Splatoon 2 review

Sink or swim.

One of my favorite moments ever in an interview happened when I chatted with Splatoon producer Hisashi Nogami and director Tsubasa Sakaguchi at E3 in 2014, two days after Splatoon was first revealed. When I asked for more details about the game’s setting, Sakaguchi dropped this nugget: “when we created the background music, the idea in our heads was that this would be the pop music for this world.” I remember hearing this and thinking fuck, that’s so cool. It totally makes sense to me that these squid people would blast this catchy nonsense on their radios. From that point, I was completely sold on Splatoon.

Cut to now. Splatoon has proven itself as the phenomenon I kind of hoped it would be, an extremely popular title on the otherwise unloved Wii U, and the sequel is shifting Switch units all on its own as the system’s first truly major exclusive. Splatoon has become a symbol of Nintendo’s eagerness to foster work from younger teams, and when the original game launched it felt very new while still being recognisable as a Nintendo game. It wasn’t just fun, it was cool, a game in which the characters were stylish and energetic, where they listened to music and idolized pop stars.

Splatoon 2 is a safe sequel, one where the excitement comes from having more Splatoon rather than having an entirely new Splatoon experience. It doesn’t reinvent itself the way Breath of the Wild did with Zelda earlier this year, or the way Super Mario Odyssey looks like it might in a few months’ time. It’s more of that thing we all liked, but on the Switch. It’s still cool, it’s still filled with squid-selected pop music, and it’s still teeming with weird fashions and wise-cracking sea life. Thankfully, two games in, that’s really all Splatoon needs to be doing.

If you missed the original, Splatoon 2 is an online third-person shooter where your objective isn’t to splatter your opponent’s brains over the walls, but rather to cover the ground in your team’s ink color. The weapons resemble super soakers, and while you certainly can – and should – shoot your enemies, the more important objective is to make sure that your team’s ink is all over the ground. Your character – who is either a squid who turns into a kid, or a kid who turns into a squid, depending on your headcanon – can ‘swim’ through their own ink, travelling extra fast. Gaining control of crucial areas of the map is essential for getting around, escaping from danger, or stealthily sneaking up on enemies and splatting them from behind. There are a few rotating modes in ranked play, but most of your time is likely to be focused on the unranked ‘Turf War’ mode, Splatoon’s centerpiece. This mode is lean and focused – spend three minutes covering as much of the ground with your ink as you can, shooting your opponents until they explode whenever you get the chance. It’s a concept that’s easy to grasp, although judging by some of the teammates I’ve had since launch, the tactical strategies available will take a while to become apparent to everyone.

Splatoon 2 makes changes, but they’re mostly things you’ll only appreciate if you played the original quite a bit. For someone who played casually for a few hours, or stopped after hitting level 10-or-so and hasn’t gone back for a while, it’s going to feel like the same game. Those who can dive a little deeper into Splatoon 2’s inky battlefields will notice that the special attacks have all been swapped for new ones, and that the meta has already shifted towards favouring specific loadouts.  I’ve found myself far less reliant on super jumps, which can no longer be masked as they could before to avoid detection as you sail in – they were leading to too many very quick deaths.
Weapons feel largely the same as before, although I’m not seeing Chargers used much outside of the one specific map they’re most obviously useful on. The new Splat Dualies, which arm you with an ink-uzi in each hand, let you roll and dodge attacks while firing, but no other weapons feel like a major shift just yet. You still can’t swap weapons while waiting for a game to start either, which feels like an oversight.

Splatoon 2 also has more content at launch than original did, with ranked modes and more maps available right away, although it’s not as big as what Splatoon eventually became just yet. At present eight maps are available, two of which (Moray Towers and Port Mackerel) are slightly modified versions of maps from the original. The original Splatoon launched with five maps and ended up with sixteen, but there’s no definitive ‘schedule’ laid out for when we’ll be seeing more stuff added – it just seems like a fair assumption that the game will follow a model like its extremely successful predecessor.

But look, Splatoon 2 could have launched with just one map that we had to play over and over for the first month and people would still be frothing over it, because Splatoon’s online play is, on a fundamental level, fucking fun. It’s an extremely inviting online shooter, one in which the matches are short and exciting, but also always readable in a way that some shooters aren’t. If you need to know what needs to be done, all you need to do is look at the map with a tap of the X button – where are things happening, and which areas need painting? Has someone gotten a roller onto your ‘side’ of the map? Did anyone remember to paint the spawn? How does your loadout fit into that? It’s important to act fast – the few seconds between dying and respawning feel like an eternity as the clock ticks down, and I find that my desire to get back out there and spray paint everywhere is overwhelming enough to carry me through hours of play at a time. There’s very little downtime in a good game of Splatoon, and across a single three-minute Turf War match there can be a lot of push and pull. It can be very exciting, and a close-fought victory is always rewarding.

Splatoon is just such a great idea for a game, and Splatoon 2 feels like enough of a step forward to at least justify the ‘2’ at the end of the name, even if it’s not a reinvention that will fundamentally alter the way you play too heavily. The portability of the Switch, and the new wireless play options, mean that Splatoon 2 has more room to grow as an esport too, which is important for the series’ future. In the console’s honeymoon period, where it needs a lot of titles that can fill genre and series gaps, Splatoon 2 is a great fit for the console.

The game also features a campaign mode, much as the original did, and the Horde-inspired ‘Salmon Run’ mode, but neither one feels essential. The campaign is largely a retread of the original with a stronger emphasis on helping you learn how the different weapons work, and some of the twists that were originally exclusive to these sections (like sponges and inkrails) are now showing up in the multiplayer maps. The enemies are still fun to take down – especially the bosses – but whereas the original’s campaign was a pleasant surprise, this one never adds up to much more than a neat little bonus.

Salmon Run, in which you and three others tackle waves of enemies using whichever weapons the game grants you to collect ‘Golden Eggs’ and earn cash, takes a long time to heat up. You and three other players need to take down ‘boss’ enemies as they pop up, then take the eggs they drop back to your egg chamber. The mode starts off incredibly easy, but as you play more and more you eventually gain access to a much more difficult version of the same thing. Salmon Run isn’t bad, but it’s repetitive, set across the same small arena against a handful of specific enemy types. Worst of all, the online version of Salmon Run is only available during specific predesignated twelve hour periods, which is a very weird thing for Nintendo to be doing. In theory, it means that Salmon Run’s lobbies are always likely to be busy when you try to play this mode, but since Splatoon is so popular I can’t help but wonder if this is actually an issue they needed to design around.  

Splatoon 2 is more of the thing everyone liked two years ago, and it doesn’t need to be a whole lot more. For all the misunderstandings of how online works (the Switch app for voice chat is garbage), and the options that are skipped over or minimised, Splatoon 2 is just too fundamentally good to pass up. To borrow the original game’s parlance, it stays fresh. If there’s a third game down the track we may need something more from it, but for now I can’t imagine getting sick of this sequel anytime soon.

Verdict: Yes