It may seem like reviewing a game that released over a year ago is anything but topical, but that’s not the case for Splatoon 2. Upon its launch in July 2017, the game received critical acclaim across the board, and for most other games, the story would end there. However, Splatoon 2 hasn’t left the public eye since then, and one doesn’t have to dive deep to discover why its praise is still being sung.
The original Splatoon, one of the Wii U’s breakout hits, serves as the basis for this sequel, but the concept remains incredibly original. In the far-off future, rising sea levels lead to the abrupt evolution of ocean life, and Earth’s dominant species is now the Inkling, squids that can take the shape of humans. They can no longer live in water as their bodies have evolved to a semi-liquid state, so Inklings live on the surface in cities like Inkopolis. Despite being highly evolved, Inklings are relatively simple creatures that focus on two things: competition and trends. Both aspects of Inkling culture are vital to the unique concept, the former from a gameplay perspective and the latter from an aesthetic perspective.
Like its antecedent, Splatoon 2 is a third-person shooter, but the focus isn’t on killing the opposing team. Instead, weapons cover surfaces with ink of player’s team color, and while they can send enemies back to their spawn point by inking them, it’s done to slow the enemy team’s progress. Covering ground has tactical advantage, as the player can transform into a squid on the fly to swim through their ink. Swimming is the fastest method to refill the player’s limited ink tank, and by staying still, an ink-submerged squid can wait and ambush unsuspecting opponents. While Inklings move faster and have better jumping momentum by swimming through ink, they’re completely defenseless in squid form, which is why the slower-walking but armed and dangerous human form is needed. Switching between kid and squid forms quickly becomes second nature as the player understands the advantages of each. Neither form can walk through enemy ink, though, so players must spread their ink over turf already covered by enemies to move forward. The ink and transformation mechanics not only give the game its own identity, but they work excellently in tandem.
These mechanics are primarily designed for the main multiplayer mode, Turf War, in which the team with the most ground covered in their ink wins. Covering walls doesn’t count towards victory, but it still allows players to move up walls and have the high ground. Turf War is a blast for casual and hardcore players alike, and it’s easy to pick up and play for a couple matches or a long session. Players receive experience and cash based on how much turf they inked, with bonus experience given to the winner, so every match has at least some reward.
There are also Ranked Battles for more experienced players that offer different objectives, although they may not be as accessible for some players once unlocked. By winning or losing Ranked matches, the player’s rank goes up or down to show their current streak of matches, and higher rank players receive better rewards. The four modes are each entertaining in their own way and accommodate different playstyles; Splat Zones is a king-of-the-hill mode where certain parts of the turf must be protected once inked, Tower Control involves riding a moving platform to the opposing team’s territory with increasing risk as the losing side has a shorter distance from the target, Rainmaker revolves around a special weapon that must be carried to a drop point, and Clam Blitz has the players pick up clams and dunk them into baskets. Inking the most turf isn’t a victory condition and doesn’t give experience, but it still gives the same gameplay advantages as in Turf War. Players may be turned off, however, by the fact that only the victors get rewarded, which can be a crushing blow after a hard-fought battle.
The weapon variety is also on point, both in playstyle and design. Shooters are typical projectile weapons, Rollers deal heavy damage upon contact and can spread ink like a paint roller while running, Chargers act as sniper rifles that can one-shot enemies or spread a long, thin line of ink, Sloshers are buckets that can launch ink above walls, Splatlings are gatling guns that require time to charge but release powerful ink shots, Dualies are Shooters with shorter range but faster, stronger fire and a dodge roll, and Brellas are shotguns that open up an umbrella shield, which can be held down for protection or launched off as a moving wall. There are also classes of weapons with different properties- certain Chargers have scopes, Brushes are fast yet weak versions of Rollers, etc.- and each weapon class has multiple versions with unique stats. Every weapon also has a loadout with a sub weapon, which has a higher ink cost than the main weapon but has more situational purposes -such as beacons that teammates can jump to or multiple varieties of bombs- and a special weapon that can be used after inking enough turf -such as heat seeking missiles or super armor for teammates-. In addition, players can choose hats, shirts, and shoes that have different stat boosts and abilities, such as lower ink consumption or higher damage.
Though multiplayer is the focus, the single-player campaign has a surprising amount of effort put in. This returning mode from the first game is designed to teach the mechanics for multiplayer matches, which it does well through various missions, but Splatoon 2’s campaign goes a step further. In the original Octo Valley campaign, the player was recruited by Captain Cuttlefish and his popstar grandchildren, Callie and Marie, for a secret mission to rescue Inkopolis’s stolen power source, the Great Zapfish. The culprits are the Octarians, former allies of the Inklings who were forced underground after a Great Turf War broke out hundreds of years before Splatoon. However, in Splatoon 2’s Octo Canyon mode, the Great Zapfish is taken again while Cuttlefish is away -more on that later- but Callie is kidnapped as well, so Marie recruits a new agent to stop the Octarians once more. Marie will contact the player over an intercom to give tips or directions, but her biting sarcasm during missions makes her an entertaining companion.
The campaign’s structure is similar to the original, turning a multiplayer shooter into a stealth platformer. Sometimes, brute force isn’t the best strategy when hordes of enemies appear, so the player has to balance offensive strikes with sneaking through ink in squid form, which translates well into multiplayer. The original campaign gave access to the Splattershot and three bomb types, while special weapons were power-ups found in stages and other weapons were locked behind content exclusive to Splatoon Amiibo figures. However, Splatoon 2’s campaign mixes this up by giving access to each basic weapon type, and while the first run of any mission is designed around one weapon it has to be completed with, missions can be replayed with any weapon for extra rewards and entertainment, and sometimes extra challenge. Weapons and abilities can be upgraded with Power Eggs, which act as coins, and other collectibles adorn each level, such as Sunken Scrolls that show pieces of Splatoon’s lore.
New to Splatoon 2 is the Salmon Run mode, the Splatoon equivalent of co-op horde modes in other shooters. Whereas typical horde modes usually have generic zombies as the opponent, Salmon Run instead has unique enemies in the form of Salmonid, mutant salmon that live in the dingy outskirts of a polluted ocean. Salmon Run is an in-universe part-time job of harvesting Power Eggs, which were collectibles in Octo Canyon but are actually Salmonid eggs. They exist in Octo Canyon due to Salmonids trading with Octarians, for which they received Octarian weaponry in return, which makes every attempt at harvesting Power Eggs a fight for the ages. Aside from ground troops that swarm the player, bosses piloting Octarian vehicles will frequently appear, each of which has an attack pattern and weak spot. Defeating a Salmonid boss drops three Golden Power Eggs which must be carried to an egg basket, and a certain number of Golden Power Eggs must be collected within a time limit to move to the next round.
Teamwork is even more important to Salmon Run than multiplayer versus modes, given it’s a co-op horde mode. If not taken quickly enough, a Salmonid will try to take eggs back, so players can guard eggs while their teammates are on the way. This is especially helpful when multiple bosses are defeated at once, as each player can only carry one egg at a time. Using specific buttons, players can also signal their location so their teammates can head over to them if Salmonids or eggs are in one area, or it can act as an S.O.S. call. If a player is knocked out, they will be stuck in a lifesaver, although they can still pick up and move an egg, and can only be brought back by an ally inking them. Players also have one special weapon with a set number of instant uses rather than infinite chargeable uses, so coordinating with teammates about who uses their specials in what situations is vital.
Salmon Run doesn’t get boring at any time, as it provides multiple reasons to come back for more. Similarly to Ranked Battles, Salmon Run has a grading system, but it’s more rewarding and less punishing for failure. If the team makes it through three rounds, they’re rewarded excellently and get an increased pay grade, which raises the multipliers for rewards. If the team performs poorly in the first round, their pay grade goes down, although no previously earned rewards are removed. However, as long as the group completes the first two rounds with the egg quota met, the pay grade is retained. Rewards range from money to exclusive gear added every month, but the rewards are so high and frequently earned that it’s one of the best and most entertaining ways to get rich quick in Inkopolis. The gameplay also shifts with each round, as different environments and enemies threaten players more often as their pay grade rises. Typical matches include at least one normal round with Salmonid grunts and bosses, but at higher difficulties, matches can range from a swarm of large Salmonid enemies that must be shot with ink cannons to a UFO mothership that drops egg boxes and can vacuum eggs out of the basket, or from fireflies that cover one player the Salmonid single out as a target to a game of hide-and-seek with a golden Salmonid that spawns eggs as it’s shot.
Though the gameplay is incredible, it wouldn’t be as striking without its aesthetics. The graphics are vivid and run smoothly, but it’s the character and world design that make Splatoon 2 shine. From the watercolor concept art to the 3D models, every character design oozes with charm, and levels take pieces of modern-day and future culture to create its own blend. Modern technology is used in creative ways as Inklings find relics of the past, and they’re trying to understand how they work in the same way modern humans would with archaeological discoveries.
That’s not to mention the fantastic soundtrack- in addition to being an absolute headbanger, music plays an important role in the world of Splatoon. There are in-universe bands who wrote each track, with each band having a unique musical style that fits the mode the songs play in. Online multiplayer battles have the most variety, usually including upbeat rock and J-pop music, even a bit of chiptune. Octo Canyon is a peculiar mix of dubstep, techno, and country music, while Salmon Run has dingy and chaotic hootenanny music that settles in the feeling of a seedy part-time job. However, the importance of music is best explored in the single-player modes- the music of Octo Canyon sounds the way it does because it’s what the Octarians’ boss uses to control them, while Inkopolis’s music represents freedom and has the power to inspire others. That’s not to say any part of the soundtrack is bad at all- even the songs created to enforce the Octarian oligarch’s rule are still memorable tracks.
Recent Nintendo titles have had excellent comedic writing, but Splatoon 2 is another beast entirely. As mentioned before, Marie’s sarcastic dialogue is a large part of the campaign’s charm, though it doesn’t end there. Pearl and Marina, hosts of Inkopolis news and members of the band Off the Hook, provide banter while revealing the stage rotation like Callie and Marie did in the original Splatoon, and they arguably play off each other even better than the Squid Sisters. Then there’s the puns- for those curious as to why this review lacks the wordplay typical of Electric Retrospective, it’s because Splatoon 2 has already made any pun this review could include and in a much more hilarious way than anything written here could ever be. Between dialogue, weapon and stage names, the massive collection of puns will give anyone at least one chuckle.
If there’s one thing that knocks Splatoon 2 down a peg, it’s that some of the mechanics aren’t player-friendly and exist more for the sake of realism. In the original Splatoon, maps would rotate every three hours for all modes, with a set of two maps per mode, and while the maps are mostly well-made, encountering the same two maps too often can become a bit tiresome. Thankfully, Splatoon 2 reduces the rotation time to two hours, and the map selection is much wider, so it’s less of an issue, though it may still bore some players who don’t want to play every match in Inkblot Academy. This isn’t an issue when playing in private lobbies with friends, as any map and mode can be selected. Salmon Run suffers more from this, however, as there are only four maps, and only one will be set up at a time. While this does balance the fact that it’s the fastest way to get rewards, as well as adding to the feel of a part time job, Salmon Run is only open for online matches on certain days at certain times. One map will be available for that period with four weapons randomly assigned to players each round. This can’t be rectified by playing in private lobbies online, as the only way to play Salmon Run with one’s favorite weapon every time is local multiplayer, which has next to no reward payout. This does give players a chance to try new weapons, but it can be frustrating to constantly be given a weapon the player doesn’t like or isn’t skilled with.
However, Splatoon 2’s biggest flaw is actually part of its greatest strength: a living, breathing world. Splatoon lore is a consistently evolving universe affected not only by events of the plot, but also events outside the game. Shop owner’s won’t let the player in unless they’re “fresh enough” from winning enough matches, the game’s social media is run by the Squid Research Lab that treats updates to the game as scientific findings, bands split up to form new bands and do reunion tours, and many more minor details add to the worldbuilding. Special events are discussed on social media as if the characters posted about it, like special Salmon Run events being announced by Mr. Grizz, the enigmatic owner of Salmon Run. The plot of Octo Canyon was even decided by the results of the final Splatfest in the original game in which Marie was crowned the winner, and a set of short stories released leading up to an Octo Canyon trailer details how the results affected the Squid Sisters.
Speaking of Splatfests, that brings up a point as to what the Splatoon series represents for Nintendo as a whole, especially in the Switch era. Nintendo rarely creates entirely new franchises, and even when new IPs are made, like Codename: S.T.E.A.M., they don’t always perform well. However, the concept and gameplay made Splatoon an instant hit upon its reveal at E3 2015, and it became one of the best-selling games on the Wii U. Furthermore, while Splatoon had a relatively small pool of content at launch, it was because the game was a pioneer for new methods of DLC. Splatoon received constant free updates with new weapons, maps, gear, and more, as well as monthly Splatfests in which players duke it out in Turf War in the name of their team, be the battle between anything from favorite pets to Generation I Pokemon games. This kept Splatoon relevant long after its release, and the massive impact it’s had on the industry can be seen in the Switch’s library. Nintendo has stated the company plans to include various types of DLC across most of their first party titles, ranging from free content like Dream Friends in Kirby Star Allies to paid content like the Champions’ Ballad for Breath of the Wild. Splatoon’s success also led to Nintendo creating new IPs that use the same content distribution method, with the first being ARMS. Splatoon 2 continued the tradition of free content updates, although there was much more content to begin than its predecessor. Splatfests will continue through summer 2019, and though content updates were planned to end summer 2018, they were recently extended to winter 2018.
A unique concept, a unique evolving world, a unique method of content release, unique gameplay, a unique brand of humor, a unique aesthetic and more- there’s so much unique about this game that saying the word “unique” is no longer unique. While some modes are difficult to get into and not all mechanics are player-friendly, the gameplay and aesthetic carry the game to the point that it isn’t a huge issue. The impact the Splatoon series has had on the company cannot be understated, and there’s only more to come in the future. Even beyond the original game, Splatoon 2 is, for a lack of a better word, fresh, because it focuses on being fresh.
Splatoon 2 is available on Nintendo Switch for $59.99. Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion, the single-player DLC, is available for $19.99 and requires Splatoon 2 to play. For a review of the Octo Expansion, read the Electric Retrospective column for the month of September on the WG ECHO website.