Review of Splatoon 3’s Side Order DLC

“Splatoon is incredibly awesome,” I pondered as I tore through massive amounts of fish carcasses with an upgraded umbrella-shotgun mix while grooving to the tunes of an infectious electronic soundtrack. The unmatched sense of style in Splatoon 3 shines brightly in its Side Order DLC, even as it takes a risk by exchanging its iconic, vivid color scheme for an equally captivating black-and-white dystopian setting. Nintendo’s initial foray into a highly replayable, solo roguelite mode does encounter some challenges, including repetitive boss encounters, inconsistent difficulty levels, and occasional pacing issues. Nevertheless, Side Order flourishes due to its wild new abilities that push the boundaries of what’s typically achievable in Splatoon, a creative new class of enemies with superb designs and mechanics, and its intriguing twist on the incredible aesthetics, sounds, and gameplay that Splatoon enthusiasts have grown to love.

It’s endlessly fascinating to me that Splatoon 3’s Mad Max-inspired environment originated from a Splatoon 2 Splatfest in 2019: players globally battled for either Chaos or Order, with Chaos prevailing and influencing the style of this sequel as a consequence. Five years later, Side Order cleverly offers a glimpse into what the Splatlands might have become if Team Order emerged victorious in that pivotal Splatfest, replacing its post-apocalyptic wasteland with the sterile, monochromatic Order Sector. I admire not only the courage of the Splatoon team to entrust major game direction choices like this to the community but also the opportunity to explore that alternate reality of Inklings and Octolings after all.

This aspect of Splatoon is incredibly captivating. Stripping away all color from both Splatoon 2’s Inkopolis Square and the levels within the Spire of Order gives Side Order a unique identity, distinct from the vibrant battlefields of Turf War, Salmon Run, and Splatoon 3’s campaign. One of my primary critiques of Splatoon 3 was its lack of distinctiveness by reusing the same aesthetics and atmosphere as its predecessors, and Side Order’s inclusion definitively resolves that issue with its striking new visual style and memorable electronic, robotic soundtrack.

Following a somewhat verbose tutorial reintroducing Splatoon 2 fan favorites Pearl and Marina, you’re set free to navigate through the Spire of Order’s 30-floor challenge… though I hesitate to label it a “challenge,” considering I defeated the final boss on Floor 30 in just my second attempt. My main gripe with Side Order is its perceived ease. While roguelites are meant to emphasize gradual advancement where both your character and your own skills progress with each run, I felt deprived of that cycle of failure, improvement, and eventual success when the credits rolled after less than two hours. Granted, as someone with over 100 hours in competitive multiplayer and multiple S+ rank achievements, and receiving the dualies as my starting weapon of choice, newcomers may face a steeper climb up this tower. Nonetheless, it was disappointing to find myself craving a challenge that would push me to test my abilities.

Freed from PvP constraints, Side Order truly lets you get unconventional.

Fortunately, completing the game is just the beginning of Side Order as it challenges you to finish with all 12 available weapon types to unlock what I presume to be its ultimate ending. This presents a much more daunting task than a single successful run, compelling me to become proficient with weapons I rarely used, most of which require unlocking with keys earned during runs. After more than a dozen hours, I’ve only managed to conquer the Spire with about half of them so far, but I’m determined to persevere until I’ve triumphed with every weapon.

I wouldn’t be motivated to fully complete Side Order if not for the fantastic ways this DLC enhances Splatoon 3’s core gameplay. Unbound by the need for balance in competitive online play, Nintendo truly empowers you to explore outlandish possibilities. The impressive array of new abilities in Side Order are contained within color chips, which are earned on each floor during a run. With over 60 distinct color chips to discover, you can augment your Octoling’s strength, speed, range, and more. Strategically combining the right color chips can lead to incredible combinations, transforming a close-range weapon like the Octobrush into a long-range sniper rifle with seeking projectiles. It’s exhilarating to push Splatoon’s mechanics to their limits, morphing standard weapons into unrecognizable, formidable tools of destruction. While the relatively simple objectives may not always entice me back, the thought of concocting the next powerhouse setup with its color chips is inspiration enough to initiate a fresh run.

Another noteworthy addition is the Pearl Drone, your Octoling’s airborne ally that can deploy splat bombs, unleash special attacks, and even serve as a glider akin to Breath of the Wild. While your color chip configuration resets at the outset of each run, you can permanently enhance both the Pearl Drone and some basic character attributes in between runs. Since outfitting the Pearl Drone with multiple gear slots and devastating specials, I haven’t failed to ascend the Spire of Order. With the right color chip setup, the Pearl Drone evolves into an unstoppable force, causing continuous explosions and chaos on screen, all while maintaining a smooth 60 frames per second. The Pearl Drone also boasts a game-changing super move activated when you gather three pieces of a disc, decimating all foes on screen and stalling new waves from spawning for a precious few moments.

Each compact floor in Side Order presents you with a selection of three distinct missions, varying in difficulty from simple to challenging. The greater the challenge you opt for, the greater the currency and superior color chip you’ll earn as a reward. This dynamic risk-reward system compels me to weigh the trade-off between pursuing a high-value color chip to enhance my present setup or playing it safe to ensure my run proceeds to the next floor.

Every run effectively mixes up the objectives and maps.

Variety is key in the roguelite genre, and Side Order succeeds in diversifying its objectives and maps across each run. Some missions offer inventive solo interpretations of Splatoon 3’s ranked multiplayer modes, such as escorting a turbine tower to its destination or defending a splat zone from incoming waves of adversaries. One standout mission type involves closing portals spewing forth enemies, while a couple of less favorable objectives task you with propelling a series of balls to a goal or pursuing and defeating a group of evasive, high-speed foes.

Map design in Side Order is somewhat hit or miss. While there are notable highlights like a multi-level tower where I needed to guide the turbine from top to bottom and back up, a room entirely comprised of grind rails, or a bouncy trampoline park, many maps feel rather generic and blend together after a while. Nevertheless, to its credit, I continue to encounter new floors well beyond the 12-hour mark.

Things become truly fascinating when the “Bonus” or “Danger” labels appear on the level selection screen. Bonus levels introduce an additional challenge atop the standard objective, promising greater rewards upon successful completion — encompassing imaginative constraints like remaining stationary in Octoling form, refraining from using your primary weapon, or forgoing jumping while accomplishing the primary goal. Conversely, Danger modifiers significantly raise the difficulty level, with one particularly memorable Danger effect plunging the level into darkness and coating it entirely in enemy ink. The Bonus challenges and Danger adjustments are exceptional; I only wish they surfaced more frequently.

Irrespective of the map or mission, Side Order manages to sustain its freshness in part due to the introduction of its outstanding new adversaries: the Jelleton. These skeletal fish creatures exude a menacing presence and provide an enjoyable combat experience. If Salmon Run embodies Splatoon’s version of Left 4 Dead, then Side Order mirrors its interpretation of Days Gone, as I often found myself fleeing in terror from the seemingly endless horde of Jelleton inching closer to me. The Rigorous difficulty missions are particularly gripping, with instances where I could scarcely believe the sheer number of enemies on screen.

A major shortcoming of Side Order lies in its lack of boss variety.

Featuring more than ten distinct types of basic Jelleton enemies, each exhibiting unique strengths and weaknesses. Drizzling Capriccioso swiftly gains control of your territory if you neglect to monitor them from above, while Towering Nobilmente can pick you off from a distance. Certain enemies drop items upon defeat that can be utilized to your advantage, like the Whirling Accelerando’s spinning top that can be hurled into waves of foes, or the Springing Spiccato’s jump pad that functions as an escape route in dire situations. With the introduction of the Jelleton, Nintendo has uncovered innovative ways to harness Splatoon’s gratifying movement and combat mechanics, leaving me eager to see a follow-up that expands their ranks.

While the standard enemies are commendable, one of the primary drawbacks of Side Order lies in its lack of boss variety. Floors 10, 20, and 30 consistently culminate in boss battles, but there’s a surprising dearth of diverse bosses for a gameplay mode focused on replayability. For instance, Floor 30 always features the same final boss, which remains static in difficulty across subsequent playthroughs. The encounter is rather bothersome from the outset, as you’re forced to dodge a barrage of attacks while your Pearl Drone shoulders most of the heavy lifting. Floors 10 and 20 draw from a limited pool of only three boss types, meaning you’ll encounter the same ones repeatedly.

Moreover, Side Order grapples with minor pacing issues that detract from the swift, engaging nature I crave. A successful run typically lasts about an hour, with half of that time spent actually navigating a stage. The remaining half is occupied by level selection and lengthy dialogue exchanges in the elevator. Coupled with a difficulty curve where floors one through 25 feel more like a warm-up before the considerably more challenging final five floors, Side Order lacks that addictive “just one more run” allure perfected by top-tier roguelites. I would have welcomed an endless mode to test how high I could ascend, but alas, Side Order terminates with the same Floor 30 encounter every time.

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