Monkeying around returns, in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. What may look like a colorful platform adventure with whimsical penguin folk, can be a tenacious test of skill, reflex and patience. It does try its hardest to bring importance to all moving factors on the screen, even if the forefront might get slippery from time. High production values may cloud some of the game’s lesser elements, for the better.
Icy creatures descend onto the six lively islands of DK’s realm and their inexplicable hatred for bananas seal the deal for the gang to bust some heads. Using several natural elements, stages revolve around fire, water, trees and so on, which each get saccharine color schemes for that extra tropical touch. More so than appropriately themed environments, it’s the overall level design that catches the eye with tons of activity. Background characters may be just that, but they also might be waiting to lay ambush to passing characters. Keeping an eye out for the tons of detail in this game would be wise.
Making this trickier, many trials require some momentum, meaning that the screen will be moving at an accelerated pace, dropping in new info throughout. Jumping on a platform, the previous might crumble, while a bomb is thrown from afar and now a wall blocks any escape. What to do? Only one second remains to figure it out or a swift death will follow and some of the faster tracks may not even be that lenient.
It looks so big.
Prepare for sweaty palms, because on the fly puzzle solving is the standard here. They’re not tough puzzles, as usually one or two simple motions will do, but picking up on it and processing it immediately intensifies the idea. A simple handle may need to be pulled from the ground, like weeds in Super Mario Bros 2, to activate the machinations dropping the platforms in the right sequence, but with spearmen aiming for that monkey butt, there might be different focal points at that time.
Fortunately enough, Nintendo taps from years of experience, so game convention is laid out neatly, making trial and error minimal. New designs are introduced one at a time. It’s easy to pick up and play novelties as the many areas continue. Again, challenges in themselves aren’t hard, it’s the surprising amount of dynamic stimulation that does that. It’s cleverly done, but whether or not everyone will want to commend them for it is a different subject.
At the very least, there’s a lot of content to choose from. Even in-game, direction is a mere suggestion, as characters can dive into the water, instead of following vines and platforms, to explore the depths. While the direction is still set, this open environment does welcome experimentation. As the screen also hides collectibles like puzzle pieces, Kong letters and separate mini-game areas, behind walls or plants or rocks, it gets more titillating to find out if that crevice is indeed just a detour or not.
These vehicles are a refreshing change from platform sections, with their own dynamic.
When that’s not enough, the game also changes the pace with mine-cart rides or more outlandish vehicles, like a flying barrel that handles like a rodeo bull. Barring that, levels easily switch from horizontal advancement to more vertical spaces, through the use of cinematic cuts for barrel cannon shots and such, making any dimension its own at whim. Mobility is big in this one and that’s quite refreshing.
As inviting as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze presents itself, however, that grueling challenge rating does remain a sobering surprise. Even with a few hearts, errors are brutally cashed in and one wrong step is fatal, nearly all the time. Not following the cadence the environment dictates might lead to it, but some slightly hindered controls may be a less personal flaw. There’s a certain gravitas in DK’s animation, which requires just that split second too much to get moving and in such a spirited world, it’s rather contradictory. Moreover, this inertia is a cause of many missed platforms or unbalanced reaction times. It’s finicky to own muscle memory for both the slow simian and the fast rides. Grabbing stunned enemies to fling away may fail due to that as well. Since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of implementations provided to the Wii U GamePad, outside of Off-TV Play, no facilitating factors on the technical side of things are to be expected.
Underwater content may hold a surprising amount of undiscovered gems.
To help out, three characters can join the play, which is also possible for additional players to do. Each sidekick has their respective strengths, necessary at different times. The small Diddy Kong uses a jetpack to glide further, while Dixie Kong offers more of a height boost for jumps, but provides stable support underwater with her hair propeller. A third character, Cranky Kong, operates a little different, using his cane to overcome pointy obstacles or swatting at enemies underwater. Similarly, they work in different forms for a chargeable Kong POW meter, which turns enemies into items when activated.
Along the way, a lot of currency will be picked up, which can be used at specific Funky Kong shops. Aside from live-yielding balloons, store items include shields for vehicles, extra hearts for one level or temporary invulnerability. These items are stored in an inventory and accessed before entering a level, quite similarly to Super Mario Bros 3, which also gets a few references on the world map. There are actually an odd amount of these Super Mario Bros nods in this game.
Upon learning the ropes on every island, the fight concludes with a giant boss battle, which varies from fighting an angry seal to a giant owl that flings offspring. Again, these recapping events use whatever was introduced in the beginning, serving as a final exam.
When each level is mastered, it’s possible to partake in Time Attack mode. This also means that the online Leaderboards can be accessed for bragging rights on who is the true Donkey Kong master, if only not as glorious as the original arcade game. True masochists can even try Hard Mode. Before starting gameplay, it’s possible to take a look at some galleries of unlocked goodies, such as a series of toy capsules, images and so on.
Despite a few technical kinks in execution, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is shaping up to become a versatile beast. It may require dedication, it may even feel unfair at times, but those who stick around will get served a dynamic venture with a ton of content to show for it. If it doesn’t base its leniency on outside item implementations, then it would be even better.