If Mario is the friendly face of Nintendo's playful and versatile design sense, Kirby is usually the unofficial mascot for when Nintendo wants to get weird. The adorable pink puffball has alternated between traditional platformers and experimental oddities, and on the whole I've found the metaphorical art-house more engaging than the multiplex. Kirby: Planet Robobot is another safely traditional entry, and likely the last one on the 3DS, but its sharp eye for design and a fantastically fun new gimmick make this his best traditional outing in years.
This time, Kirby's idyllic dreamland is mechanized by a greedy corporation, and being the rotund hero that he is, he takes it upon himself to step in. In practice, this means a unified visual theme focusing on moving parts like gears and screws, and enemies who fit the mold while nonetheless offering the usual array of Kirby abilities to absorb, along with a handful of new ones.
The bigger twist, so to speak, is in the addition of mechanized suits that dot almost every stage. Kirby apparently retains his ability-copying powers while behind the steel yoke of a mech. A mech-powered Freeze or Poison ability packs some extra oomph, to the point that you can tear though enemies like wet tissue paper. One of the most enjoyable parts of life on Planet Robobot is testing the scads of different copy abilities and how they manifest in their regular Kirby and superpowered mech configurations.
Occassionally, the mechs will open up special vehicle segments, which may have Kirby's suit turning into a full-fledged fighter jet and taking part in a classic side-scrolling shoot-em-up. These were well-designed, fun diversions that broke up the pacing just enough without overstaying their welcome. Tacked-on vehicle segments in games, particularly platforming games like Kirby, can be hit-or-miss, and these were definitely hits.
Taking It Easy
The mechs do feel overpowered, but it's not as if the game is challenging to begin with. This is a Kirby game, after all, and it never feels too challenging. If anything, the first of only six worlds is remarkably dull, and more experienced players are likely to feel bored by it. I'd encourage them to stick with it, though, because after that oversimple introduction it really begins to come into its own.
Part of that is the smart, inventive ways it uses two planes, in the foreground and background, to add depth to the platforming and introduce puzzle elements. It's par for the course for modern Nintendo games to gate their bosses behind collectible doodads--this time it's cubes that decrypt a boss door lock--but actually finding them isn't treated like a chore. They're often readily visible, and you simply have to figure out how to manipulate the planes to reach it. The puzzles aren't terribly difficult, but as a reward for a little brain teaser, it's another way to diversify the experience and add another layer to play.
All of it culminates in a final battle that, while I wouldn't spoil the surprise, was self-aware of its absurdity and made me laugh. It really has to be seen to fully appreciate just how zany it gets.
The Kirby With a Thousand Faces
Kirby: Planet Robobot also offers some alternatives in the form of other modes. Two of them, Meta-Knightmare Returns and The Arena, are a traditional Time Attack (as Meta-Knight) and Boss Rush mode, respectively. Those are unlocked after completing the main story. Two other modes, available from the start, offer wholly different experiences from the standard Kirby game, and are better for it.
Kirby 3D Rumble is an overhead, arcade-style game that speeds up Kirby's inhale-and-shoot mechanic to deal with waves of enemies. It works really well as a friendly and familiar side-game. It's a simple diversion but a solid one.
Even better is Team Kirby Clash, a multiplayer mode that has you play with friends (or an AI companion) as one of four different Kirby variants: Sword, Hammer, Healer, or Beam. You then take on "Quests" to defeat extra-powerful bosses, and rack up experience points as you go. I certainly wouldn't have expected a multiplayer class-based brawler RPG to be the standout delightful surprise of this game, but here we are.
That kind of experimentation is what makes Kirby games, and projects from HAL in general, so consistently reliable. Like its iconic hero, Planet Robobot is light and airy, and a little on the short side, but it takes such a range of forms that it always feels fresh and new.
This review is based on a 3DS retail code provided by the publisher. Kirby: Planet Robobot is now available in retail stores for $39.99. The game is rated E.