March 5, 2014
Where other mascots like Mario get to travel to space, Donkey Kong always seems stuck on his little island chain in a tropical paradise; which is fine because the danger always seem to find him anyway. This time around it's Vikings with a penchant for freezing things over, complete with their own flying ship and a host of evil penguins and other ice related animals and attacks. DK must hop from island to island in order to reclaim his home, restore balance to his tropical paradise and have a proper birthday party. Fortunately Donkey will have a few friends along for the ride, each of whom brings their own unique abilities to help in the platforming adventure.
Players will notice right away that each zone still holds the same feel that Donkey Kong as a franchise has been a staple for. As soon as players start there are hidden areas available, and further travel will (or should) reveal underground passages, collectable items, multiple paths and bonus mini-games that are available in every level. And though most if it can be uncovered with just a careful playthrough, Nintendo did a fantastic job in mixing up the usual suspects in keeping players on their toes for bonus bananas.
Switches hidden under leaf piles, rocks that are really caves, trap doors that can be slammed down on, underwater caves and treasure stored in the background are just a few of the gimmicks used to keep players on their toes in the search of points. And the fact that no one mechanic is used in rapid succession makes sure players never feel exasperated with searching. It doesn't hurt that each level tries to be creatively different than the last in theme, forcing players to constantly adapt to different types of gameplay in rapid succession. Climbing, jumping, swimming and rolling seem like pretty simple mechanics, but in the backdrop of a ship graveyard or with the addition of deadly sharks the pacing changes completely.
Donkey Kong himself is fairly limited in his abilities, instead relying upon his three family members to add a bit more variety to his repertoire of moves. On his own he can roll into enemies, jump, slam the ground and throw objects like barrels or stunned baddies. Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong all have their own form of extended jump that has its own advantages, and by hopping onto Donkey's back both characters can share abilities at any time. Bouncing on Cranky's cane allows players to avoid things like ground spikes, while Dixie's double jump gives a small mid-air boost and Diddy's jetpack provides a more direct approach to far off locations. Each of the family members (except Donkey) also have their own ranged attack that stuns enemies, which replaced DK's barrel roll.
The long and short is that everything feels great, particularly if you happen to be Player 2 because the difference between each of Kong's is enough that each character does change the way you will go through a level. Playing alone is more or less the same experience, only with a little more freedom on which pair of Kong's you use and (of course) without the assistance of another player jumping around the screen grabbing bananas.
Only one part of Tropical Freeze stands out as unusual: jumping. It's strange to say, but jumping feels very slow and floaty. Now perhaps this was the intention, given that DK is a rather large monkey making quite a few leaps, but it still feels strange and when fighting bosses that slide underneath you or trying to cross large gaps, the sensation of floating is more disorienting than it is helpful. Another nitpick are the load times, which are far longer than one would expect for a platformer; and though the game looks nice graphically there's nothing really here that should be so demanding from the Wii U.
Visually the game also sits on a strange precipice. It’s colorful, but the theme of ‘frozen over paradise’ is almost too domineering in some levels, making what’s supposed to a fun romp through the jungle a little less enjoyable at times. When the game does decide to stylize things look great, and to their credit the developers really made use of the 3D backdrops by including a lot of hidden items or secret paths. Barrel launching as a mechanic is a great example of this, occasionally giving players with a keen eye a chance to spot where goods are before they’re obtainable.
If you're looking for a reason to pick up your Wii U then Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a no-brainer, but it's also a great pick for a lot of other reasons. Co-op is a lot of fun, the levels make a great use of the two-monkey system, and more importantly it's a challenge. Collecting every single hidden item, exploring each secret level, and finding all of the little bonuses left throughout each zone is a lot of fun to do and never once does it feel like you're putting in hard time just to earn a little something extra.