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an image of an inkling in splatoon staring off into the distance. there’s an upside down Eiffel Tower in the background. Image: Nintendo

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Splatoon 3 exudes polish, but lacks ambition

The goofy shooter franchise is slick as ever, but it struggles to find its own voice 

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Over seven years ago, Nintendo did something it rarely does: Its developers released a brand-new IP with an original cast of characters. Splatoon centered on stylish teens who have the power to transform into squids and melt into gooey, paint-filled terrain. The series, which started as a niche shooter, has since gone on to become a staple of Nintendo’s catalog, developing a dedicated fan base along the way. But a large question remains: Where does Splatoon go from here?

Enter Splatoon 3, the newest installment in the series, which will be released for Nintendo Switch on Sept. 9. As I enter the game, I’m greeted by the sounds of an echoing, dripping liquid. From there, I look into the sunny sky as I emerge into the towering city of Splatsville. Neon signs hang overheard, gratuitously ornamenting its shops. As I walk around, I’m treated to a soundscape of subway trains and the competing music of various vendors. This city serves as Splatoon 3’s hub, which connects activities like competitive online play, the solo campaign, and gear shops.

From the get-go, the game leans into the self awareness that there’s a pressure to do something new. “Oh, uh, hi… Did we do this once before?” Cap’n Cuttlefish, an old, bushy-bearded man says to me. The humor is a bit on the nose, but before I can roll my eyes, the land gives way beneath my feet and I tumble into Alterna, an arctic archipelago. Turns out, my Octoling ended up in some sort of facility under the land itself, á la Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it’s up to us to find our lost friend Cuttlefish, who has been kidnapped and is stuck somewhere in this mysterious place.

an image of an inkling sitting on the snow as they look onto the scenery of Alterna in Splatoon 3 Image: Nintendo

To do that, I need to collect caviar-like Power Eggs in the single-player missions. These eggs allow me to clear a deadly fuzz from the surface of the world, thereby revealing even more places to explore: Sometimes it’s a giant, lopsided Moai statue resting steps from stacked metal shipping containers. Other times it’s an Inkrail that allows me to cruise to the top of a metal factory tower via a stream of ink.

At times, the “assorted junk” motif feels like an afterthought of an aesthetic choice, but clearing the world of its fuzz to reveal intermittent secrets is zen-like nonetheless. It didn’t feel like a sad, barren postapocalyptic world —more just a weird place whose mystery I couldn’t help but dive into. I can even collect pages for a digital lore book that teaches me about Alterna’s history. I’ll let you uncover the details, but as is often the case in postapocalyptic fiction, the heedless advance of human technology didn’t do the world much good after all.

an image of a battle in splatoon 3 Image: Nintendo

The general intrigue behind Splatoon 3’s larger world is a particularly welcome addition, especially because, in every other way, the game isn’t bringing much new to the Splatoon formula. Most levels feature not only similar layouts as the previous entries, but similar design conceits as well — filling sponges with paint, traveling up slick paint-filled slides, and filling up explosive paint balloons for use as grenades, to name a few.

What Splatoon 3 lacks in major changes, it slightly makes up for with quality-of-life tweaks. There’s a multiplayer lobby in which I can take part in target practice between rounds, and lockers that I can decorate with items like oil barrels or stuffed animals. While this seems like a small change, it’s a marked improvement over the previous entries’ glorified loading screens.

an image of the loading lobby you can play around in splatoon 3 Image: Nintendo

My time with the multiplayer aspects was part of a limited-time trial for review purposes, but even so, jumping into a Turf War immediately reminded me of the sheer chaos of earlier games. Playing the competitive mode feels largely in line with my previous experiences of the game. Although some new weapons and specials joined the fray, getting back into the thick of it felt like second nature. The mechanics and gameplay feel exactly the same as previous games and my old strategies held up. Within a half a minute, I found myself combating scattering ink and joining in on the frenetic pace.

Coming back to Splatoon feels like stepping back into a big messy home. On one hand, the developers have sanded down some of the rougher edges that have adorned the series since the beginning. New weapons, courses, and more developed online functionality have all gone a long way in improving the overall experience.

On the other hand, the game still feels like it’s treading water. And at this point, it might be too little, too late. The series has had two chances to evolve and continue to be a standout series for a generation of Nintendo fans. But it’s only taken baby steps, when it needed to take leaps. Splatoon 3’s script and characters suggest that it’s been keeping up with the times since it burst onto the scene seven years ago. But its stagnant design pillars suggest otherwise. The result is a game that reaches for the excitement of the original, but can’t quite grasp it.

Splatoon 3 will be released on Sept. 9 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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