Review by SneakTheSnake

Reviewed: 03/04/14

Not quite as cold as ice, but it might leave some players a little chilly.

The new Donkey Kong titles for the Wii and Wii U make for a fine pair of games. There’s exploration abound, bonus levels aplenty and a refreshing variety in gameplay environments and objectives. Of course, the games are presented with the high graphical fidelity that’s been expected from the series since its inception. With these things in mind, Tropical Freeze follows rather closely to the template set in the Wii title from a few years before. That’s not my gripe with Tropical Freeze - despite the set-up being nearly identical to its predecessor, more of the same thing isn’t always necessarily shameful if the quality is this high. I don’t have a gripe with the fact that few classic enemy characters return for this iteration (a popular complaint). I lament because Tropical Freeze, in a few glaring ways, a backstep from its predecessor because of some new gameplay and level design elements intended to be selling points for this new game.

Please don’t misunderstand. If what you’re looking for is a helping of the same kind of platforming action that the series is known for, Tropical Freeze, principally, doesn’t veer from that much at all. From the exciting mine cart rides to the amusing rocket barrel levels from DKCR to the rolling hills of the jungles, Tropical Freeze delivers variety, exploration and general gameplay from Donkey Kong Country Returns and its ilk. The game straddles a difficult balance in a few different arenas: staying true to the original while offering something fresh, and being challenging without being too unfair. It more or less succeeds in the former but doesn’t quite deliver in the latter.

Kold Kongs

As the game’s title implies, a great freeze has seized the land around Donkey Kong Island. Nefarious Viking-like animals, bearing a mysterious snowflake emblem, conquer Donkey Kong Island and surrounding islands with a deep freeze - and right in the middle of DK’s celebration, too! Our monkey mainstay won’t have it, though. He, Diddy, Dixie and Cranky Kong all set out for adventure; they aim to unfreeze the island, bring back the beautiful vegetation and take down the below-zero baddies too. The whole story is pretty thin; while it does introduce an interesting new type of protagonist, you may feel disappointed at the game’s incredibly short and silly ending. I don’t expect a game like this, with no truly grand epic, to have a sweeping conclusion, but I still felt a little put-off.

The gameplay doesn’t veer too much, in principle, to Donkey Kong Country, or even Donkey Kong Country Returns for that matter. Players navigate a world map consisting of six islands and a few dozen stages total. Each stage has its own set of bonus levels, secret puzzle pieces, and enemies to best. Most stages have a particular gimmick to them, too, like platforms which shift in a particular way or a level-exclusive enemy threat which follows the Kongs through the entire level. Reaching the end of the level with the goodies in hand nets unlockables. Collecting all four K-O-N-G letters must be done in one go, but all five, seven or nine puzzle pieces can be collected on separate runs. The KONG letters are really what counts for unlocking new bonus levels. The puzzle pieces unlock bonus images and diaramas.

Some new Kong-cepts

There are some welcome additions to Tropical Freeze which feel like natural evolutions for the series. Secret exits makes replaying certain stages well worth it, in addition to finding all the collectibles. These bonus exits lead to secret levels, so scouting them all out is paramount to 100-percenting the game. Other welcome additions are some of the puzzle elements, however obscure; players can pick up and throw bombs at enemies and to destroy blocks, for example. Donkey Kong can pull on roots he finds in the ground to unearth new platforms and goodies. Juicy fruits can be found and carried around in certain levels to help douse fires and take out enemies from afar. Apparently, the designers took some inspiration from Doki Doki Panic / Super Mario Bros. 2; some of the staff are the same between the two games.

Dynamic camera angles during some of the barrel cannon sequences and mine cart rides offer some interesting perspective-based challenge to what would have otherwise been straight-up 2D sections. This plays into one of the mine cart stages fairly well; some play from an isometric perspective, while others force players to jump from track to track.

Other additions aren’t as welcome or helpful as they initially seem. A hook for this new game how partner Kongs work. Each other game has allowed one optional Kong partner, usually Diddy, to ride on DK’s back and tag along in the fun. In Tropical Freeze, players can choose between Diddy, Dixie or Cranky Kong to join DK. Their barrels can be found in levels - sometimes, only one character will be available to select, while sometimes players have the choice between one of the three. A second player can also take the role of one of the helper Kongs, but this costs a player his / her own life should both Kongs die, as opposed to just having the helper Kong ride on DK’s back. In addition to finding the barrels from time to time in each level (sometimes there’s only one barrel per level so, if you hit a continue point and die, there’s no chance to get the helper back unless you start over from the beginning). Players can buy helper Kongs to add to one’s inventory for a few banana coins apiece. This feels a bit cheap.

Anyway, each Kong has a specific ability. Diddy can hover with his jetpack, Cranky can hop on his cane like Scrooge’s pogo stick cane in the Ducktales games, which helps cross spiky chasms, and Dixie allows for some extra lift with her pony tail / helicopter move. Only Dixie proves extremely helpful; having her as a sidekick makes the later levels a lot more bearable and, despite myself, I used her skill as a crutch more than once. It’s essential for nabbing certain secret exits and collectibles. Dixie’s a much better swimmer, too. Cranky’s ability to hop over spikes and reach high places is a bit finicky to control and doesn’t prove to be very helpful. Diddy’s hover ability can come in handy sometimes but is not as useful as Dixie’s extra airtime.

Each Kong has a specific special attack to transform all on-screen enemies into items, and each Kong has a specific projectile attack, but I found these to be perfunctory features. Their aid in making tough jumps is really where they prove helpful, and Tropical Freeze has some real doozies. Particularly toward the end of the game, I found that it was extremely difficult to gauge and make certain jumps, or even to find where the next platform is that I should jump to, because of quick camera pans, control issues or visibility issues. The jumping aid helped alleviate that, but players can buy lives and shields in Funky Kong’s shop. The game attempts to balance out the difficulty and helpful items.

Lovely Levels, Perilous Paths and Cantankerous Controls

A stand-out feature from the Donkey Kong Country games would be the level designs. By and large, Tropical Freeze is no exception; the game is populated by some very expansive and very innovative levels. Though a lot of them are a bit more linear and straightforward, others choose to spice things up with some dynamic level elements. Some of these work out and some of them don’t. Fortunately, there are many more hits than misses.

For example, Sawmill Thrill is a mine cart level which takes players through a lumber mill gone rogue. Horn Top Hop features Rambi the rhino in a welcome appearance as he smashes and crashes his way through a picturesque mountain village. Frantic Fields takes place in a hurricane; platforms and enemies are suspended in mid-air and small gusts of wind propel the DK crew through the dangerous storm. Jelly Jamboree takes place near a fruit bottling facility; it features a set of highly bouncy jellies which must be rotated the right way so that DK and friends can hop over them.

Other levels aren’t so fun. There’s a significant portion of the game for which I felt that the levels were real flops, particularly in the latter half. The underwater stages are the true culprit, and it’s no wonder when one considers how hard the controls make the levels to even get through, let alone to collect all the goodies. The controls for controlling the characters underwater makes the underwater stages truly disappointing and frustrating; I struggled in vain to get the characters to go where I wanted them to, and the game’s levels are designed to be tackled too precisely than the controls allow.

It’s tough to handle exploration, basic item management and nerve in some of these underwater levels when the characters are so sluggish and, to add insult to injury, must regularly get air every thirty seconds or so. Just because the stages contain some parts on land doesn’t mean that an air meter had to be implemented in this game; I don’t understand the logic behind that, especially in a series where getting air underwater hasn’t been a factor before. This made for a good portion of the game which made me groan, cringe or fight my hardest to not throw my controller in disgust - no matter what the control scheme. Some levels simply didn’t deserve to be replayed for 100% completion.

It doesn’t help that the bonus level designs don’t have much to do with the environments they’re featured in, and bonus level types tend to repeat themselves fairly often. Even if the bonus stages in the SNES games were sometimes based on luck, there were a lot of great ones which required skill and quick reflexes to nab the goodies. The bonus levels in this iteration have been trickled down to their most basic elements and are removed from their environments completely, even if they’re somewhat enjoyable from time to time.

DK: Tropical Freeze carries over a lot of the same control issues from the predecessor. The Wii Remote’s waggle function is a finicky ground pound / roll move, depending on whether DK is standing still or in motion. It doesn’t register too well. The Game Pad’s controls don’t fare much better. The button for grabbing vines and pulling up items from the ground (Why is it its own button? Why can’t it be the same as the run button, just context-sensitive?) is handled with the R-triggers, so functions like grabbing vines and, sometimes, rolling around, can be difficult. I preferred the NES-style Wii Remote controls over using the Game Pad, a controller which doesn’t have much creative implementation for this game save for the near-obligatory off-screen play.

The difficulty comes in waves. While the game throws lives and banana coins at the player early on, these will be depleted quite quickly in the last part of the game, where levels become remarkably intense. Bonus items blend into the background, quick shifts in camera angles can leave players disoriented, and sometimes the next obvious platform to jump to is revealed too late to make adjustments in the jump. I don’t like to say it, but the game sometimes feels unfair. The game leaves it up to the player whether buying bonus items will be the crutch to make it through the tougher stages later on, so I’m glad that Super Kong, the little feature which made DKCR play itself, does not return.

Overall, I did have fun with Tropical Freeze, and there were some parts which felt truly inspired. It doesn’t deviate from the original template; I don’t mean to sound too nostalgic, but it’s in the ways that the game breaks off and makes its own path is where the game falters. I don’t mean that the series shouldn’t innovate; quite the opposite in fact. I just feel that these particular innovations - the way the new Kong partners work, the new approach to the swimming levels and some aspects of the controls - don’t work to the game’s benefit.

Kong-tivating Graphics and a Sultry Simian Soundtrack

It’s no secret that the series is known for its excellent graphics, and Tropical Freeze certainly doesn’t disappoint. Particularly of note is the game’s use of color; this game’s vibrant palette makes the characters and environments leap from the screen in ways that I hadn’t seen in a Wii U game up to this point - including the Mario games. The game presents some truly hard-hitting panoramas among some beautiful textures and meticulously detailed character models. It feels like a natural evolution for the series, and each environment truly looks unique and separate from the ones before it.

It doesn’t happen very often that a game’s levels feel completely like their own worlds, but I’m happy to report that Tropical Freeze comes off in exactly that way. Sure, there are some common enemies from one level to the next, but the props and set-pieces come to life with remarkable freshness and variety. DK is truly navigating different islands with separate terrain, unique obstacles and intriguing foes. Sometimes, a game as expansive as this tends to have elements which blend together after a while; fortunately, that is not the case with DKCR. My hat goes off to Retro for that one.

The soundtrack pops just as well as the graphics do; they make an excellent complement to the action. There are very few duds in what is one of the better soundtracks I have come across in recent years. A lot of the tracks are inspired by the greats which came before Tropical Freeze but, even if they’re blatant remakes of classic DKC songs, they still work fairly well in this game. My only real gripe is the game’s use of synthesized sound for horn parts and some drum parts; why in blue blazes isn’t this music completely orchestrated? That could have given the game the real boost it needed in the soundtrack department; I doubt it was because of budget constraints. It must have been what the composer wanted, which completely baffles me. I would love to hear a completely orchestrated version of, say, Mangrove Cove, with wailing trumpets and a powerful kickdrum backbeat, but that wasn’t to be. It feels like a missed opportunity.

The sound design is fine in Tropical Freeze, but I would honestly recommend turning the sound effects off during gameplay to relish the soundtrack on its own. There are only so many times I can hear the same squeals and cries of defeated enemies. The voice clips for the Kong characters are quite cute and endearing; they fit fairly well with the rest of the game.

Kong-clusion

I can recommend Tropical Freeze for fans and non-fans alike, but I am still surprised and disappointed by some of the choices made in the design of the game. It’s tough to say, as I’ll admit I tend to put big-name titles like these on a pedestal, but I have to admit the frustration I had at the expense of the game’s, structure level design and controls. Yes, the game holds up the high aesthetic and soundtrack standard one should come to expect from this franchise, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any underlying problems below the pristine surface. Worse, some of these problems were more than apparent in Donkey Kong Country Returns and could likely have been easily rectified.

You’ll likely get a lot of mileage out of Tropical Freeze, as I did. There will be moments of awe - whether it’s because of the graphics, or the ingenuity of certain levels - that will easily remind players of why we play the series in the first place. Its reputation alone has likely been enough for players to purchase Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on the first day of its release, but, for those who haven’t bought it yet, be prepared to go into an excellent adventure - with some shortcomings.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (US, 02/21/14)

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