Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: Kirby's Return to Dreamland

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo

Kirby games are generally viewed as "easy" or "kiddie" games, but they're usually pretty radical. For example, Kirby's Dream Land 3 used a really cool graphical style when it wasn't popular to do so. Kirby 64 helped lead to the "2D sidescroller in 3D" idea that's in vogue right now.

Kirby Canvas Curse showed developers how to use the DS' touchscreen to maximum effect. Kirby's Epic Yarn looked surprisingly tactile and was still incredibly fun. Kirby Mass Attack was a platformer/RTS hybrid, a rarity.

That willingness to try new ideas is what keeps Kirby fresh. It's no surprise that the most recent traditional Kirby game, Kirby Squeak Squad, was a middling effort. Now, here's Kirby's Return to Dreamland. Will it mix the best of traditional Kirby games with some of their most outlandish creations, or will it be just another Kirby game?

First of all, Kirby's Return to Dreamland looks very nice. It's clean, sharp and colorful, so you'll never wonder if something is part of the background or foreground. It's obvious that lots of care was put in to the construction of Return to Dreamland's looks.

Other parts of the game weren't so lucky. First, let's talk about the sound. The music is just not interesting. I played this game for 10 hours and couldn't recall one solitary theme. There are only a few snippets of music from older Kirby games, which is an absolute shame. The music could have recalled the best of Kirby games past and present, but instead just ended up being... there.

The level design displays a similar blandness. Barely anything exciting ever happens. You move from one side of the level to the other, picking up powers as needed and continuing onward. Surprises are few. Challenges even less so.

Now, I'm all for easy games. I like easy games. I like being able to finish games quickly without struggling. However, I like my easy games to at least give me something to look forward to.

For example, Kirby's Epic Yarn, while easy to play, always had something new to show you. Whether it was unspooling yarn, snow that looked like cotton balls, or just an adorably silly level transition, you never knew what you were going to see next.

In Return to Dreamland, you're going to see about 20 different powers. By the time you've played through the second or third world, you've seen them all. You've seen all of the special super powers. The bosses don't look threatening or interesting. The levels are all going to consist of moving from one direction to the other.

The only really interesting thing I can remember from Return to Dreamland was the time I used the giant sword ability to slice a volcano in half. I thought that looked really cool. Aside from that? I can't remember much of it. Even parts of the final boss are recycled. The way he dies looks exactly like the final boss's death in Kirby's Adventure. Once again, nothing new was thrown into the mix.

There was one thing that almost fooled me into thinking Return to Dreamland was going to be awesome. There are parts where Kirby gets to play in a black-and-white world while frantically avoiding a barrier that threatens to gobble him up. It looks really awesome the first time you see it, and I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.

By the time you've seen it 20 times, it gets pretty tiring.

Here's what I would have liked to see: The first world's special areas in black-and-white, the next world's special areas looking like the NES world. The third one looking like Kirby 3's world, the fourth like Super Star and so on. It would have been an awesome way of calling attention to the past while keeping one foot planted in the future.

Instead, Return to Dreamland refuses to acknowledge past Kirby games in any shape or form. It refuses to show us anything new, either. It stubbornly believes that we like Kirby games just because of Kirby himself. While we do like Kirby, his games endure because Kirby games try. We like them because they use the little pink puffball as a canvas upon which to hang really interesting ideas. In this case, the only thing that HAL threw on the table was multiplayer platforming, which has been done in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Kirby's Epic Yarn.

I want to be clear: Kirby's Return to Dreamland is not a bad game. It's competent. It plays solidly. It looks great. If you've never played a Kirby game, it's a great place to begin. It's just not that exciting. It's average, so it deserves an average grade.

Final Grade: C

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