Thursday, 16 December 2010

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii)

Donkey Kong Country Returns marks the first proper instalment in Rare’s much-loved and critically applauded series of platform games in eleven years, fourteen if you go right back to DKC3 on the Super NES. The game is a modern day homage to a tried and tested gaming classic, blending in brand new 3D visuals on a 2.5D plane with plenty of barrel blasting, vine-swinging, and baddie bashing action. It’s been a long time coming, but Retro Studios have crafted a rather excellent, if not ever so slightly flawed entry to a series that has been absent for far too long.

Like before, DKCR begins with the great ape having his prized banana horde stolen from right under his tree house. Only this time it’s not those pesky Kremlings and King K Rool that is to blame, but a race of floating masks going by the name of the Tiki Tak tribe. The Tiki’s have hypnotised all of the DK Island’s animal inhabitance and turned then into vicious banana stealing, Kong killing adversaries. And naturally it’s your job as the Island’s head-honcho DK, along with your simian pal Diddy to stop them.

Donkey Kong Country Returns shares much of its blueprint with those three Super NES originals, along with borrowing elements from Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and adding plenty of fresh new material. You’ve got the return of the series main hub and individual world maps, with some six or so levels, plus one boss in each, a lively jazzed up version of the original DKC soundtrack, along with sound and gameplay elements from the later games as well. Both DK and Diddy return for the first time together since the original DKC, aiding each other with their own individual trademark moves.

Unlike in past DKC games however, only Donkey Kong is directly playable in the single-player mode, with Diddy simply riding on DK’s back giving the titular ape two more extra hits before dying, and a very usefull jetpack ability used to extend jumps and clear longer distances. The change in design gets rid of the need to have one particular character to reach certain areas, instead opting for Diddy’s jetpack ability to help lead you to secret areas and unreachable items. It’s a compromise that works well, and the use of additions to your life is welcome given the game’s often harsh difficulty level.

Yep, Donkey Kong Country Returns is hard… very, very hard. It’s by far the toughest of the four DKC games created, getting players sweating very early on – sometimes boardering on being a little too difficult for its own good, with stages getting notoriously annoying to complete just before the halfway point. However, for me much of the earlier challenge didn’t come in having to avoid the game’s various pitfalls, enemies, or deviously placed traps. These I can deal with, mostly, considering they aren’t always all that much harder than the worst DKC2 or even 3 had to offer – almost on par in fact - quickly going to back to those games to check.

Instead, the main culprit behind DKCR’s sometimes absurd difficulty (early on, but certainly not later) – and yes, I did have to use that Super Guide at times – is the unnecessary use of waggle with the Wii Remote in order to perform specific moves. It just makes this harder by not being as responsive as a button press on the controller.

You can use both the Wii remote on its own, or a Wii Remote + Nunchuck combo in DKCR, but it is the former that I find works the best. Jumping and running is handled with the 1 and 2 buttons when the game is played this way, with the D-Pad being used for movement. Shaking the Wii Remote while stationary performs a ground pound, while shaking when running delivers a barrel roll.

Now this set-up largely isn’t a problem, though waggling the remote has a noticeable delay in between performing the motion and having DK executes his moves. This means that last minute barrel rolls off the edges of platforms in order to gain higher, further jumps is no longer anywhere near as intuitive as on the Super NES games, often leading to either: late attacks which fail to have the desired effect, or simply nothing at all in a worse case. Classic Controller support then is sorely missed, as it would have eased up the difficulty level somewhat along with giving you a more comfortable method of control.

While Donkey Kong Jungle Beat showed off how much imagination and excitement the series still had after years of being left untouched in the canopy for the best part of half a decade, DKCR goes even further having some of the most intoxicatingly inspired platform level design I’ve seen in any game in years, let alone DKC. Sure enough, the game sees you barrel blasting through the jungle, riding mine carts through uncharted territory, and bopping off a string of enemies before swinging off to that next platform.

However, the scenery this time is far more interactive. Platforms raise and lower as you ground pound on certain areas, structures collapse in the background as you try to perilously shoot yourself across bottomless pits of jungle, and barrels can be ridden as an unwieldy rockets providing yet more excitement. The old-school perfect path elements of the previous three Super NES games return: bopping off a few enemies, jumping off a vine and into a barrel in order to progress in a clean and fluid manner not always apparent on your first playthrough of any of the game’s levels, is something that is as polished as it was all those years ago.

There’s also lots of hidden areas to find in each stage, KONG letters to collect, and a variety of other such bonuses, all of which deliver added depth familiar to all those who’ve spent their times playing the original DKC’s all those years ago.

Other than the perfect path aspect of the game, this is by far the biggest draw. I’ve always loved going through the first three DKC games one-hundred percenting them numerous times before, unlocking the lost world in the last two games and sending K Rool packing for the second time. And while the challenge in DKCR may well be too great to do quite the same, I really like the amount of effort that has been put in to giving completists exactly what they want.

The game’s remixed soundtrack also verges on being thoroughly excellent at times to a little bland in general. The music doesn't quite generate the same level of atmosphere as the tunes found in Rare's first two DKC games, although to its credit always fits the mood of the stages and their surroundings.

Another qualm comes with regards to the game's general sound design, especially concerning the sound affects. Again they aren’t quite as good as expected. Both DK and Diddy’s voice work (if you can call it that) is cheesier than ever, sometimes sounding more comic than needed, and the contact hits and smacks when jumping on enemies and blasting out of barrels isn’t anywhere near as distinctive. Thankfully, collecting the KONG pieces and Puzzle token yield some lovely old-school jingles.

Moving on, and Retro’s attention to detail in other areas is simply outstanding. Visually the stages in DKCR literally come alive. Trees move and sway in the wind, tides rise and then receed as you play, and whole parts of the environments radically change before your every eyes.

Nothing like this remotely happened in the old 16bit titles, and this is precisely why, even though on first impressions I didn’t like the move to polygonal 3D, the change in visual style was exactly the right choice. DK’s world coming alive, feeling organic as well as graphically accomplished gives the game a personality that would otherwise fail to shine through in quite the way it does.

The same can be said of the animation on both the Kong’s and the enemies, which is both smooth and incredibly fluid. It looks very organic. The enemies themselves, although generic in design feel like they belong in a DK title, making up for the lack of Gwanty’s, Neeks, and Necky’s. The Tiki’s on the other hand, are pretty poor in general, lacking the distinctive impact of the Kremlings and their ruthlessly scaly nature.

But on the whole both the characters and worlds of DKCR are full of personality, even if they aren’t always that interesting. Retro have also (thankfully to some extent) cut out the fat by removing most of the supporting cast of Kong’s. Cranky makes a return – you can’t really not include the ‘original’ DK now can you – as does our Rhinoceros animal friend Rambi, but without some of the more pointless additions (Wrinkly Kong, Swanky Kong, and that stupid elephant from DKC3 I can’t remember the name of). It’s the right choice, and allows the developers to expand the level design ideas around almost solely playing as Donkey Kong, to much success.

While its quite easy to dislike DKCR for things it does wrong, it would also be at an utmost disservice to avoid the title considering the things it get so very right. Fans of the Super NES originals may indeed dislike some of the direction this latest homage title has taken – myself included - although that doesn’t take away from the blindingly awesome level designs, the hidden secrets dotted around everywhere, and the fact that even Rare themselves have failed to match their own genius since the last DKC (damn you DK64). I didn’t always enjoy my time with DKCR, but I did appreciate just what Retro have achieved, which is always something worth considering.

Donkey Kong Country Returns, dare I say it, is a mostly triumphant return to the series glory days, although isn’t quite a perfectly formed comeback. The incredibly high difficulty level, the lack of any truly iconic enemies to face throughout (certain bosses aside), and the removal of Donkey and Diddy as fully fledged, separate playable characters in single-player mode definitely hurts the experience. As does the lack of Classic Controller support, which would have gone along way in making the gameplay seem a little more fluid; being able to jump around, blasting your way through stages almost like second nature, instead of fighting the slightly laggy waggle mechanics.

However, against all odds Retro Studios have crafted some of the most imaginative and inspired level designs ever seen in any platform game to date, not only outclassing those in the original DKC, but also all of the ones in Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros re-envisioning.

Certainly, much care and attention has been lavished on the experience as a whole even if it doesn’t quite, in my opinion, match the sheer brilliance and beauty – in terms of having a complete mix of graphics, sound, and gameplay design interwoven together – as the first two DKC games. Though it does both hold its own and often exceed Rare’s less impressive, but still solidly excellent, third instalment in the series.

For those looking for some old-school, really hardcore platforming action, then Donkey Kong Country Returns is well worth picking up. But be warned though; it’s tough, often frustrating, and unbelievably unforgiving. That said, it’s also incredibly good at the same time, balancing a fine line between sequel and self-indulgent homage, and exemplarily hard but always fair ride into the Kingdom of Kong.


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