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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: Kirby Mass Attack

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo

Kirby fans got a great surprise at E3 this year. All of a sudden, Nintendo drops the bomb that they have not one, but two Kirby games in development, and ohbytheway, they're both dropping this year. One is coming up for the Wii, and the other, Kirby Mass Attack just launched for the DS.

I'm an absolute whore for Kirby games. Any Kirby game, anytime, anywhere and I am there. There are only a few of them that I wasn't completely in love with: Kirby's Dream Land 3, which I still played through to completion, and Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, which was just a weird game all around. I also wasn't crazy about Canvas Curse at first but I got over it and harbor some love for it.

So you would expect me to be jumping up and down about having Mass Attack to play, right? You wouldn't expect anything approaching ambivalence, but rather insane delight at my good fortune. And yet, there's something about Mass Attack that holds me back from a ringing endorsement. It's good, but with some slight issues.

First of all, the story with Mass Attack is simple: Kirby has been split into ten pieces, and you have to use all your Kirbies to defeat enemies and put yourself back together. It's a cute setup, and it enabled the designers to make a few twists to the Kirby formula.

The first twist? Kirby does not take any powers from any of the enemies. Frankly, I didn't even notice this was gone until I wrote this review, so take that as you will.

The next twist is that Kirby Mass Attack plays like a platformer/real-time-strategy game, if you can believe that. You don't have direct control over your army of Kirbies, but instead you direct them using the stylus. You can either have them walk/run to where you need them to be or fling them with the against enemies, breakable blocks or switches.

Attacks also aren't done by Kirby's typical inhale/exhale methodology, but with a hilarious swarming method. By tapping an enemy, you'll get all of your Kirbies to pile on and start pounding on it. It reminds me of nature videos where helpless animals get swarmed by ants, and it's almost always funny.

There are also no "lives", per se. The amount of lives you have is equal to the amount of Kirbies you have on screen. If you have seven Kirbies and two die, you're down to five Kirbies. You get extra Kirbies by eating fruit, and once you hit 100 pieces eaten you get another Kirby, with a maximum of ten Kirbies. If a Kirby gets hit, it'll turn blue. If the Kirby gets hit while it's blue, then it starts floating away like an angel unless you're able to rescue it by flinging another Kirby at your fallen friend to grab it and pull it back to Earth.

In other words, they've changed quite a bit about Kirby games with Mass Attack. That's good and bad. On the one hand, you can't accuse Nintendo of treading water. On the other hand, if you're going to change the game so drastically, why keep the Kirby name? Why not just create a new character to do this kind of game? It seems counterproductive. Either way, the mechanics are fairly solid, the levels are diverse and there's lots of fun to be had. So why is that I feel a little flat about Kirby: Mass Attack?

I think what's bugging me is the lack of control you have over your characters. You can direct your group to huddle up in a ball, but when walking or moving, they'll usually spread out over a fairly large area. This can create problems when you're trying to avoid obstacles or enemy attacks, since you have to keep telling your guys to bunch up in to groups.

It's also hard to select an individual Kirby to fling. I found myself, more often than not, just sticking my stylus in the middle of the group and hoping against hope that I would pick one out to fling. This leads to you sometimes trying over and over to fling someone and getting one of your characters accidentally hurt.

The first levels are also pretty easy, but in the later going you can find yourself losing everything far too quickly. For example, in one level, I was cruising along until I got to an area where there were falling blocks reminiscent of Thwomps in the the Mario series. My Kirbies ended up accidentally underneath one of them when it fell, and the enemy managed to crush ALL of them.

It was a fluky shot, but I lost every Kirby in one second with no chance of getting them back. Then, once I lost all of my Kirbies, that was it for the level. My game was over and I had to restart the level from the beginning. That meant that ten minutes of my progress was erased.

Another example: There's a late level with a tower that rocks back and forth depending on where your Kirbies are standing. There are enemies that try and push you off by blowing air at your group, and if they blow off one of your Kirbies, the Kirby flies off the tower to its death, with no chance of getting it back.

OK, so I sound kind of whiny. When I was younger, I used to play games all the time in which I would lose considerable progress after a death and it never bothered me. But the problem is this: This is Kirby. Kirby games are generally pretty easy. Most of Mass Attack is pretty simple as well, and to be blindsided in later levels by higher difficulty is a little disconcerting.

Still, there is a lot to recommend. The control issues don't entirely kill your fun, and you're constantly being handed a new task to attempt, whether it's some switches you have to hit in order, a new enemy that attacks you in a way you weren't expecting, or a puzzle that pleasantly surprises you.

There are also a ton of unlockables, including a faux-RPG of sorts, a shoot-em-up, a pinball game and more. It even has an achievement system of sorts, a sure sign that Nintendo is getting the idea that people like achievements. Here's hoping that they integrate that into future systems like the Wii U.

So Kirby Mass Attack is pretty good, with a few caveats. If you can look past its flaws, you'll see it's a solid title that shows that Nintendo is still full of ideas for the little pink puffball, even after after all these years.

Final Grade: B