Friday, April 11, 2014

Wii U Review: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze

Donkey Kong Country Returns was a great comeback for the big ape, reintroducing lots of classic elements from the original SNES games while also introducing more new elements to the series than all the New Super Mario Bros. games combined did for the Mario franchise.  It positioned DK as the "hardcore" Nintendo character.  It was the game you played if you wanted a challenge.  After the great success of DKCR on the Wii, and later on the 3DS, it's no surprise that Nintendo and Retro Studios would be eager to return to DK's country once again.  The result is Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze for the Wii U.

As a sequel, Tropical Freeze is the real deal.  Not simply content to present more of the same, Tropical Freeze takes everything up a notch from its predecessor.  New graphics, new villains, new locations, new characters.  Veteran composer Dave Wise returns to the series with a brilliant new soundtrack that is far less reliant on remixes than the last game.  Even tiny details, like Donkey Kong's various grunts and yells he makes, are all new and not just recycled from previous games.  Every facet of the game has been updated or improved in some way and it goes a long way toward making Tropical Freeze feel like a brand new experience, and not just more of the same.  In an era when Nintendo sequels often feel nearly indistinguishable from their forerunners, it's great to see a sequel go all out to actually get players excited about coming back to the world of Donkey Kong Country again.

The basic gameplay remains largely the same as Returns.  DK still controls as well as ever, with his requisite collection of moves in tact.  He can still run, jump, roll, cling onto vines and grass, carry and throw items, and pound the ground.  Also back is the control scheme as the 3DS version of the game, which means it's buttons all the way again if you hated having to waggle to roll.  Also gone this time around is the bizarre blowing mechanic from the last game.  In its place is a new pulling mechanic that allows DK to grab onto handles in the ground and pull them out.  The results of pulling out one of these handles can be as simple as causing a banana to pop out of the ground or as complex as making an entire set-piece fall into place.  It's a good replacement for blowing that makes a lot more sense than stopping to have DK blow on dandelions every few feet.

Just like before, DK has a real sense of weight to him that makes him very satisfying to control.  You really do feel like you're controlling a powerful beast as you make DK lumber around the levels and cause the screen the shake when he pounds on things.  The downside to this sense of weight is, of course, that DK is heavy and drops like a rock into pits if you miss your jumps.  To help combat that, DK can find barrels to toss that cause a buddy to jump on his back for a little assistance and some extra health.  This time around, DK even has his choice of three unique sidekicks.  Diddy Kong returns, working exactly as he did in the last game, with a jetpack that provides a little extra hang time and distance in the air.  Dixie Kong is similar to Diddy, but her helicopter hair allows DK to gain a little extra height as well as distance after jumping, similar to Yoshi's famous flutter jump.  Finally, Cranky Kong joins the fray as well.  Cranky doesn't bestow DK with any extra airtime, but he can pogo bounce with his cane, Scrooge McDuck style, to get a little extra jump height and traverse on hazardous surfaces.

Tropical Freeze largely allows the player to choose which sidekick Kong they want to use at any given time, which is nice.  Buddy barrels are also distributed a bit more liberally around the game than they were in Returns, which means it's a little bit easier to get your partner back if you git hit a couple times and lose them.  For the most part, the levels are never designed to favor one Kong over any other, but when there is a particular character the game intends for you to use, it does a pretty good job of providing clues without just sticking a "Cranky" sign on the ground, or whatever.  That said, if you're the sort who has to collect all the secrets in each level, it can be a little aggravating to find a secret area that is inaccessible because you don't have the right sidekick with you. 

It's also worth noting that Diddy Kong is rendered almost worthless by the inclusion of Dixie, as her added jump height pretty much renders Diddy's horizontal boost obsolete.  There's never a good reason to use Diddy over Dixie, so you'll probably never use him again after the first level forces you to.  Two-player co-op mode returns, as expected, with player one using DK and the second player controlling one of the three other Kongs.  Just like the last game, however, the level of precision required to navigate the difficult level design means that Tropical Freeze is best experienced alone.

The level design of Tropical Freeze should feel pretty familiar to players familiar with Returns.  Once again there is a strong emphasis on each level having some sort of distinct set-piece to call its own, ensuring that every single level throughout the game is unique and memorable.  The usual set of K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces remain strewn about for thorough players to collect.  That being said, the level design this time around doesn't feel quite as inspired as it did before.  It could simply be a matter of familiarity.  Returns constantly surprised players with dynamic levels that changed or crumbled as you played through them.  Tropical Freeze ups the ante on that front, with a lot of levels changing dramatically as you progress through them, often resulting in very little solid ground to stand on.  That said, the wow-factor isn't quite as high since you go in expecting such spectacles this time.  Additionally, the sense of flow and precision of Returns doesn't feel quite as present and perfected in Tropical Freeze.

It's a minor complaint, though, as Tropical Freeze is still a lot of fun to play.  It may not be quite as impressive as before, but the amount of variety on display here is still pretty staggering.  No two levels feel quite the same.  Mine cart levels and rocket barrel levels are also used much more sparingly, addressing one of my biggest problems with the last game.  Swimming returns for Tropical Freeze, after being ditched for Returns.  It's about as fun as swimming ever is in a 2D platformer.  Which is to say, not that fun.  But it's not too aggravating either, and the swimming levels are invariably accompanied by beautiful music.  Boss battles are also noticeably more involved than the last game, too.  They teeter on the edge of being frustrating, as they all feature multiple phases that must be replayed if you die late in the fight.  However, all the bosses are inventive and memorable, and they are just fun enough to be worth the moments of irritation that come with them.

The level of difficulty has definitely not been toned down for Tropical Freeze, but the oft-criticized Super Guide does not return to patronize players with it's white-flag-waving pig.  Instead, a lot of the difficulty-softening items from DCKR3D's "New Mode" return, giving players numerous ways to make getting through levels and beating bosses a little easier.  Players can take barrels with them into levels to ensure they've got the partner they want.  They can also give themselves an extra heart of health, use a balloon item to save themselves from falling into a pit, and more.  This is a welcome change because, while the ability to make the game a little more forgiving is possible by stocking up on items in the shop, it's entirely up to the player to decide if they want to do so.  The game doesn't hold your hand at all.  Tropical Freeze is as easy or as difficult if you want to make it.

From a visual standpoint, Tropical Freeze is a wonder to behold.  The level of visual detail has been cranked way up over Returns, which was already no slouch in the graphics department.  Levels are lush, detailed, and lively, with multiple layers of background details and all sorts of little touches here and there to add visual interest.  The world themes are pretty diverse in Tropical Freeze.  There's still the requisite jungle and cavern type levels, but there are also levels based on locations like Sweden and the African savanna.  Each world is unique and beautiful.  It also must be said that, as Nintendo was keen to point out, DK does have actual fur in this game and it really is quite impressive.  It's not just a static texture or anything like that.  It actually moves and reacts to what DK is doing.  It's a small thing, but its testament to the level of polish Retro Studios has bestowed on Tropical Freeze.  Visually, it's pretty much flawless.  This is the best looking game available for the Wii U right now.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a great sequel.  It does all the things you want a sequel to do.  It provides more of the fantastic gameplay and style from Donkey Kong Country Returns, but not at the expense of pushing the series forward and trying new things.  The visuals and music are greatly improved, and the new playable sidekicks are a lot of fun.  Numerous tweaks and improvements have been made to the formula based on the criticisms leveled at Returns.  That said, even with all the improvements, the slightly less impressive level design makes me hesitate to call Tropical Freeze a better game than Returns.  At the very least, fans of the original game who want a new experience will not be disappointed.  And, if you're a Wii U owner looking for a showpiece game to demonstrate what the console can really do, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is a great choice.  It might not quite reach the level of perfection that Returns did regarding level design, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of it's predecessor in virtually every other way.