I had to do a double-take once I realized we haven’t had a mainstream console Kirby in seven years.
Seven years! It almost seemed like Nintendo was ready to plop the little fluff ball onto portables permanently, and given that the Switch is technically a portable system, that’s kind of still the case. And like nearly every game in the series, Kirby Star Allies doesn’t cut any corners.
Kirby Star Allies (Switch)
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Released: March 16, 2018
Developer HAL has smartly modeled several of the Kirby games after Super Star, and Star Allies smartly carries on that tradition. Mini-games? You got ’em. A Mario Party-esque wood-chopping jaunt and a Home Run Meteor (read: Super Star Megaton Punch amalgam) are available immediately, allowing for distractions from the campaign.
But the core narrative is indeed the main course, and four-player co-op is the chief ingredient. After a quick “hey, it’s Kirby, he has friends!” opener, we’re chucked into the Dream World once again to do battle with old enemies, who may or may not be controlled by new ones. Maybe one day we can get a complex multi-layered meta-narrative out of a Kirby game, but for now, he’s following in the footsteps of Mario in the brevity department. After all these years you might need more out of your Kirby projects, but at this point I’m not only used to it, but anticipate it as a welcome arcade-centric “let’s get on with it” perk.
Once again you’re going to be working your way through side-scrolling 2D sections (with gorgeous rendered backgrounds, which, according to Nintendo, are responsible for the 30 FPS performance), but this time you’re going to be recruiting enemies as “friends” by way of a new heart-throwing mechanic. This was a thing previously (here goes that Super Star callback again), but now it’s a fully-featured thing, and it’s almost infuriatingly cute. Every time I get a new party member I imagine Kirby saying “do you want to be my friend?” and practically tear up.
The whole “team” mentality is built into the core of Star Allies and it goes beyond an adorable gimmick. In addition to their massive movesets (which have really come into their almost fighting-game-esque own over the years), you can also interact with teammates via elemental properties. Raising a weapon up will clue in the AI (or another player) to imbue it, allowing you to take over the properties of said element and trigger environmental puzzles.
I really, really like the ability to build your own squad, and surprisingly, the AI is very responsive. If a puzzle calls for a trigger the AI is very quick to telegraph what you need to do or, if they’re the one that needs to make a move, they’ll spring in place. They’re also formidable in combat and generally try to dodge attacks during boss battles, and depending on their skillsets, will blow useful special abilities.
I like to keep a personal chef friend in my crew at all times to cook up some food during big bad fights, for instance — it’s one of the several ways you can build your party like an RPG. Although the list isn’t very exhaustive, there’s also a few clever hybrid abilities you can create on the fly. Mixing a water attack and a rock copy ability will enable an explosive curling stone. The thrill of finding new combos ends after a few hours, but using them is fun throughout. If you really want to, you can “ride” allies to just take control of their powers or kick off super attacks.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a Kirby game. Having ferocious AI on your team makes things even easier, and I know a lot of people aren’t going to like how competent they are. In the same vein, four adept platformer players will burn through Star Allies too, and HAL hasn’t really done anything to significantly alter the historical difficulty level of the series.
One thing that does fall flat in this enhanced focus on four-player play at all times is how significantly the initial user sets the pace. It’s frustrating to have the camera constantly refocus to follow player one, and I wish it zoomed out more often so there could be a little more of a non-linear exploration feel to the general design of each world. Curiously Star Allies does zoom out during certain sequences that split up the party into duos, which should be a default option everywhere.
Most of the stages aren’t the only linear aspect of Star Allies, as the world map for each realm is fairly flat. It’s always great to find a secret switch and unlock more extra stages to romp around in (something that feels distinctly Super Mario World), but more hidden secrets and an actual use for hub screen jumping would elevate the age old level-to-level feel a tad.
I don’t think HAL is very interested in drastically altering the Kirby formula at this point, and that’s perfectly fine. Not every creation is going to be a masterpiece, but for the most part, all of the console iterations have a special degree of love and care that shine through. Kirby Star Allies is cute, gorgeous in its own special way, and fun to play. It’s par for the course.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]