Monday, November 7, 2011

Review - Kirby's Return to Dreamland

Before I delve into a thorough analysis and review of Kirby's latest Wii outing, let me get something out in the open air.

I'm a person who loves Kirby games.

I've grown up with the little pink marshmallow, and his platforming escapades are near and dear to my heart. Kirby's Adventure is the first game I remember playing to completion, and since then there are few Kirby adventures I haven't played to completion. Kirby Super Star (and by extension, Kirby Super Star Ultra) is one of my very favorite games ever made.

So forgive me if this review comes garnished with a dash of bias.

Since Kirby's Adventure, our boy's main shtick has been copying the abilities of his enemies and using their powers against them. Back in the late days of the NES, and even in most Kirby games since, Kirby's arsenal of abilities has mainly been used for single attacks; Cutter throws a boomerang, Fire unleashes blazing breath, Beam swings a single whip of electricity.

That isn't the case in Kirby Super Star; every ability has an entire cache of tricks up its sleeve, making each of them almost feel more like separate characters than extensions of Kirby. The assorted hats that Kirby dons with each new ability went a long way toward furthering this idea. With all his new exclusive attacks and his cute jester hat, this was no longer Kirby wielding the Beam ability, this was Beam Kirby.

For some reason, the hats have become a staple in the series, but the fully realized abilities haven't. In fact, no game since Kirby Super Star featured such a wide arsenal of attacks. It is with great pride and excitement that I am finally able to add the words "Until now" to the end of that sentence.

Kirby's Return to Dreamland is the Kirby game I have been waiting for. Not since Epic Yarn. Not since the trailer for the Gamecube game that never was. This is the Kirby game I have been waiting for since the Super Nintendo was still my favorite console.

As a Wii platformer, it's hard not to make comparisons to New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns. As a Kirby Wii platformer, it's even harder not to make comparisons to Kirby's Epic Yarn.

And strictly speaking in terms of level design, Return to Dreamland is easily the worst of the four. That seems to be something that most review sites have latched onto.

But while that's true, I respectfully assert that Kirby's Return to Dreamland is more than the sum of its parts. For one, these are impossible standards to live up to. Between them, New Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong probably have the best level designs ever in platformers, and Epic Yarn's unique aesthetic managed to break new ground by creeping into the way the levels were designed and navigated.

Beyond that, I would argue Return to Dreamland is not a game about level design. This may seem itself a paradox, as what game, let alone a platformer, can not be defined by its layouts and obstacles?

But that's the beauty of it; Return to Dreamland, just like Kirby Super Star before it, is all about the abilities!
At first, I felt that the game was withholding abilities from me, giving me access to them too slowly; you tend to find a new one about once per stage, and it's not until the game's fifth world of seven that you'll have finally seen them all. Contrast that to Kirby Super Star, where you've seen all the abilities by the end of Dynablade, the second of seven sub-games (eleven in Super Star Ultra).

But as I continued to play the game, I developed a subtle appreciation for this design decision when I realized that spreading out the acquisition of abilities is the game's way of feeling fresh all throughout. In Kirby Super Star, each sub-game had its own distinct flavor. Revenge of Meta-Knight was about timed challenges and amusing cutscenes. The Great Cave Offensive was focused on treasure-hunting, and Milky Way Wishes put a unique spin on the Kirby formula by making abilities permanent once you found them. But Return to Dreamland doesn't have the luxury of being broken into sub-games; it is one cohesive adventure with one goal from start to finish. Donkey Kong and New Super Mario Bros. kept the game fresh with entrancing level designs and steep difficulty, but Kirby went a different route by introducing a new ability or super ability almost every stage.

Kirby's arsenal has never been greater. Using the plethora of abilities available to you has never been as easy or as fun. Though some series staples like Wheel and fan-favorites like Yo-Yo are missing, each ability that did make the cut is presented as the best it's ever been. There's not a single ability in this game that I preferred in Kirby Super Star; even the most basic of them have been improved in some way. Beam is a bit more spammable and can now hover infinitely, and Cutter boomerangs can now be steered ala Squeak Squad. I even prefer the abilities that were nerfed in some way, like Sword and Fighter, which have shorter range than in Super Star. Sword, by its very nature, feels like it should have shorter range, and even though Fighter's vulcan jabs don't reach as far as they did in Super Star, it can now fire Hadokens as it did in Amazing Mirror. Previously one-note abilities like Needle and Tornado have gained new attacks since Kirby's Adventure, and it's a thrill to see them as well fleshed-out as the rest of the Super Star carry-overs. The new abilities (Leaf, Water, Spear and Whip) are so well-implemented that they almost feel as if they've been there all along.

With each of the game's 20 abilities being so developed, Kirby has more attacks than ever before. Kotaku's review lamented the fact that this vast supply of attacks was almost entirely optional, but I would argue they missed the point; After all, isn't that the whole appeal of copy abilities in the first place? Just like Kirby's Adventure and especially Kirby Super Star, Return to Dreamland doesn't give the player the tools to pass a specific set of obstacles in a predetermined way, it gives the player the tools to play the game almost any way they want to. Ninja Kirby's cherry blossom explosion isn't in the game to solve a puzzle in World 4-1, it's there to bust out whenever the player wants to - if the player wants to! Maybe they'd rather stick with Fighter, or Water, or Parasol.

It's in this sense that I believe Kirby's Return to Dreamland isn't defined by its level design in the same way as New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns. I believe this game is defined by the player - or more specifically, by which ability the player chooses to employ at any given moment. To that end, I strongly believe this adventure rises beyond the limits of its inferior level design. Inferior to previous Wii platformers, that is; I would hesitate to call the level design in Return to Dreamland poor or uninspired. As a person who has played Kirby's Adventure and Kirby Super Star a whole heck of a lot, I can say with confidence that the courses and layouts from this latest Kirby outing are no worse than in either title. Kirby has never really been a series about exceptionally intricate level design. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns, the player is presented with a series of obstacles and the question becomes, "Can you overcome these obstacles?" But the unique thing about the Kirby series is that it instead asks, "How will you overcome these obstacles?"

Joystiq's review called the game too easy, citing Kirby's natural ability to fly infinitely as a means to bypass many of the game's challenges. In response to that, well... yes. Kirby is not a series known for its torturous difficulty, and even if the review pointed this out, I still fail to see the problem, exactly. Kirby has had infinite flight since day one, and I've only just now heard any complaints about it. Yes, the player can fly over much of the game if they so desire, and yes, the sections of the game that are not vertical or underwater or inside a hallway become a tremendous bore to play should they decide to do so. But is that an inherent flaw of the game's design, or the fault of the player? The surface of the game's world is littered with enemies ripe for beating up and energy spheres ripe for collecting, so I'm forced to ask what sort of jaded, unenthused individual would enter this world and choose to simply fly over it. I mean this not as an attack on the character of the reviewer, but as a serious inquiry. Should the game be blamed for allowing the player not to play it?

And while this is a fairly easy game, it is not exclusively so. The Arena mode that is unlocked on completion is rather challenging, and hearkening back to the original Kirby's Dream Land, completing the game also unlocks Extra Mode where Kirby has significantly less health and all the bosses gain more powerful attacks. Extra Mode also features a brand-new boss in the middle the adventure, and completion of this mode unlocks an even more difficult Arena with the improved bosses, the new boss, and a second new boss that appears exclusively within the Arena. These other modes of play provide plenty of content and should prove more than enough of a challenge for all but the most elite masochists out there.

Joystiq questioned if it was worth completing the main game to unlock this content; while I would certainly answer that with an emphatic affirmative, I can't as a reviewer speak for everyone. All I can say is that I never found myself bored with the game. On completing it once, I planned to immediately play the exact same adventure again in its entirety. To my pleasant surprise, I didn't have to, because an extra challenge awaited me.

Collecting energy spheres in the main game also unlocks a set of Challenge Stages based on using individual abilities to their full potential; these stages are played for points and best times and though they somewhat go against the freedom of choice in ability that I championed earlier, these are some of the most fun and addictive challenges to be had within Return to Dreamland. Regretfully, only a handful of abilities received a Challenge Stage designed around them. I would have loved to have seen each ability in the game get its own set of specifically tailored obstacles to traverse, as each of them certainly has enough techniques and attacks to design an entire stage around.

Kirby's Return to Dreamland is not a perfect game. The Super Abilities are all one-note, like the abilities from Kirby's Adventure, and really seem to stick out amongst the ridiculously developed normal abilities; they'll start to get stale partway through Extra Mode and the level designs will not melt your face off the way they might have in previous Wii sidescrollers. The soundtrack, while still fantastic, is certainly one of the weaker entries in the series. But this is a game that is more than the sum of its parts. Not one of the problems I have with this game diminishes my enjoyment of it in the slightest, and that's something I can't say about any of the previously mentioned Wii platformers. Does that make Kirby the best of them? Not necessarily. But it just might be my favorite. And if you go into it with an open mind and the eyes of a child, playing with Kirby's vast assortment of tricks might just make it yours.

                                                         Ricky thought this game was...

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