenge/frustration boundary.
Of course, it's the online mode that often won the original Splatoon its largest plaudits, and here... well, things are more of a mixed bag. Pitting two teams of four against each other in a contest to splat as much of the level as possible, this is a game that rewards you not so much for killing the other team, but rather for simply painting the town red/green/purple/whatever colour the game decides upon. Providing a really fresh twist on the shooter genre, with battles that require plenty of teamwork, there's a lot to like about Splatoon's online. The only problem is, there's also a lot of problems, much of which revolve around the game's learning curve.
In and off itself, that's weird enough, because if there's one thing Nintendo have always been known for, it's making games that are easy for novices to pick up and play. Not so Splatoon 2's online. For starters, there's nothing in the way of a tutorial here, to explain how the online modes actually work, and what you have to do. When you first start playing, you'll get a quick tutorial explaining the basic controls, but nothing about how the online mode actually functions. And while the game's Hero Mode does let you get to grips with your squid's handling, it doesn't actually prepare you for the online mode at all, which is very much a different kettle of squid.
As a case in point, one of the most important skills in online matches (and one that the game simply chooses to not tell you about) is the ability to jump to one of your team mates at any point mid battle. If you see a team mate in trouble - or you've only just spawned after being splatted - you can jump straight back into the action without having to manually swim/leg it all the way there. All you have to do is pull up the map on X, highlight a team mate with the d-pad, and then press A, and you'll super jump directly to them - but not only does the map screen itself not tell you you can do this, but the only mention the game actually makes of it is hidden away in a section called "rules" - which most people will never think to check, because it's called "rules" and not, you know, "instructions".
More disappointing is the fact that the game doesn't actually attempt to group players by ability when playing online - even when you're only just starting out. Like many online games, Splatoon 2 operates a levelling system, where the more you play, the more experience you'll earn, and the more experience you earn, the more you level up. Levelling up in turn unlocks the ability to purchase new equipment, and most importantly, new and more powerful weapons. Rather than grouping people by ability, though, the game instead simply bundles everyone together randomly - meaning that not only will you find yourself going up against players who know the maps, the strategies, and the controls a lot better than you, but you'll be facing off against people who also have better, more powerful weapons - weapons that you couldn't even buy if you wanted to, because you simply don't have the experience yet. And as the weapon you start out with is completely pitiful, you'll find it's a learning cliff rather than a curve you need to scale.
There are several ways the game could have solved this, but sadly, Splatoon 2 does none of them. The easiest would be to stream players fairly strictly by ability, so those with the most powerful weapons can only splat each other with them, rather than using them to seal club newbies who are just finding their footing - or at the very least, have a few "beginner lobbies" running for your first few levels online. If the game had support for bots, it might not be too bad either, as you could simply train yourself up against computer controlled opponents that you could set the difficulty of, before choosing to venture online when you feel ready - but again, there's no bot support here either, which is more than a little bit disappointing even without taking the dodgy matchmaking into account. If you could take another player online with you in split-screen, you could at least try to level the playing field a little bit, or at least make those early losses a little bit less painful - but, again, there's no split-screen mode either. Finally, if the game at least tried to balance the teams by ability, if not the players themselves, things might feel a little fairer - yet seemingly this is all done by random too. One match we played saw a team with a combined level of 31 facing off against ours, with a combined level of 13. You can imagine how well that went.
The number one cardinal sin of online games is to give more experienced players better weapons without anything in the way of streaming by ability, because all it ever does is give the veterans even more of an advantage over new players, which in turn ensures that beyond your initial intake of players, you won't get any new ones. Growing a player base rather than haemorrhaging it is essential for games like Splatoon 2, yet at the moment, so many new players are going to venture online, get completely destroyed, and then never try it again. And for some reason, that's something Nintendo, who usually get these things so right, don't seem to have actually considered.
Yet online isn't all bad. If you're willing to simply put your head down and power through the early trashings, once you've "paid your dues", earned enough XP to level up, and bought the first new weapon - a pistol which fires roughly twice as far, and does twice the damage of the one you start with - the slowly begins to open up, as you're at least lets you put up a fight. Making good use of the ability to superjump to a teammate helps a lot, too, as it means you can at least put yourself to good use spraying the scenery, even if you aren't that good at combat. Yet there are still plenty of questions to be asked about longevity here.
One of the biggest issues Splatoon 2 is going to face is that the Switch simply isn't cut out for online play like other consoles are. A team based game without support for native voice chat may sound like a recipe for disaster, yet due to the limitations of the console itself, that's exactly what Splatoon 2 is. Instead of being able to easily plug in a headset to chat with your friends, you'll instead have to download a separate app, and then pray your mobile battery lasts (and your phone doesn't go into sleep mode). And while you can play with friends in a private game, the only way to be sure you'll end up on a team with your friends against a team of enemies is to head into the ranked matches, where you'll be taking on the hardest of the hardcore in more objective based modes. In standard, player match Turf Wars, the game divides the teams randomly, so even if your friends are in the same game, you'll find yourself playing against them every bit as much as they'll be on your team. And while the regular "Splatfests" will certainly bring the players in, asking you to pick a side and go to war for what you believe in (like the demo one this past weekend, asking players to side with either "cake" or "ice cream" in the best pudding wars), is there really much to keep people coming back for more beyond the odd Splatfest? We're not convinced.
Still, although the enjoyable single player mode can't quite make up for the disappointingly limited multiplayer offering, it at least helps stop Splatoon 2 being a total write off. If you hear people rave about the game, and aren't sure whether you'll get enough mileage out of the online mode to justify parting with your cash, just know that there's a pretty substantial collection of single player stages to get your teeth into here too. If you like your platformers, and you like having to stop and think about how you're going to get from A to B, then Splatoon 2 may be well worth picking up, at least as soon as it hits the sale.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch