- Editor's Rating
- Layered level design
- Looks gorgeous
- Multiple sidekicks add depth and replay value
- May be too difficult for some players
- Control schemes a bit unwieldy
Quick TakeWhile it doesn’t shake the banana tree too much, Tropical Freeze is a more polished and refined experience than Donkey Kong Country Returns in almost every aspect.
By: Jesse Miller
When it was announced last summer that Retro Studios would be making a sequel to 2010’s throwback platformer Donkey Kong Country Returns, initial fan reaction was mixed at best. This was the developer that made Metroid Prime, after all – why go back to the Donkey Kong well so soon? Well, after playing that follow-up, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U, many of those skeptics should be pleased with Nintendo’s decision making.
Tropical Freeze begins when a Kong family get-together is rudely interrupted by a fleet of invading Vikings, who use a magical horn capable of blaring out copious amounts of snow, wind, and ice to freeze Donkey Kong Island over. With their home under siege, the Kongs set out to emancipate each of their lands one by one. It’s a simple setup, as always.
Tropical Freeze feels like a natural progression for the DKC franchise. It doesn’t mess much with the series’ usual formula, but it nevertheless feels much more refined and polished. Its high-def visuals, for instance, are some of the best found on the Wii U to date, and the game’s many colorful characters and locales often pop off the TV. As in DKC Returns, Donkey Kong and company move along a semi-3D plane that has them going from foreground to background, and even around cylindrical-shaped levels. And as in DKC Returns, it all feels seamless and natural, thankfully without any sense of disorientation.
The controls here don’t feel quite as tight as they did in previous iterations, though. The available button layouts are limited, and they aren’t the most natural of configurations. However, they are near identical to the 3DS version of DKC Returns — where this was also an issue — so series vets shouldn’t have too much trouble picking things up. I’ll note that those who grew fond of DKC Returns’ motion controls can still hook up a Wii Remote and move DK around that way, but the Wii U GamePad doesn’t support such flailing by default.
Nintendo-produced games almost always make it a point to deploy their platforms’ unique technology, but Tropical Freeze’s use of the GamePad is a little unfocused. Off-TV play is arguably the Wii U’s best feature, but Tropical Freeze forgoes any such benefits and displays nothing but a blank screen on the GamePad when television play mode is selected. This could allow give the GamePad extended battery life, or it could alleviate performance issues that might arise from displaying the game on two output devices, but either way it feels odd.
Another oddity is the somewhat forced nature of the available control schemes. With the GamePad, you get two options for moving Donkey Kong about the screen: the left analogue stick and the traditional D-pad. This may not seem like much at first, but mandating a selection at all feels rather arbitrarily restrictive. Why not allow the ability to switch on the fly, moving from the left stick to the D-pad without interruption? If anything, this adds unnecessary complication to a game that is already rather brutal in its level of difficulty.
Yes, the Donkey Kong Country games have never been a walk in the park, and Tropical Freeze tows the series’ line proudly by being just as challenging than its predecessors, if not more so. Most players shouldn’t have any problems getting past the game’s early stages, but it isn’t long before the difficulty level starts to ramp up considerably. This may sound off-putting to some, but the difficulty curve here feels very natural. Retro does a good job of helping the player get better by introducing new obstacle types individually, so that you can get the hang of them, and then mixing them up to enhance the challenge. Deaths rarely feel cheap, and almost every one of them is avoidable.
It hits that sweet spot wherein levels are tough, but not unfair. You do get some reprieve from that ramping difficulty level, though, through a more robust in-game store. Aside from the usual purchasable lives and sidekick barrels, Funky Kong’s new shop lets you pick up things like a parrot that that can sniff out collectibles in a given level or a potion that will grant limited invincibility.
Another one of Tropical Freeze’s more appreciated additions is its expanded cast, and more specifically how that cast interacts with Donkey Kong. In DKC Returns, Donkey Kong could only enlist the help of his little buddy Diddy Kong by busting open one of his appropriately-labeled barrels. Diddy’s still around this time, but now DK can also enlist the help of series mainstays Dixie and Cranky Kong. Those two function similarly to Diddy at first blush, but the former can perform longer-distance jumps while the latter can do Ducktales-esque bounce jumps with his cane.
These additional sidekicks play into Tropical Freeze’s level design appropriately, and add an appreciated amount of replay value to most stages. Barrels with specific sidekicks are placed throughout various arenas, but so are barrels that allow you to select a sidekick of your choice, an element that encourages you to use different sidekicks to find differing strategies for getting through the game. It’s quite possible to find secrets with Cranky that you unknowingly passed up while using Dixie, for instance. This is an admittedly little wrinkle, but it adds a great deal of depth to the game, and allows you to better customize how you want to play.
Ultimately, Tropical Freeze offers many improvements over its predecessor, but it doesn’t stray much from the formula that’s made the series a fan favorite. If you tend not to enjoy the DKC series, this addition to the franchise won’t change your mind. But those that enjoy a well-constructed and challenging platformer need look no further.
This review is based on a retail copy purchased by NotebookReview. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is out now for the Wii U.