Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns. Decent game, but never really feels like anything special

Alright, this marks me trying a new format with my reivews, going the IGN route by ending with closing comments then a categorical breakdown of everything. This was always something I was afraid of doing because it makes it easier for people to avoid the review entirely and just skip to the end, but then again, being able to sum up the review at the end means I can throw in little details that would have bogged down the review otherwise, and my reviews do tend to run a bit long, so I guess I'll see whether this way works better or not.

So here goes.

In 2002, Texas-based Retro Studios amazed the video game industry by creating Metroid Prime, a game that many today celebrate as being among the best of the decade. Though people were initially skeptical, the game managed to feel like a Metroid game despite taking bold risks with the franchise and dramatically shaking things up.

So my expectations were high when it was announced that Retro Studios would now be taking over the reins of the Donkey Kong franchise. Though it was pretty obvious from the start that Donkey Kong Country Returns was not going to attempt to re-invent the franchise in the same way that Metroid Prime did, I have to say that I think I expected a bit too much from Retro Studios' latest effort. The game plays fine and looks nice, but generally it doesn't do all that much to stand out. Donkey Kong fans will probably enjoy getting the chance to play more of the same Donkey Kong they remember, but those new to the series, like myself, may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Visually the game looks nice, with some great effects present as Donkey Kong progresses through the colorful environments. It all looks polished and pretty, even when the camera gets to go in close. The characters and enemies look great on a technical level and animate well, I just wish artistically the game was a bit more interesting. I realize this all takes place on an island, but I still think it was possible to spice up the art direction a little bit more. Aside from a couple cool-looking sunset levels that seem to have been inspired by Frank Miller, not much was done to make the various jungles, beaches, and volcanoes you'll traverse feel like anything we haven't seen before. There are examples of inspired character design, but this was something Rareware really excelled at, and Retro Studios I think is a bit out of their element here. Interaction with other characters is minimal, with an old shopkeeper providing the game with its only dialogue, and his one-liners aren't much to write home about. Meanwhile, the screen where you select your levels from is so bland that it makes New Super Mario Bros' hub world look good, and aside from the shop, there's nothing you can do between levels but head to the next one. Though there are plenty of things to find and collect in the levels themselves (such as letters that form the word “KONG,” which will unlock a hidden world) you must find each letter in every single level to reap the bonus content that it unlocks, which is an awfully tall order that many will probably feel isn't worth the effort. This is a relatively bare-bones platformer and aside from the collectibles and a time attack mode, there are no distractions at all from the main quest.

Which is unfortunate, because the main quest, though it can be both fun and rewarding in short bursts, can also be very draining, given the high difficulty and intensity of some of the levels. Often I found myself opting to simply turn the game off instead of going from one very difficult level to another one. Each of the 8 worlds you visit contain several levels, which generally look similar to each other, and though there are occasionally brutally difficult mine cart and rocket blast segments to shake things up, for the most part this simply is what it is. Donkey Kong must chase after his stolen bananas, he can use Diddy Kong as a sidekick to gain extra health and hovering abilities, and he can deal with enemies by bopping them on the head, rolling into them, ground pounding, or sometimes blowing on them if they happen to be fire-based. Aside from jumping, Donkey Kong's actions are all mapped to shaking the Wii Remote and holding the D-pad in a certain direction. A big problem I have with Donkey Kong Country Returns is that I just can't stand shake controls. They bothered me in WarioLand: Shake It and they're not any better here. Though you can opt to play with the Nunchuck attachment, there's no way to map the shake controls to any buttons. I eventually got used to it, but it made the first half of the game or so a pain for me to play.

One thing I want to commend Retro Studios for, on the other hand, is not going easy with the game's difficulty. This is a challenging game, “retro” in every sense of the word, and it has no problem making you sweat. At the shop in between levels you can buy as many additional lives as you can afford, and even a key to unlock a different path through the world map if the level you're stuck on is just too hard. You can also buy an extra heart for use on one level, or another power that will make Donkey Kong invincible for a short time. There's also the Nintendo-enforced “Super Guide” feature that will be offered to you if the game sees you dying a lot, and taking advantage of it will have the game play through the level for you, though you will receive no collectibles from using Super Guide. Make no mistake about it, this is not an easy game and you'll be trying to collect every banana you see to gain as many lives as possible, as you *will* die constantly. Even hardcore gamers may find themselves tempted to use the Super Guide at certain points. How fair is the difficulty? Sometimes fair and satisfying, other times it relies too much on trial-and-error and memorization, and checkpoints can sometimes be very far apart. Some will tolerate this type of difficulty more than others. I understand that they were going for a retro gaming experience, and this form of difficulty definitely reminds me of the Sega Genesis games I grew up with. Games have changed a lot since those days, though, and so for me it was often frustrating, rather than satisfying, to have to essentially die on certain set pieces in Returns over and over again before I memorized exactly how they worked in order to get them right.


Verdict: There are some moments of inspired platforming, and the pacing is actually very fast, making it easy to always turn the game back on, even if minutes later I found myself cursing at the TV. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a strange game, one that's fun one second and then frustrating the next. I guess my biggest problem with it is that it doesn't really have much of a personality. It feels workmanlike, as if Retro Studios was told to make a 2D platformer in the spirit of the Rareware Donkey Kong Country games and they didn't have the freedom (or maybe were afraid) to branch out and really make this their own. Even the music seems to be mostly remixes and comes off as forgettable. The graphics are nice but the art direction and dialogue feels like a secondhand Rareware, and as I played this game, as much as I tried, I found it hard to get past the fact that this fairly standard 2D sidescroller is really what Retro Studios has been working on for these past few years. It feels like a waste of this brilliant developer's talent. The Donkey Kong Country games tried to push 2D platforming forward, while Returns is content to just be a throwback. Granted, the gameplay is solid and can at times be a lot of fun, I guess I just expected more for my $50 than what's basically an updated version of a game that came out in 1994. I think what it comes down to is that Donkey Kong Country Returns was made for fans of Donkey Kong Country. If you're new to the series, you'll find a fairly standard and very difficult 2D platformer that doesn't quite have the creativity or ambition to stand out in what's becoming a very crowded market. Fans should buy, everyone else should rent first to see if they like it before dropping the $50.

Presentation: Game follows your typical Nintendo game "8 world structure" on a pretty boring worldmap that's light on things to do or characters to interact with. Not a whole lot of surprises here. Story is minimal and what you'd expect.

Graphics: Colorful environments, superb lighting, and nice graphical effects are pleasing on the eyes. Fluid animation and some cool-looking enemies have trouble masking a general lack of inspiration. Level types (jungle, beach, cave, fire) can feel a little stale.

Gameplay: An often very challenging sidescroller that's exactly what it says it is, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Series fans will be more forgiving than others of the old school try-and-die difficulty mechanics. Gameplay isn't nearly as revolutionary now as it may have been back in 1994, and a late-game switch hunt feels like filler. Aside from this, Returns keeps up a fast pace and there are moments of very inspired platforming.

Sound: Sound effects are solid. I recognized some music tracks which I assume are remixed from older games, but all in all the music doesn't do a whole lot to stand out.

Value: The challenging difficulty and 8 worlds ensure a lengthy gameplay experience. There are several puzzle pieces and KONG letters to collect in each level, not to mention Time Attack options on levels you've beaten. If you're looking for things to do outside of the main quest, though, you're pretty much out of luck.

Overall: 6.5/10 (My reviews go by a .5 scale.)

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