The Great Zapfish has gone missing (again, again). As the new Agent 3 of the New New Squidbeak Splatoon, it’s up to you to discover the secrets behind the mysterious underground land of Alterna, find the Great Zapfish, and look fresh while doing it. Of course, the Splatlands and Splatsville have much more to offer, like the traditional Turf Wars and gainful employment at Grizzco.
Even after playing Splatoon 3, I’m not entirely convinced it needed to be released on Switch. Splatoon 2 was released very early on in the Switch’s life and added tons of new, substantial features on top of succeeding the Wii U original. While the player base naturally shrunk over time, I’ve been playing constantly since launch and never had trouble finding matches. Splatoon 3 of course refreshed that base, and somehow grew it with the biggest game launch ever in Japan, but its additions and changes are more subtle than you would expect from a sequel.
If you’re not familiar with Splatoon, here’s a rundown of the basics. It’s a third-person shooter where you shoot ink instead of bullets to cover the terrain in your team’s color. As a Squid or Octo Kid, you can swim in your color ink to move faster, climb walls, reload, and more. Stepping in enemy ink will slow you down and damage you, and getting hit too much by enemy fire will splat you and you’ll respawn at your team’s base after a time. The goal of the main mode, Turf War, is to cover the stage in more of your ink than the other team. Got it? Good, let’s get into Splatoon 3 itself.
One of the big draws of the third entry is the new story mode, titled Return of the Mammalians. You explore the land of Alterna, entering linear stages through kettles. The level design here feels like a mix of the best of Splatoon 2’s story mode and the much better Octo Expansion, with the former being general platforming and shooting stages and the latter skewing more towards specific challenges like surviving for a certain amount of time or having a limited amount of ink. It’s a ton of fun, and if you’re having trouble with a particular stage you can skip it entirely thanks to the nonlinear overworld. The only things preventing you from moving on to the next area are globs of fuzzy ooze, which your pet Salmonid Small Fry can eat at the cost of some Power Eggs. Completing stages rewards you with Power Eggs, but you don’t have to clear all the ooze to move on. However, there are hidden stages and collectibles to find everywhere, and completing every stage will open up one final, incredibly difficult challenge to conquer.
The story is mostly presented through Calie and Marie’s commentary as you work through each level, and it’s still just as charming as before. There are tons of puns to enjoy or groan at if you hate fun, and the mode is very good at serving as an extended tutorial for all the mechanics like sub-weapons and specials without feeling like a tutorial. It doesn’t get around to teaching you everything, however, and has a weird proclivity to certain specials over others. For example, you use the spider-man esque Zipcaster and my beloved Crab Tank constantly, while the Ink Vac is used exactly once. The Zipcaster actually feels more suited to single-player than multiplayer, but the favoritism is still a bit weird and leaves you to figure out a lot on your own.
While Return of the Mammalians is a lot of fun, the majority of your time will be spent in online multiplayer. In a strange move, there are no new modes here whatsoever, with Turf War being the standard, unranked mode, and Clam Blitz, Tower Control, and Splat Zones rotating in the two ranked forms. You can either queue for a single ranked match, or wager some points to enter a five match set. I haven’t been able to play the latter, because when I tried I never got into a match and the game ate my points, so I need to grind back up in the normal ranked mode. This brings us to my biggest issue with Splatoon 3: spotty connection.
Just like both games before it, Splatoon 3 uses a peer-to-peer form of online connectivity instead of the much more stable servers. I’m not too knowledgeable on the tech, but I know enough to say this is objectively inferior to servers in games with more than two players at a time and that connection somehow feels even worse than Splatoon 2. I get connection errors constantly, so much so that I literally could not play multiplayer the Monday after the game launched. When you’re not being kicked out of matches for no reason, you’re being splatted by players who very clearly did not hit you, and once I was killed by a shot fired after the player was already dead. For a modern multiplayer game in 2022, much as it hurts me to use the current year argument, this is atrocious. Fighting game players are desperate for Rollback in their games, but even games without that feel better than this.
On a more positive note, playing with your friends is a bit easier than Splatoon 2, though still more difficult than it needs to be. While in the training lobby, you simply open up the match menu, hit right, pick a mode, then pick a friend to join and you’ll be inserted into their next match if a spot opens up. It sounds nice on paper but is sorely lacking in a lot of aspects. When trying to play with my friend and fellow editor David Burdette I had to play a full match of Turf War before he was allowed to join because you can’t actually queue together for some ungodly reason. Once you’re together, you also can’t choose to be on the same or opposite teams as it’s sorted randomly. You can do this in a private lobby, but unless you have a group of eight or more together it’s going to feel pretty empty. How we still don’t have the option for bots on the third installment I’ll never know.
With all that being said, the core of Splatoon 3 is still just so dang fun. Each mode combines shooting and movement in an incredibly satisfying way, and even if your teammates suck (INK THE SPAWN, TURF WAR ISN’T A DEATH MATCH) you’ll probably have at least a little fun between connection issues. There are a ton of weapon types to experiment with and you’ll easily find your favorites. Personally, I main the dualies, a pair of dual pistols, and even though I do miss the burst bomb sub weapon the crab tank special makes up for their absence. I’ve also been enjoying playing around with the two new weapon types: the Splatannas and Stingers, which are a katana and bow respectively. While there are only two of each type at the moment, the Splatanna is a fun mid-range weapon that allows you to shoot horizontal slashes by pressing ZR and charge up a more powerful vertical slash by holding the button. Stingers have a similar horizontal and vertical shot dynamic, but you have to jump to fire vertically. While you can rapidly fire the bow for some weaker shots, charging up will allow your shots to travel further and the arrows will explode after a short time, releasing even more ink. The Splatanna feels like it can go toe to toe with any other loadout, but the Stinger is woefully underpowered at the moment with less than ideal turf coverage and an ungodly amount of precision required to splat for a shorter-range sniper.
If you’re more in the mood for cooperation than competition, the PVE wave mode Salmon Run is now available 24/7. This mode sees you and your Grizzco coworkers battling Salmonids to deliver scores of their golden eggs within a certain amount of time. Each boss returns from 2, with a few new ones for good measure along with the random chance of a super boss after what’s normally the third and final wave. It’s still a lot of fun with some good, persistent rewards and is vastly improved by the ability to throw eggs to the basket or for other players to deliver by pressing the A button. This mode is also where the new Swim Form moves become useful. While holding ZL to become a Squid or Octopus, you can quickly change directions by flicking the stick and jumping for short invincibility. You can also climb walls easier and without inking the entire thing by charging a jump for the Squid Surge move, which will also get you a bit of airtime once. I haven’t tried playing with friends here, but I imagine it works the same as PvP with one player already having to finish a match.
Splatoon 3 adds a few more convenience features too. You can now skip the spiel informing you of the current stage rotation when you start up the game, which is super nice and a long time coming. As a consequence though, I’m not as enamored with Deep Cut as I was with the Squid Sisters or Off the Hook, and their personalities felt more one-note. I still like their designs though, and their music is pretty good, though not as good as 1 or even 2 in my opinion. As mentioned previously, the lobby is now a training area instead of just a menu and will display 2D holograms of your friends and people in your party. In the training area, you can purchase the EXP, cash, and ability buffs too. Lastly, you can save loadouts if you like how a particular fit meshes with a weapon.
In terms of purely new things, we have a new set of shopkeepers (minus Sheldon still running Ammo Knights) for you to buy clothes from, a card game, Splashtags, and lockers in the training area. There are of course plenty of fresh fits to purchase once you reach level four, and they can be customized even further thanks to the freakishly all grown up Murch. I’m not entirely sure how you increase the amount of slots on a piece of gear, but I suspect it has to do with the new star system, which is of course not explained. If you want to get your TCG on, you can play some Table Turf Wars, in which you customize a deck to “ink” more turf than your opponent on a set field. You can’t ink over your opponent’s tiles without using a special and you have to place all cards next to other turf you’ve inked, so it does involve a bit of strategy. As of right now, however, there is no way to play against other players either locally or online, so it feels kinda pointless and I’ve never liked card games anyway.
To make yourself stand out even more, you can customize your Splashtag with your player name, a background, and title which will appear at the start of matches and under your character if you win. More interesting to me, however, is the locker which you can customize by placing items, clothing, stickers, and weapons inside and on the door for other players to view. It’s a fun bit of personalization that serves no real purpose but is accompanied by the new general store where you can buy new items and stickers along with receiving rewards from the new catalog AKA battle pass (which is entirely free thankfully). These are both very nice touches to add just a bit more fun and flavor outside of the posts you can view in town (RIP Miiverse).
All in all, putting the online infrastructure disaster aside, Splatoon 3 is a lot of fun, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been an update to Splatoon 2 rather than a new game. I enjoyed the new story mode, the new weapons are great, and the lobby changes are fantastic, but everything else just feels like too little to warrant $60. I generally don’t like to evaluate games on price point, but it needs to be said this is more like Splatoon 2.25 than a full jump in number or even just half. Once you take into account the awful connection it definitely doesn’t feel worth it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good game and a great entry for new fans, but I’d get basically the same experience and probably slightly more stable in Splatoon 2 and that’s still right there on my home screen. Nintendo really needs to step their game up in terms of updates, and for God’s sake invest in some servers or better netcode.