From what we've seen so far, Splatoon 3 isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Nintendo is keeping what worked for next year's squid paintball sequel – and that even with a new setting and some new tools to play with, we'll still largely be flinging ourselves against each other in 4v4 ink-flinging matches like before.
I've written before on why that's more than okay. Splatoon 2 is still the freshest shooter around, a surprisingly deep competitive arena serving a community that's younger, queerer and more socially conscious than most other shooters. But where Splatoon does need change is in the game's single-player offerings, which we got our first tease of during a recent Nintendo Direct.
Despite both Splatoon and its sequel having lengthy "Hero Mode" campaigns, the series has been in need of a mix-up for some time. The least interesting thing Splatoon 3 could do is run the same track over a third time – another Octo Canyon, another set of hub worlds, another end boss fight against another iteration of DJ Octavio's giant wasabi robot.
But Nintendo has already remixed the track with Splatoon 2's sole piece of DLC, Octo Expansion. And if Splatoon 3 can carry the tentacular beat laid down by the series' strangest, most creative campaign yet, we could be looking at something very special indeed.
Here's the thing: Hero Mode is fine. It's good, even! Structured more like a Super Mario game than any traditional shooter campaign, Hero Mode's short, bespoke levels is Nintendo doing what it does best– introducing, expanding on and returning to new mechanics at a brisk pace, testing your movement, shooting, and painting skills with new baddies and new map objects. As a way to get to grips with Splatoon's world and mechanics, it's airtight.
But it's just all a little dry. Splatoon 2's story isn't just a fairly rote Saturday morning cartoon affair – it's a direct retread of the first game's plot that sees the big macguffin stolen by the Octarian menace, albeit with one key twist to mix things up. And while missions are great at tutorialising Splatoon's mechanics, Hero Mode never truly challenges until the final boss. Unlocking secrets will open up glimpses of Splatoon's shockingly deep lore, but the active story isn't anything to shout home about.
Octo Expansion, in comparison, deserves to be shouted about in the same way we fawn over Titanfall 2's stellar campaign. Reframing the campaign as a Portal-like series of test chambers, Splatoon 2's Octo Expansion leans fully into the idea of Splatoon as a puzzle-platformer. One mission will have you using chargers (snipers) as cues for a colossal game of pool, while others will have you figuring out how to collect eight data-points across a map built atop a constantly rotating gyro. Notoriously, a good few tests involve bumping an 8-ball across precarious obstacle courses while baddies try their hardest to punt it into oblivion.
All of this is framed in a structure that images a campaign as a metro system, literally taking the train between different challenge stations. There are four "thangs" to collect spread across the system, and it's hard to get stuck when you usually have a good three or four options for routes to go down. Where Hero Mode offers only five weapons to test, Octo's stations come with a range of loadouts to try – opening up the entire game's outlandish arsenal of paint-flinging weapons while offering higher rewards for trying trickier weapons.
Not even the bosses (harder versions of those found in Hero Mode) are mandatory until the game's closing chapter, which eschews the metro format for an absolutely stunning straight-shot finale whose curiosity ranges from Metal Gear-style sneaking sections to a fantastic recontextualisation of the game's multiplayer Turf Wars.
Yes, Octo Expansion gets much harder than Hero Mode (as anyone who's banged their head against the secret final boss will attest). But it's so much more creative, relishing in the possibility space afforded by Splatoon's unique mechanics. That same curiosity extends into Octo Expansion's story that, per the name, raises doubt over the uniform evil of Hero Mode's Octarians by having you play as one.
Plenty more fish
In Hero Mode, Agent 4 pops into a sewer to be told they have to save the world. In Octo Expansion, Agent 8 wakes up amnesiac on the floor of a derelict subway station with a geriatric cuttlefish cruising for a fight. I'm immediately more endeared to the latter, and that set-up kicks off a campaign that is so much more interested in story, character, and finally giving these weird fish-people something to do.
Characters get, well, characterisation in ways Hero Mode never offered. Live chat logs introduce you to the game's idols, Marina and Pearl, as they try to help Agent 8 off this nightmare subway. Every line is populated by its own bizarre inhabitants and more regular faces like the Cap'n, Iso Padre, and the sea cucumber that's apparently running the show. The expansion's closing act also cranks up the stakes with cinematics of a kind the game only teased at before, finding shots that genuinely pulled at my heart after Eight and I had spent so much time on the rails together.
Octo Expansion is also deeper, stranger, moodier than Hero Mode ever was. I'll always be sad that Splatoon's single player offerings don't dip into the fresh urban look and sound of its own multiplayer maps (a kind of Jet Squid Radio Future, if you will), but Octo supplants that by leaning into the weirdest depths of the aesthetic – pulling from the inherent strangeness of deep-sea life and tinting it with trippy synthetic beats.
Zero to Hero
As a fun distraction, Hero Mode has always been good at its job. A neat little set of puzzles to prepare you for the inky gauntlet of online matchmaking. But Octo Expansion proved that Splatoon's world is ripe for exploration, the depths of its paintball swimming far from unexplored. It's the kind of mode that could absolutely carry the game, which makes it all sadder that it's locked behind a $20 DLC.
It's a direction I really hope Splatoon 3 carries forwards. And for all my concerns that Nintendo isn't reinventing what single player in Splatoon can even be, I'm already liking what I'm seeing. Splatoon 3's trailer sported some absolutely stunning imagery, and is raising interesting questions for seasoned fans. It sure as hell looks like the first game's Agent 3 is chilling with the Squid Sisters, our new lead goes through a few outfit changes, and there's the ever-pressing question of what's up with that fish in your backpack?
That we're even asking these questions suggests that Splatoon 3's campaign will be more than another Hero Mode re-run. But it's too early to tell if that narrative curiosity will be matched mechanically – whether we'll see puzzles to rival or exceed Octo Expansion's creatively strange test stations. If it does, I'm excited to see Splatoon 3 surpass the light distractions of Hero Mode to become a story worth experiencing in its own right.
Alongside Splatoon 3, check out our roundup of upcoming Switch games to see what else is on the horizon.