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Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze Review: Go Bananas

You know what I hate!? I hate my Pro Controller! If only there was a controller snappingly difficult game out there to help me abuse it a bit… Oh good, Donkey Kong’s here. I didn’t, in the end, snap my controller in two but good lord did I come close a few times. I could almost end the review right here: Those of you who love these kinds of challenge and catharsis experiences should be sold immediately and those who do not, will already have turned off. But professionalism won’t allow me, so it’s about time I dive into the newest entry in the Donkey Kong Country franchise. I hope you’re excited!

The game opens with a rare moment of pathos, in which the Kong crew attempt to communicate openly with Donkey Kong and his petulant obsession with collecting meaningless victories. Perhaps a nod to the gamers own inner turmoil at their lack of real world success, which of course leads them into these interactive wars they fight. Though this was just what I read into the opening, what really happens is that a bunch of Vikings attack and oust Donkey from his island; thrusting him on a quest to regain his home. It’s a pretty basic affair, but was anyone really expecting Hamlet? Time to fight the invaders, ever so cleverly named the SNOWmads, and I’d just like to say that these are probably my favourite enemy designs in the whole series. They all have this flavour of personality about them that felt lacking in previous installments, from the grumpy owls to the twitchy penguins every enemy type looks and feels like a lot of fun. This exceptional design extends to the whole game, with every single level packing an inordinate amount of detail into each frame. The actual world variety feels very typical of the 2D platformer genre, so don’t expect any surprises in that regard. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for with astounding craftsmanship and just being gorgeous to look at. With a smooth 60fps frame rate that makes it very easy on the eyes.

 

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze reportedly runs on the very same "tools" as the Metroid Prime games.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze reportedly runs on the very same “tools” as the Metroid Prime games.

But don’t spend too long ogling the environment, because this game will not afford you too many mistakes. I said it before and I will say it again, this game is hard as nails. Thankfully though the experts over at Retro made sure it is the good kind of hard, the kind that’s a lot of fun. So yes, you will scream and you will shout and you will feel that overwhelming feeling a catharsis when you prevail. This game is truly platforming at its highest level. Swinging, climbing and jumping are all done with ease since the refinement these mechanics received in Retro Studios last effort: Donkey Kong Country Returns. Returning to the franchise after its absence last time around are the swimming levels. I must say this is probably the best swimming has ever been in a 2D game. The movement seems to be analogue rather than digital, giving you a full range of motion beneath the waves, a luxury not often afforded in aquatic excursions. It makes you feel as though Donkey is actually swimming through the water, rather than merely bobbing around in a low gravity environment.

There are other distractions from the main game other than swimming. The forever infamous vehicular levels rear their ugly heads once more. Donkey Kong can either find himself on rails in a rather out of date mine cart, or riding atop of rocket powered barrel Dr Strangelove style as he navigates crumbling caves. These may just be the hardest levels in the whole game, and in a game populated with nothing but challenge that is certainly saying something. It’s during these excursions however that my first complaint about this game crops up. The developers like your obstacles to be ever changing, and all too often the change in terrain can occur when you are already mid jump into what is now thin air. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it is upsetting.

The boss fights are also a bit of a troubling issue. They are all inventive and individual, straying very far from the old “jump on the head three times” formula. The problem is… they’re just too long. They all come in three stages, the first two stages are barely a challenge at all, but then you get to their final form, and invariably you die, so you can do all three stages right from the start. It gets boring after a while, with the final boss in particular being a real exercise in tedium. Still, it isn’t enough to sour the whole experience and easily to forget after you get that sweet feeling of completion.

With this in mind though, merely completing the levels isn’t enough to get 100% done.  To really get the most out of the game you have to: collect all the fiendishly well hid puzzle pieces, and grab the tantalizing yet precariously placed KONG letters. Each level also comes with a time attack mode after you beat it once. Not to mention all the hidden levels sprinkled throughout the map. I have beaten this game but I am nowhere near done with it yet, Nintendo keeping to their model of always deliver titles worth the money.

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The only real new feature here is the new buddy Kongs.  There are three of them to choose between: Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong. Throughout levels you will find barrels containing your allies, smash them open and they will ride on your back giving you an extra two hits plus their own special abilities. Diddy, as always, has his jetpack, which allows you second or two of extra length to your jump. Dixie uses her long hair as a helicopter to give you an extra boost during jumps. And finally there is the VGX star himself, Cranky, who uses his cane to pogo around the level; taking no damage from enemies or otherwise deadly spike pits. Having a choice of three allies, adds an element of strategy to the proceedings, do you want time to correct your jumps, a little extra distance, or more damage against foes. In the games co-operative mode player one will play as Donkey whilst player two has their choice of the other three Kongs.

You can play independently of each other, bounding around the level with your own set of abilities depending on who you chose to play as. Alternatively you can team up by jumping on Donkey Kong’s back. It can be a bit confusing during the vehicular levels because you both have control of the cart/rocket at the same time, so be sure to agree to have one person at the wheel each turn. Each Kong also has their own finishing move, executable after collecting enough bananas to fill the special bar. Diddy, Dixie and Cranky turn all foes on screen into extra: Lives, Hearts or Coins, respectively. So the choice is yours, but the reality is you’ll probably settle into your own preferred helper and stick with them throughout. I went with Dixie more often than not, because she seemed to do everything Diddy did, but better and getting extra life was always more useful in the moment seeing as you get plenty of coin and lives anyway.

All of this really boils down the only new thing about Tropical Freeze to nothing; leaving only the same old game, albeit much more polished than before. I certainly prefer this to the other Retro Studios Donkey Kong but you wouldn’t be missing out of much if you picked up the older game for less. But like I said if you’re a fan of these super tough platforming games, then there really is no excuse to miss this one out. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is about as hard, and as rewarding as they come. Sometimes its nice just to sit back and smile a bit. Take a respite from the grimy, ultra realistic and tragic world of modern gaming and enjoy a brightly coloured fun adventure in a fantastical land.