Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze review: losing a-peel

By Steve Watts, Feb 17, 2014 5:00am PST

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a mostly well-designed and often gorgeous platformer, with an unfortunate bout of second-finisher syndrome. While it is undoubtedly better in most respects than Donkey Kong Country Returns, that game spent its goodwill as a nostalgic throwback. Tropical Freeze is left suffering many of the same weaknesses, but without the sheen of a comeback story to set it apart.

What this newer entry does have is the transition to HD, and Nintendo continues to take advantage of the increased horsepower. DK and his cadre of pals look remarkably well-rendered, with textures that seemed so tactile I could almost feel the bristles of fur. The environments are lush and well-animated, especially since they're so differentiated. I had feared that the theme would lead to a game composed entirely of ice levels, but the worlds manage to be fairly inventive. I was especially taken with the second world's autumn theme, and the one of the worlds uses its stages to progressively tell a cute story of what the villains are up to.

The new band of enemies also fit perfectly into the slightly askew DKC character art style. The bosses are particularly expressive thanks to their large size. (They not very imaginative, though--imagine a handful of animals you'd expect to be part of an ice army and you'll probably guess at least a few of them correctly.)

It's unfortunate that the HD seems to be the only Wii U feature the designers were interested in. The GamePad is utterly wasted here, to the point that starting each play session begins with asking whether you'd like to play on the TV or pad. Depending on which you select, the other will simply turn off completely. If you're playing on your TV, the Wii U's defining function is nothing more than a controller with a black screen on it.

Donkey Kong Country never controlled quite as smoothly as Nintendo’s other headline platformers starring Mario, and that much hasn't changed. That's mostly because Donkey Kong himself doesn't always feel matched to the stages. Our hairy hero just feels sluggish, a serious detriment to handling such fast-moving obstacles. Making it through a stage definitely takes skill, but I found myself relying just as much on luck and memorization.

Some of this is the product of its legacy. Ground pound and a rolling attack remain mapped to the same button, which means that I would often go into an uncontrollable roll right off a ledge when I didn't intend to. And strangely for a fully-rendered game, the hit boxes feel inconsistent. Sometimes I would be narrowly saved by a miss that I was sure would hit me, while other times I would lose a life seemingly because an enemy barely grazed my toe.

These problems can lead to some frustration in passing, but they aren’t truly overwhelming until the late game. The harder stages in the second half are much more chaotic, and the occasional imprecision in control or feedback becomes much more galling. This is also sadly the half in which Tropical Freeze starts to over-rely on underwater stages as well, which control with all the grace you might expect from a swimming gorilla.

Even those are tight and responsive compared to the rocket barrel stages, though, which make their baffling return to Tropical Freeze without fixing any of their problems. Aside from the awkward control mechanic of mashing a button to keep your rocket in the air, these are a perfect example of trial-by-death. The rocket itself can’t handle last-minute turns, and obstacles appear or change direction suddenly. The combination of these two factors mean you’ll have to repeat the stage until you learn where the obstacles come from, to assure you’re on the right trajectory. There are only a few of these stages in the entire game, but they're so frustrating they put a damper the rest of the experience.

About half of the stages feel perfectly tuned to DK's unique play style. When it hits the right tone, it's awfully fun to step into the hairy shoes of Donkey Kong as he swings, jumps, and rolls through obstacles. Dixie and Cranky are welcome additions to the cast, and in single-player they both imbue DK with extra abilities. Dixie's is fairly similar to Diddy's hover, with more lift, but that can be invaluable for reaching extra bananas or other collectibles. Cranky is a bigger change, having apparently taken cane-pogo lessons from Scrooge McDuck to reach higher areas or bounce on otherwise impassable grounds.

And to the extent that Tropical Freeze is challenging, Nintendo has at least brought back the item shop, now run by the obviously-created-in-the-'90s Funky Kong. Banana coins are plentiful in stages, and the prices are set low enough that you can purchase helpful add-ons at a fairly regular pace. If you decide to challenge yourself by going without, the item shop has a vending machine that spits out random collectible figurines, so all of your coins won't just go to waste.

I would recommend going without as much as possible, though. Its longevity comes mostly from its difficulty, and a simple run through the six worlds would be a fairly quick trip. It does offer Time Trials and extra stages by obtaining collectibles, but the core experience is all about challenging yourself. The items are a useful lifeline, but over-reliance on them would make a somewhat short playtime even shorter.

It's enjoyable enough while it lasts, though. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a usually fun, too-often frustrating, and always beautiful game. Being the first HD entry sets it apart somewhat, but if Nintendo intends to keep iterating on this series, it needs to fix some legacy issues and study which stages work to make the entire experience more pleasantly consistent. [6]


This review is based on downloadable Wii U code provided by the publisher. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze will be available on Wii U on February 21 for $59.99. The game is rated E.

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