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A Wild New Mutation: GeekDad Reviews ‘Splatoon 3’

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The original Splatoon was a standout title on the oft-maligned Wii U, and its follow-up, 2017’s Splatoon 2, brought this nontraditional third-person shooter to its new home on the Nintendo Switch. With additional modes, more weapons, and a much larger player base, Splatoon 2 seemingly did everything right—even down to making Octolings playable characters via paid DLC. While Splatoon 3, which launches this Friday, doesn’t represent quite so vast a franchise reinvention as its predecessor, it still manages to do what Splatoon does best by wrapping intuitive, enjoyable gameplay in a weird and wonderful narrative complete with big personalities, strong level design, and outlandish lore.

If this represents your first Splatoon experience, don’t be alarmed; the game literally teaches you all the basics upfront. In the dry post-apocalyptic wastes of the Splatlands, you’ll customize an Inkling/Octoling to your liking. This includes hairstyle (well, tentacle-style), skin tone, and eye color. You’ll also get to pick a hairstyle for your little buddy, a Smallfry character originally from the series’ Salmon Run mode that’ll assist you through the game’s single-player content.

Splatoon 3 Splatsville
Welcome to the mad city of Splatsville. image: NOA

But before you can even get to that, Splatoon 3 puts you through the paces of targeting, firing, swimming, and jumping in a safe, pressure-free environment. As always, the central mechanic remains using your weapon to cover open surfaces with your ink, changing to your squid/octopus form to swim stealthily up and over inked surfaces, then reverting to your kid form to continue blasting.

By default, motion aiming is enabled, and while it’s great for TV mode and tabletop play, I always find it a little cumbersome in handheld mode. Thankfully, as soon as you make your way to Splatsville, the Splatlands’ chaotic capital city, you can adjust or disable this setting.

The Splatsville hub is a bustling environment occupied by other player characters and helpful NPCs. It’s also the home of Deep Cut, a musical three-piece that serves as the co-hosts of the Anarchy Splatcast. This regular broadcast helps you stay on top of all the available stages and modes, and Shiver, Frye, and Big Man are welcome additions to the growing stable of Splatoon‘s hybrid musicians/game show hosts.

Splatoon 3 Deep Cut
Can you name a more iconic trio? image: NOA

Early on, though, players are locked out of many Splatsville activities until they reach level four, with the game actively motivating newbies to check out the new Lobby feature and explore Splatoon 3‘s core Turf War mode. The Lobby is now a physical location where players can queue for upcoming multiplayer matches and fire off some practice shots while they wait. This is also the perfect place to master the new Squid Roll and Squid Surge maneuvers, which allow for quick horizontal turnarounds and vertical ink climbs.

In traditional Splatoon fashion, Turf War sees two teams of four compete for inking supremacy, covering as much ground as possible for their respective colors while also splatting enemies. The stages are a mix of old favorites and new Splatlands additions, and each provides ample opportunities for various play styles. A new post-match screen also hands out little superlatives, acknowledging not just the most enemies splatted and turf covered, but likewise giving little nods to things like who did the most to ink their team’s home base and who was the biggest splat target.

Splatoon 3 lobby
The new Lobby feature allows you to make the most of your wait time. image: NOA

Throughout your first few levels, Splatoon 3 continues to lead with the carrot rather than the stick, doling out the ability to change your player name, access to the customizable Splashtags, and giving you your own locker to decorate in short order. Much like those little match-ending shout-outs, this helps make new players feel as though they are steadily progressing, even if they’re still getting their sea legs in the Turf War environment.

While the new Anarchy Battle mode—seemingly Splatoon3‘s answer to Splatoon 2‘s Ranked Battles—isn’t available until players hit tenth level, upon reaching level four Splatsville becomes a much more hospitable environment.

Splatsville houses all the requisite shops necessary to keep your cephalopod looking deadly fresh. Most importantly, this includes Ammo Knights, where the proprietor Sheldon helps outfit you with your weapons of choice—including the new Splatana- and Stringer-class of armaments. This time around, though, weapons are unlocked via Sheldon Licenses rather than in-game coins. You can exchange such a license for one weapon matching your current level, earning more licenses for better armaments as you level up. (Splatoon 2 players can get a free pair of Sheldon Licenses just for importing their previous game save, which is a nice little perk for returning fans.)

Splatoon 3 Sheldon
Sheldon Licenses are a new way to unlock weapons. image: NOA

Just as each Splatoon 3 weapon has a mix of primary, secondary, and special attacks, clothing items also include various stat buffs and abilities—like increasing attack damage or ink resistance. A single primary ability is visible at purchase, and one or more secondary abilities are revealed as you level up while wearing the item. Naut Couture stocks a rotating inventory of headgear, with Man-o’-Wardrobe and Crush Station offering clothing and shoes. Unlike weapons, gear is still sold for coins, with pricier items offering more secondary abilities.

While it doesn’t offer any distinct gameplay advantage, the Hotlantis General store also sells an entirely new class of decorative items. Decals, statuettes, plushies, and bric-a-brac can be used to customize your locker. Lockers for your recent multiplayer companions and competitors appear alongside yours in the locker room, meaning that fans the world over have an opportunity to peep your decoration game and be inspired by the quality (or simply astounded by the quantity) of the goods you put on display.

Splatoon 3 Hotlantis
Harmony always has some cool new decorations to choose from. image: NOA

Lest you prefer to save your hard-earned coins for clothing purchases, decorative items can also be found in Splatoon 3‘s expansive single-player mode. Likely the single strongest new addition, “Return of the Mammalians” sees your character cast as Agent 3 on a journey to rid the hidden retreat known as Alterna of its dangerous Fuzzy Ooze.

Offering even more chances to perfect your use of an expansive arsenal of weapons, master hot new moves, and uncover wonderfully ridiculous Splatoon lore, “Return of the Mammalians” is easily the series’ strongest campaign mode to date. Familiar faces and newcomers alike are cast as your friends and foes as you make your way through a series of interconnected island environments, with your little buddy helping along the way.

He can open faraway crates, distract shielded enemies, and sniff out hidden goodies, making him just as helpful as he is adorable. He’s also integral to this mode’s challenging final battle, giving a performance that’s surely to make this little Salmonid the standout video game character of the year.

If neither competitive multiplayer nor nail-biting single-player gameplay is your thing, Splatoon 3 still has something to offer. Once relegated to very specific event times in Splatoon 2, this game now offers the cooperative Salmon Run 24/7. Just head to Grizzco to be matched up with a four-player work crew to harvest valuable eggs from roaming Salmonids. But beware! Massive Boss Salmonids provide a sizable challenge to even the toughest players, and you’ll all need to watch each other’s backs to make it through.

Splatoon 3 Salmon Run
Salmon Run is even better when you’re not limited to strict “business hours.” image: NOA

In a shocking turn of events, Splatoon 3 is the first game in the series to offer a mode that doesn’t rely on running and/or gunning. Tableturf Battle mode is a virtual card game that apes the mechanic of Turf War on a 2D plane. It’s sort of like Splatoon meets Tetris… but with cards.

Over 150 collectible cards are available, each with different ink block layouts. Splatoon 3 paints this as the more studious side of culture in the Splatlands, and because of that, this otherwise odd addition seems to make sense. Like Gwent in the Witcher series, Tableturf likely won’t appeal to all players, but it’s just one of many little extras that help flesh out Splatoon 3.

As I alluded to earlier, Splatoon 3 doesn’t feel like quite as big a leap forward as Splatoon 2. Cosmetically, it’s pretty similar, and the now familiar Joy-Con control scheme is still as buttery smooth as ever. Without new hardware backing it up, it’s understandable that this entry would feel like more of an iterative improvement, but, at the same time, it’s not fair to call it just more of the same.

Taken as a whole, Splatoon 3 is an object lesson on how to maintain a thriving franchise. It adds lots of small things—not just weapons and stages but brand new experiences like Tableturf and more opportunities for customization via the locker room and Splashtag system—and those add up to a big, beautiful, boundless gameplay experience overall.

The single-player story mode, always an adequate element of previous titles, finally feels like an important narrative device for Splatoon completionists. It allows new players to learn valuable skills while also rewarding diehards with a deeper dive into the story of the world’s inkiest apocalypse.

Splatoon 3 Anarchy Battle
At level 10 you finally get a true taste of anarchy. image: NOA

In fact, Splatoon 3 is a veritable love letter to longtime players like me. Way back in 2019, Splatoon 2 celebrated Final Fest: Splatocalypse, an Order vs. Chaos Splatfest that genuinely helped shape the world of Splatoon 3. In the end, the forces of Chaos reigned supreme, and that is exactly how we now find ourselves in the outlandish, unruly climes of the Splatlands.

The new Anarchy Battles, the Splatfest Tricolor Turf War we experienced in last month’s Splatfest World Premiere, and even the madcap trio Deep Cut itself are all manifestations of the power of chaos—a chaos that we, the players, chose. So I say, why not go for it?

Lose yourself in the lunacy of Splatoon 3… because disorder has never felt so good!

Review and promotional materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. No squids were harmed in the making of this post.

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