Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze box art

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Platforming brutality. I tried to think of two words to describe Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and that’s all I could think of. The game is absolutely brutal. The difficulty doesn’t slowly ramp up in Nintendo Wii U’s latest release, it just stays high the whole way.

In Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the lush island paradise that Donkey Kong calls home has been frozen by the invading Snowmads. It’s up to Donkey Kong and friends to make their way through multiple worlds across different islands to put an end to the Snowmads’ icy reign.

The game features the timeless gorillia Donkey Kong along with playable characters, Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong, and for the first time in a Donkey Kong Country title, Cranky Kong. Each of these characters has his or her own unique ability. Diddy Kong can hover for a limited time using his Barrel Jet, Dixie Kong can perform a ponytail-spinning move and Cranky Kong can bounce on spikes and other hazards using his cane. I found that among the extra Kongs, Dixie was by far the most useful. Her ponytail-spinning move elevates you and Donkey Kong to hard to reach spots on each level. Cranky’s cane bounce is a clear homage to one of my all-time favorite games, Ducktales for NES. It works well when the player is more or less ready to get across those spikey spots without worrying about timing a jump perfectly.

I didn’t love my time with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze but I certainly didn’t hate it. I guess the biggest issue I had with the game was level design. Nintendo’s last big release was platforming nirvana. Super Mario 3D World challenged the boring level design often seen in the genre. It was fresh, and challenging in a good way. The newest Kong title was neither of these things. The level design often lends itself to trial and error gameplay. It is very frustrating to have to go half-speed through a level due to a distinct air of fear of what might jump out and cause an untimely death. A good example of this; I’m sliding down a vine and then suddenly hit a wall and fall to my death. I scratch my head and try again. The same thing happens except the second time I see a poorly marked visual cue to ring three bells to move the wall. Moments like this pull you out of the game and into a dark, angry place. It’s a place I like to call “the realm of gamer rage.”

The boss fights exhibit the good and bad of this title. They are inventive and unique. One of the boss fights is against a giant owl. It takes place in three different stages. The first has you tossing baby owls at it while avoiding egg drops and giant ice balls. The next portion has your character fighting against a wind storm and feather missiles. The last portion is played in the clouds. Sounds like fun right? It is, at first. The problem is the fight has much of the same trial and error style gameplay. When you die there is no checkpoint system to the fight. It’s all or nothing back to the beginning of the battle. When you master the first section it becomes dull, and repetitive. No gamer enjoys a slogging romp through the same portion of a fight time and time again. Give us incremental checkpoints Retro Studios! It’s 2014!

Graphically the game is fairly strong but somewhat boring. I don’t think Retro went above and beyond but it is a sharp looking HD title. Whether it’s fair or not, every Nintendo platformer will be held to the high standard set by a game like Super Mario 3D World. This is the bar, like it or not. The levels are not any more striking than those of Donkey Kong Country Returns for Wii.

I know I have talked in-depth about the game’s difficulty. If there is one redeeming quality of the harshness it’s the inclusion of purchasable extra lives. You can buy extra lives for a fairly cheap price. I do wonder if this was added after player testing had gamers in a bad mood. It almost felt tacked on. If you have to include the extra lives, maybe the level design and cheap deaths should have been revisited. Without the extra lives the game would be borderline criminal in terms of difficulty.

I really enjoyed the sections of the game that included “vehicles.” Riding on the back of Rambi Rhino was really fun. Mine cart levels were also rather thrilling. The same cheap deaths could be found in these portions but never at an infuriating pace. I miss the old mine cart chase levels in platformers. One mine cart portion of the game has your cart being chased down by a huge boulder.

The game’s multiplayer is pretty good. I think playing through these levels with a buddy can honestly be a big help, especially in the boss fights. Having a second person to attack the difficult bosses was a big help for me. Playing together does require a great deal of precision though. If one player is strong and the other is rather weak, than you will lose a great deal of lives. You will also lose them rather quickly.

The game does nothing to utilize the Wii U Gamepad. The player must choose between playing the game on the television screen or on the Gamepad. I wish the game simultaneously ran on the Gamepad but that is not an option. I know Nintendo wants to utilize the unique controller more but this game does not help move the needle in that direction.

Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a solid, yet unspectacular platformer. If you are looking for a game for a younger crowd this might not be the game you want. The difficulty will most likely prove to be too much. I wish Retro had used games like Super Mario 3D World and Rayman Legends as inspiration. Both of those titles had uniquely designed levels that allowed the player to develop a solid rhythm. I like my platformers to allow me to play fast and free. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is another good title for the Wii U, it’s just not a great one.

Score: 7.5/10

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